The Muskening

I will admit that I am watching the mess that is Elon Musk’s early tenure at Twitter with a certain amount of perverse joy, as a long time critic of the man. And yet, I also regret that this is the public forum where all of my prior assumptions and criticisms once again get confirmed because it comes at the expense of both the employees at Twitter and a larger number of people who were able to exploit its potential for virality to build a public following and, from that, economic opportunities.

My own relationship with Twitter has been decidedly mixed. I am an active user, and my follower count topped out at just over 1700 on the same day that the company’s purchase was finalized, but I have done precious little to cultivate that list. I tweet a little bit, retweet a little bit more, and try to interact with interesting accounts, but I actually think that the greatest key to reaching that number is that I have just always been there.

That is, I created my Twitter account in 2008, before hashtags were an official part of the Twitter functionality and before it was possible to create threads. I don’t even know how many accounts existed back then because a quick internet search only returned data going back to 2010, which also happens to be when the new owner created his account. This was also before I went to graduate school. I was managing a Quiznos in Boston at the time, waiting to hear back about graduate school applications, and trying to keep my Greek fresh in case I got in. I also had no plans to make this a professional “historian” Twitter account because, well, I wasn’t a professional historian when I started the account and I only had the loosest idea of what that would even look like. By the time that #twitterstorians and #classicstwitter, I was already here and so became absorbed into those movements. My Twitter usage has evolved over the years, especially because I prefer interacting with people to generating original content. I still sometimes find the juxtaposition of academic and non-academic activities somewhat awkward, even as I deeply appreciate its democratizing effect on knowledge creation and how it shows that (most) professors have interests beyond their immediate research subjects.

Frankly, the histrionic meta-commentary about whether to stay on Twitter or to find a new platform that has unfolded in the days since the purchase annoys me more than does the leadership transfer of one billionaire to another. I shared a lot of people’s concerns about being able to promote my writing and with the likely proliferation of hate speech even beyond what is currently tolerated. However, my Twitter experience is generally tolerable because I make frequent use of the mute features aggressively curate my experience there. Nobody online is entitled to my attention. I expected that the Twitter experience would degrade over the coming months and years, but I would be fine so long as those pieces of functionality continued to exist.

The first week of the Musk experience is beyond anything I could have predicted, starting with the new owner boosting a vile conspiracy that excused an act of political violence against the Pelosi family and then blaming the loss in advertising revenue on activists, when, in fact, the advertisers froze their buys over other fears that were exacerbated by Musk having fired the people they coordinated with at the company and then Musk’s performance on a conference call with them. The advertising fracas took place against the backdrop of obvious attempts to monetize a site that has never turned a profit because Musk had been locked into a mindbogglingly stupid offer to purchase Twitter for vastly more than it was worth. Thus his attention turned to the blue check mark, which is nothing more than an emoji that “verifies” that “an account of public interest” is who they say they are. Or at least it did. Musk first proposed a $20 dollar per month fee for verification, which led to him publicly bartering, perhaps in jest on his part, with both Stephen King and Garfield the cat. King adamantly refused to pay a dime, to which supporters of Musk asked how Stephen King would stay relevant without that blue check.

Twitter’s greatest success is in persuading a lot of people that what happens there is real life.

All of which brings me to the roll-out of the new Twitter Blue. For $7.99 a month, users will receive perks like a blue check mark “just like celebrities, companies and politicians,” as well as an edit function (just learn to accept typos, it’s fine), and a promise to show only half the number of ads, which strikes me as only meaningful if there is transparency about the number of ads one sees now and could easily be construed as a threat to drown free accounts in a torrent of ads. While I am inclined not to believe Musk’s claims that this paid service will reduce the number of bot accounts, the more pressing question for how I use Twitter is what this will do to the content on my feed. Twitter has had an algorithmic timeline for a number of years now, but I refuse to use it because whether I am interacting with friends and colleagues or following an event live, I want to be able to see Tweets as they happened. So long as that function continues to exist I can tolerate the other changes, but Musk’s vision of “free speech” seems to include a demand that other people listen to you and he is willing to offer you that function for a moderate monthly fee. In particular, Twitter Blue will offer paid users algorithmic priority for their Tweets. If this means that option for a chronological timeline goes away, then it might well render the site unusable for me.

However, the proof is going to be in the pudding. If the site becomes unusable for me or no longer serves my needs I will stop using it in the same way that I stopped using Facebook a decade ago. I will continue to trundle along there in the meantime, and I also keep a list of the other places where I can be found online.

The most common destination for people I follow leaving Twitter right now is Mastodon, which has many of the same Twitter functions. I created an account back in April, if for no other reason than to have a presence there. My initial impressions of the site are mixed. For one thing, rather than simply making a Twitter account, you join one of the many Mastodon instances, each of which has its own code of conduct. This fragmentation creates a local timeline populated by “toots” from the people in your little interest group, but then also you have a home timeline created by the people you follow who can be from any instance. These and other differences have taken some getting used to, but I would describe them as different rather than either good or bad.

My other observation about Mastodon is that writing there feels to me much more like micro-blogging than Twitter ever did. Where Twitter allowed 140 characters and then expanded out to 280, Mastodon allows 500. Critics of Twitter’s brevity argue that the limits killed nuance and encouraged flippancy, I appreciated the challenge of expressing ideas concisely. I find that 500 characters is just enough that I can slip back toward being long-winded and that is giving me pause on how I want to use the site.

Ultimately, the experience on Mastodon is going to be determined by the people on it. The instance I joined at first and the fact that my early activity on the platform has been academic means that Mastodon feels a bit like an academic conference to me right now. I can talk about things that are not academic, but more than a few people will probably give me the side eye for doing so. I certainly don’t mind academic conferences and will be happy to stay on Mastodon, perhaps on this server, perhaps migrating to another one when I have some time to explore my options, even if it never evolves past this, but it does mean that my relationship to the platform will be different than was my relationship to Twitter.

Then again, a lot has changed in the last fourteen years so perhaps these changes should be expected.