“The end is nigh”. We’re seeing it over and over again; long-term Twitter users proclaiming that the “hellsite”, as many refer to it with a kind of weird, horrified affection, must surely be on dwindling life support following Elon Musk’s takeover. And now even the doors to Twitter HQ have been temporarily closed.
The predictions of impending doom intensified on Thursday night when reports started to appear suggesting the number of employees taking an offer to leave the company with severance rather than agree to a new “hardcore” working culture numbered in the hundreds – joining more than 3,000 of their colleagues fired by Musk in the preceding weeks. Some suggested the service was going to struggle to keep the lights on, though Musk himself has been gleefully tweeting about “all-time high” traffic.
Twitter users that have posted obsessively on the site for years have been writing its epitaphs, creating backup accounts on other platforms like Mastadon, downloading their data and occasionally acting like it’s the last day of school, or possibly the last days of Rome – declaring their crushes, making earnest statements about their affection for the site, airing their secrets, posting thirsty selfies… or else changing account handles to names mocking Musk and deliberately breaking the rules to get themselves banned.
I’d compare the latter to the Weasley twins in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, unleashing anarchy before fleeing their school, except that I’m a tragically invested, left-leaning and painfully woke Twitter user, and we try not to reference JK Rowling’s books anymore. You probably know why.
One thing I am sure of: the platform disappearing breaks my heart in a way that is difficult for casual users to accept or understand. The idea of Twitter going away is weirdly unbearable. To not be able to send missives out into the world every day, not be able to instantly follow the discourse around big and small news events, to not be able to join in with the jokes and memes … it’s unthinkable.
It’s also extremely telling that the possible demise of Twitter is literally playing out on Twitter. That’s the problem. Twitter is where we’ve always gone to collectively process, to join in with shared jokes, shared trauma, shared knowledge.
I’m aware I am too invested in Twitter. I worked for the platform for almost seven years as a curator, on a global team – now disbanded by Musk, according to tweets by team members. It was our job to contextualise big conversations by adding descriptions to Trends, creating debunks of viral misinformation and putting together algorithmic timelines and manually curated packages of tweets that summarised or explored the dominant conversations of the day.
We were, by and large, a hugely invested team; we believed in what we did. It was true of most of the company, actually. Not for nothing is the legend “#LoveWhereYouWork” emblazoned on the wall of every one of Twitter’s offices. We were working on an insanely powerful platform that can dictate the news agenda, impact the global market, make and ruin careers. It punches massively above its weight.
Our job was to make sure it continued to be a force for good. To preserve an unbiased and honest conversation. We kept the platform useful when it was most needed. I loved my job. Not just for the salary (which was fine), the perks (which were great) or the prestige (which… depends on who you ask), but genuinely for the mission. Not many people can say that.
My investment goes further than that, though. I was a relatively early adopter of Twitter; joining the platform in 2009 and watching the community grow around me. I remember the innocent times: of Stephen Fry, harmless meme games, and Graham Linehan, before he started tweeting the controversial views that would eventually get him banned from the platform. I was there the day news broke that a young David Cameron allegedly once did something unspeakable to a pig’s head, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in my life.
I was there the day the Brexit vote happened, and joined in with the cathartic display of anger and solidarity that followed. The day David Bowie died. The day Grenfell burned. The day lockdown started. The day there was that massive puddle in Newcastle no one could stop watching. I’ve documented well over a decade of my best ideas, stupidest thoughts, overly emotional or angry rants and dumbest jokes on the platform. I like to think I’m quite good at it.
I’ve used Twitter as a reader, a journalist, a performer and a one-time social PR professional (in the music industry – I once ran Shakira’s official Bebo; and Lee from Blue used to call me for tech support because he didn’t understand what I did. Another story for another day). In other words, someone who creates, engages with and reports on content with equal glee. The value of Twitter has been incalculable.
I got my book deal by replying to a Tweet, and it changed my life. I got my job at Twitter because someone DM’d me on Twitter. I’ve gone weirdly viral with funny or angry posts, I’ve been trolled and received abuse for my writing and views. I’ve made close friends. Twitter has been woven into my day to day. “Babe are you okay?” someone Tweeted earlier. “You’ve barely touched your weirdly real grief for the pending loss of a website you acted like you hated.”
It’s an extremely relatable statement that’s also impenetrable to anyone not invested in Twitter culture. When people talk about being “very online” they basically mean “very on Twitter”. Facebook has more followers, Instagram has more influencers and TikTok is younger – somehow Twitter punches heavier than those in terms of its cultural impact.
I don’t know if Twitter is on its way out. Things are certainly chaotic, that’s undeniable. Terminally so? Time will tell. I’m not a huge fan of the decisions Musk had made since taking control of the company – the bit where he fired a bunch of my friends didn’t endear him to me. But I’m not stupid enough to count him out. His plan seems to be to break things, clear decks and build out again. It might work. I’m not a business mogul. What do I know?
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However, I totally understand why hundreds of my former colleagues have taken the escape route they were offered – I left to pursue freelancing just a few weeks before Musk completed his deal. I get it. I also understand and sympathise with those that stayed, just as I’ve understood people who left the platform itself because it all got a bit much, and those that have continued to use it.
When I say “we” built Twitter, made it what it is, I mean it in a literal sense. “We” as in my colleagues and I, stressing, sweating and occasionally despairing to make this silly app work properly, and “we” as in the community of users for whom posting on and reading Twitter is part of our lives. I’m not saying I’m not bitter or angry about the way my friends and colleagues have been treated.
I’m not saying I think the service was perfect. I’m not saying I agree with the direction it could go in. But I do know that I dearly want it to survive. It’s too important, too good, too ludicrous, too maddening, too useful to lose. We deserve Twitter. The good and the bad. I’d go as far as to say we need it. I just hope it can make it through the night.
Marc Burrows is a critic, musician, comic and author. ’The London Boys’ is out now