There’s something that’s simultaneously fascinating and sickening about watching the world’s richest man light up forty billion dollars on fire and fumbling all efforts he’s made to make it a worthy investment. Since crowning himself Twitter’s “Chief Twit,” Elon Musk has seemed to be doing his level best at driving Twitter off a cliff. Perhaps in a Tesla. But still off a cliff. And the worse part is that we’re all in the car with him as he speeds off like a hang glider with no wings.
Much ink has been spilled about how Elon Musk has become the case study par excellence of domain-specific knowledge: a man who, quite obviously, is brilliant at some things but completely ignorant at others. Of course, most of us began at least to have our doubts about this man’s decency when he baselessly called one of the British cave rescue divers in Thailand a “pedo” in 2018, his ego wounded after one of his rocket parts was rejected for use as part of the operation. And who in the world pretends to care about climate change while endorsing a Republican Congress (days after pledging Twitter’s neutrality), anyway?
But I digress. What Elon Musk does with his personal fortune and how he behaves personally concerns me not in the slightest, except for the fact that it is now turning out to be a catastrophic outcome for Twitter, one of my favorite social media platforms. I say this knowing fully that it makes me sound like a total social media junkie — a charge that in any case I cannot deny — but it’s true. Twitter has been immensely helpful for my own career and my growth as a writer, and I think that now is a better time than any to at least express my appreciation for the platform and simultaneous disgust at its forced demise.
Above all, Twitter has to me been a democratizing platform: one in which the power of the publisher was truly taken away and distributed to the masses. I started writing about politics in ninth grade. Whether or not the ability to share their half-baked political analysis with the world is genuinely a good thing is a subject for legitimate debate and speculation, and there are quite a few things I wish I hadn’t written in hindsight. But without Twitter, I would have found it so much more difficult to get my start as a writer, to be able to self-publish and share my own writing. Before I started freelancing for publications, I spent years writing on this very blog and tweeting the pieces — and I benefitted immensely from the feedback and readership that the platform provided.
Secondly, Twitter has been a great generator of ideas. At risk of using a liberal cliché, Twitter is I think the closest thing we have to a marketplace for ideas. My Bookmarks section is filled with interesting theories and thoughts that I save to ponder later. I actually get many ideas for writing articles from Twitter — many of my pieces have emerged as responses to contentious things I’ve seen on the platform. I don’t think there’s a replacement for that quite yet. It is truly fertile ground for interdisciplinary idea generation.
Third, Twitter is a boundary breaker. I learned recently that simply by tweeting a few times a week, users are defined by Twitter as “heavy users,” which I suppose also makes me one. That might make most of us just sound like a bunch of Twitter nerds. But what I think we so-called heavy users have benefitted from is the interactions that we get to have with others, on a platform that breaks down the walls between disciplines and professions. I’ve met and had fruitful conversations with so many incredible journalists, academics, and even politicians on this site that I would never have had an opportunity to meet otherwise.
It’s certain that Twitter has its problems: misinformation, for one, and toxicity, undeniably. I never block anyone out of a commitment to free speech — perhaps not the best way to manifest this commitment, but the best one I can think of myself — and over the years I think I’ve had my fair share of comments directed at me that would not have been said in person. And Twitter has also, along with other social media platforms, done more than anything since Stephen Hawking to bend the rules of time, a sink that turns hours into minutes.
But the bottom line, I think, is that Twitter can be a force for good if used properly. Indeed, I would say that in many organizations, teaching people how to use Twitter properly would be a very helpful thing, especially for early career scholars or journalists. And that makes its impending demise so disappointing: we are on the verge of losing this democratizing, creative and boundary-shattering platform that has no true viable alternative yet. I say this without exaggeration — I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Mastodon to anyone who isn’t a power user. That would be like recommending Ubuntu to a regular Windows user.
And so we come to this point where just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Elon Musk tweets as Twitter burns — except he started the fire, and his net worth is going to burn with him. The sad thing is that a lot of good things will be burned down, too, as Elon Musk goes on with his trial-and-error (mostly the latter) approach to running a social media platform. . I hope that this doesn’t turn out to be my own personal obituary for Twitter, but there’s no confidence in me to say that it wouldn’t be. What a shame.