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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Twitter Is No Longer a Creative Haven

WIRED has written frequently of late about Elon Musk’s Twitter, so forgive me for coming back to it—but for those of us as terminally online as I am, let me just ask: What the hell happened last weekend?

I woke up on Sunday morning to learn that Twitter was going to block all mentions of, or links to, “competing” services, from Instagram to Facebook, to Linktree of all places. It was claimed to be about “preventing free advertising” of the platform’s competitors and to “cut down on spam.” Of course, anyone with two neurons to rub together could tell that this was a cover story—you don’t need a journalist to tell you that—and the great link ban was mainly about stemming the flow of active and popular users to other platforms while controlling speech in the name of Musk’s mission to [checks notes] … protect free speech.

What was essentially a small online riot ensued, with Twitter users from all corners decrying the new policy. Within hours, not only had the company backtracked, but all mentions of the less-than-day-old policy had been scrubbed from Twitter feeds and the company website. It was a whirlwind for anyone who was online to see it. (Although if you missed it, I wouldn’t say you missed it, if you know what I mean.)

But I’m not here to speculate on the true motives behind Sunday’s whiplash; I don’t think that’s helpful. After all, intention and impact are separate things. Regardless of someone’s intention when they hit you in the face, they’ve still hit you in the face. Now you have to deal with the situation that they’ve created. So my thoughts instead turn—and I hope yours will also—to the people impacted by the weekend’s policy change. Those Twitter users who spent Sunday wondering whether the platform they used and trusted to find and promote their work, make connections with others in their field, and in many cases, rely on for income, would allow them to continue.

When we at WIRED talk about “platforms and power,” this is what we’re talking about. Of course, any steward of any platform, whether it’s a CEO, founder, or middle manager, has the unenviable job of setting and enforcing the policies and guidelines for that platform’s safe and legal use. That’s not in question. Without such rules, online spaces can go bad fast. What is an issue is when those platforms choose to actively harm their users through policy decisions, and when those changes are large enough to force users to either adapt or abandon ship. 

Let me explain: I’m lucky enough to know a lot of creatives as well as a lot of journalists and tech workers. When I woke up on Sunday to the news, it was delivered to me by tweets from artists terrified they’d be banned from Twitter for linking to their own portfolios and to platforms where they accept commissions for their artwork. I read horror stories from authors who were terrified that the Linktrees their publishers asked them to create to promote their books, reviews, and Goodreads profiles were suddenly bannable offenses on Twitter.

My friends on Twitch interrupted their streams to discuss the news, worried that they wouldn’t be able to tweet to announce they were starting a new stream, or add a link to their Twitter bio to help viewers find them. All of these things created the potential for lost income for people who, I would argue, need it more than the folks who made these policy decisions. After all, these same creators have the kind of disruptive, entrepreneurial spirit that everyone in Silicon Valley claims to want to foster and empower. 

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“But Alan,” you may say, “you’re ignoring how Twitter needs to make money to survive!” Perhaps I am, but I don’t think the company’s need for new revenue after a heavily leveraged takeover is relevant here. I can offer plenty of viable business suggestions if there’s anyone left at Twitter to drop me a line and ask. But policy changes that alienate and frighten your user base generally aren’t good ways to convince people to open their wallets. And I’m less concerned with how Twitter as a whole makes its money after it was just purchased by a multibillionaire as I am about how the people who use Twitter make money on a platform that was just purchased by a multibillionaire who seems to have no coherent strategy for managing it.

The people reliant on the platform are the ones that matter to me, and, arguably, are the ones who should matter to you too. These are often the folks most invested in a platform, and who do the most to create the original content and atmosphere needed for an online hangout to succeed. They’re now just as vulnerable as an Uber driver or Instacart shopper when one of those services makes a policy change.

Now, we’re all, in some way, employees of the platforms we use, cogs in the gig machine, whether we’re a journalist tweeting out our own stories in hopes of winning clicks or a plumber who uses Handy to find work in her neighborhood. These platforms have outsize power over the people who use them, and as much as we all knew this in the backs of our minds, last weekend provided a jarring reminder to everyone watching, on all sides of the corporate table.

Back on Twitter, the near-unanimous hatred of the new-now-old policy resulted in a flurry of polls from Musk himself on everything from how Twitter should handle policy decisions in the future to whether he should remain CEO. Those polls could have been an attempt to engage and make amends to users who felt as though they had no voice in decisions that impact their lives. If you’re reading this newsletter, you know better. The news cycle moved on, most notably to speculation about whether Musk planned to honor the result of his poll in which 10 million people—a clear majority of votes cast—said he should step down as CEO, or who he may choose to replace him. (Instead, he now wants to change how polls work.) A day later, even that was eclipsed by Twitter’s announcement of new, multicolored verification badges that can’t be distinguished by colorblind users (likely because Twitter laid off its accessibility team after Musk took over.)

But the anxiety still remains. I see creatives and entrepreneurs scrambling to make sense of Mastodon, for example. I see Hive Social attempting a second act. But most of all, I see a growing sense of dread from people who just want space to connect with each other in a meaningful, safe, and sustainable way. There’s a feeling that one of the few things on the internet that was designed to bring people together—and succeeded, despite all of its problems—is being slowly retooled into a thing intended to make us all afraid, isolated, and disconnected instead. To me, that’s a huge loss, one we haven’t really started to grieve.

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Time Travel

Earlier this month, Eve Fairbanks issued a stark warning about that loss. She wrote that Twitter’s implosion would have ripple effects on people and industries that most of us weren’t thinking about when we all rolled our eyes at Musk’s dramas, called Twitter a hellscape, and went on with our day-to-day lives. And to be fair, you can’t be blamed for ignoring the Twitter saga, especially if you don’t use or much like the platform. But you would be turning your eyes away from a trainwreck in slow motion, one that now seems to be getting truly, tangibly harmful. And unlike Old Twitter, there seems to be little hope that the company’s trajectory will right itself anytime soon.

It’s all getting less funny and more scary and sad, fast. This grief, I think, is widely experienced, but it’s barely yet been reckoned with. Most people, even analysts, are trapped talking about Twitter as something whose demise we’ll relish—either as a liberation or as the gripping psychodrama of one bitter billionaire, his karmic comeuppance. Twitter, everyone notes, is far from the biggest social network.

But if we judge Twitter’s influence by its active users, we underestimate it massively. It has no peer as a forge of public opinion. In political analysis, publishing, public health, foreign policy, economics, history, the study of race, even in business and finance, Twitter has come to drive who gets quoted in the press. Who opines on TV. Who gets a podcast. In foreign affairs and political analysis, especially, it often determines whom we consider an authority. Almost every academic and journalist I know has come to read Twitter, even if they don’t have accounts.

Ask Me One Thing

Tom asks, “I’m addicted to Twitter and struggling to spend less time there even though the quality of content I see has mysteriously dropped a lot in the past two months. How can I wean myself off it in the new year?”

It’s not just you, Tom! In addition to the replatforming of a number of people who made Twitter a worse place for disinformation and conspiracy theories, researchers have pointed to a “firehose” of hate speech on the platform in recent weeks. I’m with you: For all of my complaints, I love Twitter, and enjoy conversing with the people I follow and who follow me. So when I decided I needed to consume fewer tweets because of, well, everything, my first step was to set up a few Twitter lists for the people I actually want to keep up with. You know, the people whose tweets you actually want to read as soon as they post, or people you actually want to reply and converse with. I have a few of those lists: one for my colleagues at WIRED, one for my closest friends, even a Twitter circle for when I want to speak my mind without everyone on the platform jumping down my throat.

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I’ve since found that I spend less time on the platform. And I engage less with Twitter the platform and more with the people I wanted to keep up with. I found myself tweeting less, listening more, and talking to people I trusted more. I paid attention to how I felt when I read my timeline. If I caught myself feeling sad, angry, or depressed at what I was reading, I stopped and switched tabs, or moved to a list. When I was finished with my list, I closed the app and moved on to something else.

I’m a big proponent of reading news that makes you uncomfortable, so I’m not going to swear off my main timeline entirely. But I’m also a big believer in protecting your personal peace, so give those tips a try. You might also try uninstalling the app from your phone and using the mobile web version instead: It doesn’t have the notifications or sticking power that the app does, and it works just as well. And on the desktop, consider TweetDeck instead of going to Twitter.com: You get a simple chronological feed, no ads, no algorithms, and it’s easy to move your lists to the front and the main timeline to the back. Good luck!

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Speaking of businesses doing the most to protect themselves from nothing, face recognition tech isn’t just being used to keep people safe (but you knew that, didn’t you?)—it’s also being used to massage the egos of billionaires.

Last but Not Least

I’m not the only one with a bone to pick this week. Check out Vijith Assar’s dressdown of the security threat that the ultra-wealthy pose to the world at large. 

And speaking of platforms, WIRED took a look inside Amazon’s holiday rush, and talked to people working overtime to make sure the gifts you’re buying get to you before it’s too late. Spare a thought (and maybe a little empathy, should your package get delayed) for them, won’t you?

A few months ago I gave a lecture at my alma mater and reconnected with a number of physics and astronomy professors I’d studied under when I was still in school—which makes the news this week that some theoretical physicists are trying to pull the twin strands of general relativity and quantum theory together even more exciting.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine rages on. Russia has been attacking the country’s electrical grid, and now Ukraine is responding with long-range drone attacks that have been disrupting GPS signals in the country on a scale never seen before.

That’s it for Plaintext until 2023! After a holiday break, Steven Levy will be back at the helm in January.

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