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The Real Problem with Twitter

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…

10 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Twitter”

  1. Without getting into the politics of the leaked Roe v. Wade decision, one of the things I’ve noticed in the immediate aftermath is how often Twitter users seem to operate as though they have some duty or obligation to be logged in and participating in the discussion at all. Tweets like “Today’s a good day to log off and take care of yourself” — as if logging on in the first place needed to happen!

    This is a small sliver of humanity that approaches these platforms this way, but I think it’s given many of them an overblown sense of Twitter’s importance, both for society as a whole and for their sense of self. Like you, Cal, I hope we’re moving away from this cultural expectation that a few social media platforms should be treated as if they are universal and necessary.

  2. Definitely agree with the exaggerated importance of Twitter, but Porter’s comment that “the number of people who have jobs that allow them to be active Twitter users is pretty small” is inaccurate. Common people aren’t too busy with real jobs to be active on Twitter, they just prefer to waste their time on Facebook.

    Twitter has become the place for (unhealthy) discourse of ideas. Facebook is where you can see the grand kids.

  3. Hello, Cal. I am writing to you from Spain. I want to thank you for both your article and in The New Yorker and the one you link to Haidt. Tremendous and resounding. In fact, today I unsubscribed from Twitter for good. Or that will be my purpose. I have also read your book and I hope that between what you have told me in it and what I have read today (you, Haidt, Porter), I can get it. In a short time there will be two types of men, those manipulated by the networks and those who will remain on the sidelines and will be invaluable. I begin to notice it with some trepidation in my children. I have a teenager stuck to IG and TW and another who has nothing. And he reads, and he invents, and he thinks and attracts by how he approaches matters. For everything you have written, today I have only dared to write to thank you very much. THANK YOU, Cal. Really. I admire you. Hugs

  4. Don’t confuse the “small” importance of the number of people really active on Twitter and Twitter’s importance on the Democratic Debate in the US and Globally.
    I couldn’t agree more on the fact that they represent a very small slice of the population but their message is amplified by the very nature of this media, and to a larger extent by all the social media business model.
    This group of politicians (& their communicators, PR…), journalists, activists and bots are “opinion makers”.
    You can find their “trending” narrative on TV, newspapers and in everyday conversations with people who don’t even have clue of what Twitter is…
    That’s why Elon Musk’s take over is a crucial issue but whatever he will do with Twitter, it will have to comply with the Digital Services Act in the EU.
    How will it be handled everywhere else, let’s wait & see…

  5. “They’re also whiter and richer than the average American”.

    You do know that Twitter is not an American thing, do you?

    But I do agree with your story: its users do not represent the world population and their opinion is their opinion only.

    • The HQ is in San Francisco. But yes, I get your point, it is typically American to consider that only Americans use American things. Twitter is used worldwide.

      • A deep debate trying to define „American” (as an attribute/value) would be lengthy, but maybe we can draw a line in the sand.

        A company needs to operate within the legal boundaries of where its HQ and servers are located. Twitter is American, very much so, if only because it must uphold the letter and spirit of US laws. Insofar as other countries’ law systems are similar, the users in those countries will experience no friction. But imagine … say, the Taliban trying to use Twitter and spew their ideology, inciting violence against women etc. Would Twitter be able to accommodate them? Obviously not, for legal reasons.

  6. All social media is DIY segregation. Those without accounts on the platforms are every bit as belittled and demonized as the persons offline who find more meaning in self-sacrifice than self-service. Everyone justifies their own usage because everyone today is already made to think and feel that their private thoughts and feelings always take priority in all concerns and in all situations, when the reality is that every social networking profile exists in the service of that which pleases and comforts the account holder. Social media taught users how to emulate the most selfish among us through avatars and proxies, but short of engaging an even more immersive variant ala the metaverse or whichever other virtual reality, users are realizing the middlemen of avatars and proxies are less and less important AFK. A job is a necessity, prioritizing good vibes over the actual well-being of others is considerably not. (My embedded link has nihilistic fun taking that to its inevitable end.)

  7. twitter = left versus right.
    twitter is not the world. twitter is a digital bubble.

    it is so easy to understand. 1% is pushing a buzzword
    and the mainstream press jumps on it as if it were 90%!

    sometimes the 1% is not even a real human like me 🙂

  8. Ups, Elon bought twitter 🙂

    Funny – some Tech Journalists really think, that human kind cannot survive
    without twitter.



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