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Jen Gerson: So we have to talk about Twitter, I guess
There are no grand principles at play with Elon Musk's purchase. It's just one tribe scoring points over another.
The purchase of Twitter has brought out the worst of Twitter.
In case you are one of the majority of well-adjusted North American adults who remain indifferent to the social media hellsite; this week King Troll Billionaire Elon Musk announced a plan to purchase Twitter and take it private for $44 billion. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year, and the news has been met — and there's no kind way to put this — with sheer hysteria among the class of communications professionals for whom blurting out hot takes in 280 characters has become a social life and career.
I'm not going to detail the panic in full, as it has already been well documented. For a certain class of Twitter user, the Musk’s announcement is jackboots on the pavement. Musk's call for "free speech" is a dog whistle for white supremacy. His ownership is a clear and present threat to a lefty sphere that openly and unabashedly calls for more censorship and content moderation to fight online harassment and hate speech.
"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," wrote Musk in a PR statement announcing the transaction. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."
I'm not going to pay either Musk or his critics too much mind. Much of the anti-Musk narrative is a lot of self-important bluster about news of a change of ownership that will probably herald little to no difference for the vast majority of users on the site.
A site, I'll hasten to add, that the most avid and committed users now openly despise. To quote the oft-repeated snark of better writers than myself: he could hardly make the site any worse.
I mean, what are you really expecting Musk to do, here? Welcome back Donald Trump or Laura Loomer, or Meghan Murphy? Is he going to replace everybody's avatars with a Pepe NFT?
Are we under any obligation to pretend that Twitter's previous owners — which included a host of slack-jawed Silicon Valley dudebros and, uh, Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — were benevolent figures?
Look, this doesn't have anything to do with free speech or "free speech.” Most of the progressive left no longer has any coherent position on that fundamental principle beyond sheer nihilism. Controlling speech, defining what views ought to remain in the Overton window of public discourse, is a method of attaining and maintaining power for the self-appointed white hats of the culture.
And the edgelord conservative right is not one lick better. Of course, they're not: conservatives are banning books and passing laws outlawing wrongthink and throwing around homophobic slurs like “groomer” just as they’ve always done. However, in their disingenuous defence of "free speech" as a principle, the tribal right has acquired a strategic advantage in its pursuit of cultural power.
In a society that has abandoned shared values and institutional norms, this self-defeating zero-sum game of polarized dysfunction is all that is left. Twitter takes the nihilistic war for influence and power to its logical end point. Twitter is what the entire goddamn world will look like in 10 years: the emaciated survivors accusing each other of being Nazis among the ruins.
(Please spare me your surprise when the people who ultimately win these societal power struggles, these self-inflicted wars of all against all, are white men with lots of money.)
Elon Musk isn't going to make a difference to any of it in the long run.
Perhaps he'll introduce less incoherent content moderation policies, sure. However, I'll also note that for every marginalized individual worrying about harassment — somehow — getting worse, there are other marginalized individuals who are calling for a more truly open platform. I still can't understand why some Twitter users have been banned for deadnaming trans individuals, yet others remain active on the site after making clear threats of violence and death, for example. Content moderation is hard; it requires imperfect human judgement, or incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligence. Further, it can't be divided into an easy axiom of marginalized people = good, non-marginalized people = bad.
So let's keep some of this in perspective.
Contrary to Musk's contention, Twitter is not the public square. Roughly 22 per cent of American adults are on the site, and only a small fraction of those users are really active. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 80 per cent of the content on Twitter is written by a mere 10 per cent of the users.
Its relative smallness can be similarly applied to concerns about hate speech. The majority of ordinary people are actually using sites like YouTube and Facebook, not Twitter. Further, hate speech has little trouble spreading around the Internet regardless of Twitter's content moderation policies. Hate speech laws remain active in many countries regardless of who owns Twitter.
"Twitter is not real life" is a common refrain, and I have the receipts to prove it. Not only does the site skew younger, better educated, and lefter than the broader population, it also retains an absolutely minuscule hold on the overall speech marketplace. What it does possess is a disproportionate hold on the broader narrative currents of the culture. And herein we get to the real, ugly, beating heart of the panic over the Musk takeover.
The problem isn't how many people are on Twitter, the problem is who is on it. Twitter collects the sort of people who wish to be the bastion of elite consensus making. Ordinary people with ordinary jobs aren't spending hours a day tweeting into the void: this is the domain of opinion makers, politicians, influencers and their wannabe adjacencies who cling to the outskirts of power.
Noted Problematic Writer Freddie deBoer described this crowd best earlier this week, and I can't think of a way to put it any better, so I'll quote him at length:
"Twitter is where they perform the personalities they lack in real life, where they act like the confident and clever people they patently aren’t, and where they pretend to do politics by telling the same terrible jokes, over and over, while the political “movement” they represent remains totally powerless and reviled. Twitter, in other words, is where they wage busy little [professional-managerial class] lives. And they’d prefer that space be pleasant for them. They have eliminated the existence of any contrary opinion in their personal lives and private lives, and now they want to do the same in Twitter, which as sad as it is to say is the center of their emotional lives."
Sometimes, through sheer mob dynamics, Twitter does exert real influence on institutions and individuals; but this is not the same thing as real power. Twitter opprobrium is most potent when the institutions and individuals under attack believe that they need to seek the approval of the Twitter-addicted clique. It’s an illusion, a glamour of power.
In other words, Twitter is a self-manufactured hell. It's a digital Thunderdome for reviled nerds who couldn't compete in more primal hierarchies. So they — we, as I'm no better — play in an alternative social structure that advantages verbal freaks with too much time on our hands.
The worst of us, the 10 per cent who produce most of the #content, have invested the last decade of our lives to this pointless bloodsport. So the Twitter personae that have come to replace our real personalities are baked into our actual identities.
This is why true addicts can never leave the site. It's why those people who make grand Twitter announcements proclaiming their imminent departure (which inevitably generates a few hundred dopamine-hitting likes) will always, always fail and return. They should be believed as much as the gambling addict who promises tonight is the last night he will rot away in his preferred suburban casino.
So sure, the previous owners of this sticky VLT machine were non-ideal, but nobody had to think about them because they were not certified Twitter Villains — which Elon Musk absolutely is. He's openly hostile to the dominant clique: Musk is King Troll, utterly Problematic, a Kayfabe Baddie, and a living challenge to the self-selected collection of sad-eyed broken dolls languishing on the shelf of this unloved corner of the Internet.
Musk's purchase is the revenge of the AV nerds at an upscale private high school from which the actual jocks long ago graduated. It's Owning the Libs in the most literal sense. He's claiming the naming rights to the Thunderdome, assuring that the SJW and Pepe-gilded gladiators will battle their ego deaths under his God-Emperor visage. It's a status play that puts him in the ranks of all the other billionaire-owner media sugar daddies.
Look, if you need to use Elon Musk as an excuse to break the Twitter habit, then do it. Now is as bad a time as any. And if Elon Musk manages to destroy the site in its entirety, it would be the very best thing he could do for mankind, and I'm including the electric cars and the rockets in the mix.
Otherwise, all of the drama of the last week has centred around what amounts to a giant in-group out-group nerd fight, and I refuse to take it any more seriously than that.
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