The End of an Era: Twitter and the Midterms
In tomorrow’s midterm elections, I will vote in person for the first time since 2008. For the past decade and a half, I lived abroad in several countries in Africa and Europe. And I always voted absentee. But tomorrow, just as I last did at an elementary school in West Philadelphia back in 2008, I will cast a ballot in an American election in person.
Of course, during those years I kept abreast of American politics. I’m a news junkie by nature, but, even if I weren’t, I would have found it almost impossible not to do so. In a way that most Americans simply don’t appreciate, the machinations of the Democrats and Republicans in Washington are of direct concern to the rest of the globe, meriting sustained interest on the part of non-Americans. And they let you know.
During George W. Bush’s second term, a woman on a tram in Valencia, Spain overheard my American accent in Spanish and decided that she needed to share a thought or two about George W. Bush’s foreign policy before she got off at her stop. In 2007, the security guard at a supermarket in Limoges, France, also stopped me to talk about American politics because I was an American. That time, though, it was about a different politician. The security guard, a man of Cameroonian origin whose name was “Angel”—I remember because of the jarring juxtaposition of name and position—asked me what I could tell him about this Barack Obama character. Could this black man he had just heard about truly be elected President of the most powerful nation on earth? A few years later, in May 2010, when Israeli commandos raided an aid flotilla from Turkey to Gaza, waiters in my regular cafe in Meknes, Morocco, came over to my table and pointed to the Al-jazeera newscast, confronting me about the deaths of the activists and US support for Israel.
Experiences like these are quite common to any American who has meaningful interactions with non-Americans. A lot of Americans don’t bother to leave their bubble, so they simply don’t have them, especially if they don’t bother to learn the local language.
In my case, they attuned me to the range of foreign views about American politics. Of course, at the same time I was accumulating these personal experiences with non-Americans, I was also losing the direct personal contact with Americans that helps to instill a reflexive view of their own views. Instead, during those years, my conception of American views on political and social issues was filtered entirely through the media.
In that sense, I wasn’t that different from other Americans who never left the country. When I moved abroad, political discourse had been moving online for over a decade. But in the second decade of our political discourse’s virtual transition, something else happened. Online discourse began to be filtered more and more through social media.
In 2009, the same year that I left the United States, I also joined Twitter.
It was still a novelty at the time. I remember a lot of tweets about funny mishaps, what people were eating, whether anyone wanted to meet up. Those types of things. And strange new traditions I had to master that seemed both ridiculous and completely necessary. Like hashtags. In those early years, the hashtag I cared about most was #ff. Follow Friday. Clicking through to the profiles each Friday, I would add interesting people that showed up. And I dreamed against all odds someone might include me on one of their lists as well. Of course, being a rather private person, I wasn’t inclined to share my mishaps and I rarely had a meal interesting enough to share. And my fatal flaw: I was never quite sure who I wanted my audience to be on Twittter.
During that decade, Twitter changed, along with the entire media ecosystem. When I first left the US I was immersed in the blogosphere. I handpicked my own list of people I considered the smartest and wittiest, and I reveled in their debates and strange discoveries and flame wars. I followed most of it with RSS feeds on Google Reader. But then Google Reader died, and blogs became corporate. And Twitter, along with other social media, morphed into something bigger and different from what it was before.
All these thoughts came rushing back to me last week as I was listening to Kevin Roose discuss Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter on The Daily podcast. The New York Times journalist made the case that Musk’s purchase marks the end of an era. According to him, we’ve now witnessed the “symbolic bookend to a decade in which social media evolved to be, in many ways, more useful to the powerful than the powerless.”
While I agreed substantially with Roose’s analysis, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of whiplash. Reading the encomiums for Twitter (on Twitter) has been disorienting to say the least, coming as it is from people who have condemned the site in the past as a cesspool, complaining about the inanity and the harassment.
Of course, both takes are right. Twitter’s free-for-all elevated all kinds of voices. With no gatekeepers, the voices of fascists, racists, and misogynists were amplified at the same time as those of activists, organizers, and underemployed academics. People connected in new ways and at greater volumes than ever before in human history. And all in one place. For better and for worse.
That’s now coming to an end. But, really, it has been coming to an end for a few years now.
Being back in the United States this past year, I’ve witnessed first-hand the conservative suspicion of Silicon Valley. It’s not just a rhetorical pose. When meeting someone who is a conservative, I’ve learned not to ask if they are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Such a question immediately signals something to them that is better left for a later conversation. My wife has discovered more than once that trying to organize a group chat with other moms is a fool’s errand. They don’t seem to know WhatsApp or they’re suspicious of it because it is Facebook-owned. She patiently endures while they try to come to a consensus on whether Telegram or Signal better protects your communications from both tech giants and the government. It wasn’t like this when we left the country…
In that sense, the Musk takeover isn’t the beginning or the end of the fragmentation of the social media landscape. It is a major turning point, however. Roose is absolutely right that the Twitter we all knew is now coming to an end. Moving forward, it’s going to be crazier and also a lot more entertaining—but entertaining in the schadenfreude, watching-a-dumpster-fire sort of way.
If Musk’s past moves at his other companies are any indication, then he’ll make drastic changes that might eventually make some money (or rather, in this case, merely service the massive debt he’s now accrued). And then he might lose some money. Who knows? It might become something useful and interesting in a way we’re not expecting just yet. But it will certainly be a rollercoaster. And it will have a profound effect on public discourse and on politics, especially for my world of journalists and academics.
There has been some concern that Twitter’s anti-disinformation efforts will be undermined, which might affect the election tomorrow. Having now refamiliarized myself with the full range of the American political spectrum, I find myself skepticial that Twitter’s content moderation system will make a big shift one way or the other. The partisan echo chambers of American politics are so firmly entrenched and they encompass too many other institutions and media outlets. We’re already well-sorted by geography and by media.
Discourse about left-wing cheating is deeply engrained at this point across the right-wing media and political ecosystem. Even if the Democrats manage to hang on to the Senate and/or the ballot-counting goes on for a few days, Republican politicans and media personalities will still raise the spectre of cheating.
Then in the days that follow the midterms, Donald Trump will very likely announce his candidacy for President in 2024, riling up the Republican base and pounding the painful wedge of January 6, 2021, ever deeper into our politics.
All that will happen regardless of what Twitter does or doesn’t do in the coming days under Elon Musk.
The events of that day, more than any other event, demonstrated that there is no firm dividing line between the world of online political discourse and the supposedly separate sphere of “in real life.” The two worlds have melded. They are joined. And that truth extends well beyond the website of one social media company.
I can’t help but find myself a little nostalgic about the website where I wasted so much of my time this past decade. But I don’t pretend to think that its earlier instantiation had the cure for what ails our body politic. We’re simply too sick at this point. Even the best of old Twitter would provide little balm for the affliction of American politics today.
Image Credit: Lexy Praeger