Last week, Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s acquisition bid. The media response was intense. For a few days, it was seemingly the biggest story in the world: every news outlet rushed out multiple takes; commentators fretted and gloated; CNN, for a while, even posted live updates on the deal on their homepage.
As I argue in my latest essay for The New Yorker, titled “Our Misguided Obsession with Twitter,” these varied responses were unified by a shared belief that this platform serves as a “digital town square,” and therefore we should really care about who controls it and the nuances of the rules they set.
But is this view correct?
Drawing on Jon Haidt’s epic Atlantic article on the devolution of social media (which I recently discussed in more detail on my podcast), I note that Twitter is far from a gathering place for representative democratic debate. Its most active users are much more likely to be on the political extremes. They’re also whiter and richer than the average American, not to mention that they have the time to spend all day tweeting, which is quite a rarified luxury.
Here’s Ethan Porter, a media studies professor at George Washington University, elaborating this latter point in a recent Washington Post article:
“The thing about Twitter is, it’s actually quite a demanding platform. In other words, to really participate on Twitter, you need to be a really active Twitter user, and the number of people who have jobs that allow them to be active Twitter users is pretty small.”
The real outrage, I conclude, is not the details of how Elon Musk might change Twitter, but the fact that so many people in positions of power — politicians, business leaders, journalists — still pay so much attention to these 240-character missives.
“Twitter’s increasingly heated wrangling is not just far from a considered democratic debate,” I write, “but has truly become a spectacle driven by a narrow and unrepresentative group of elites.”
This may be optimistic thinking, but I’m hoping that the average person’s response to the media frenzy that surrounded Musk’s acquisition will spark pushback — not against the service’s new owner, but instead against all the people in positions to affect out daily lives who keep giving it such rapt attention.
Anyway, for more detail on my take, see the full article…