Voices: RIP Twitter, 2006-2022: Dead at the hands of Elon Musk

Musk Twitter (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Musk Twitter (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

I opened my Twitter account in January of 2013, at the urging of a friend. Only a few days before, I had published my first national article in The New York Times, and feedback was coming in tidal waves: emails from strangers, messages on Facebook, countless shares. I didn’t know anything about Twitter, the now-ubiquitous social media platform that had launched seven years earlier (this is the downside to being firmly entrenched in Generation X). I opened an account, and the rest was history.

In the intervening decade, I have cultivated my own little Twitter world, now verified with a coveted blue check. At its best, Twitter was a place where people like me, a journalist, could commiserate with the like-minded. It was a place to share ideas and work, a place to be funny and sarcastic, and even a place to seek solace from people who shared my outlook in life.

At its worst, Twitter was the enemy of the people. It was not an accident that former president Donald J. Trump took to Twitter, and not Instagram, when he wanted to rile up his base. Twitter, with its character cap (280 characters — although, when the platform launched, it was half as much) allows for half-thoughts and quick missives, for impulsive ideas that can hang without context. The platform was designed for verbal dynamite. Fire off a tweet and watch it explode. The best tweets were punchy and cute, full of rhythm and technique. The worst ones reduced human nature to a few base keyboard swipes.

That was where Twitter went wrong, of course, and, somewhere in the fulcrum of bad ideas emerged a red-hot right-wing movement. In the past few years, we — I’m not sure who “we” really is, apart from those of us who wish for a more functional society — tried to correct the worst impulses set loose on this part of the internet. Trump was booted from the platform, along with so many others (most recently: the artist formerly known as Kanye).

But now, as Elon Musk takes the helm — for real this time — and starts off with a series of firings, it is time to say our goodbyes to the social media platform that once was. It’s not as if our better angels ever really overcame the truly despicable parts of the Twitterverse (I challenge anyone who is not Jewish to spend a day mired in the responses to just one viral tweet about Kanye West’s antisemitic tweets for a sense of how disgusting Twitter is and has always been).

Still, it was a comfort to some of us that some were excluded from participating. It was a comfort that “free speech” and “hate speech” were not disingenuously cross-referenced, as if saying something destructive and terrible deserved equal protection under one company’s private bylaws.

Elon Musk, of course, is a right-wing radical himself, and has made no bones about his intentions. “I did it to help humanity,” Musk said in a tweet on Thursday of his Twitter acquisition. “It is important to the future of civilization to have a virtual town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.” I guess Musk doesn’t seem to understand the correlative between language and violence — the necessary link between what people say and what they do. I guess he doesn’t understand that if some kinds of language and beliefs are reigned in, violence will not stem from them.

Twitter did have some great moments. Alyssa Milano popularized the term #MeToo on Twitter, in 2017. In 2016, Hillary Clinton went viral by telling Donald Trump to delete his account. Caitlyn Jenner reintroduced herself to the world on Twitter. Barack Obama posted a photo of himself and the former first lady: four more years, the 2012 caption read. We had fun on Twitter. We watched crazy videos. We had to decide if a dress was gold and black or white and black or white and gold. I’m still really not sure about that one.

Twitter was toxic, too. We had to put up with a president who alienated people. For over four years, many of us held our breath to see what stream of nonsense came next. In writing this obituary, it’s hard to find a tweet that is, at once, completely offensive and also indicative of what Twitter was. Perhaps this one is it: “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA,” Trump tweeted following the 2020 election. Trump went on to compel his followers to storm the Capitol. It was not the healthy debate. It was, however, a lot of violence.

Goodbye, old friend. When you were good, you were fun. When you were bad, you were a wormhole of trolls. As you leave this good world, we expect that your passing will bring nothing but the demise of democracy.