Elon Musk owns Twitter. Now what?

Remember: We don’t need Twitter. Twitter needs us.
A 3D render of Twitter's logo on a blue background
(Roman Martyniuk)

On October 27, 2022, it was official: Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, became Twitter’s owner after initially trying to get out of paying $44 billion for the social media platform. Upon becoming “Chief Twit,” Musk moved swiftly. He fired several of Twitter’s top execs, announced plans to charge $8/month for verified Twitter accounts (i.e., the “blue check”), and laid off approximately half of Twitter’s employees (possibly in violation of worker protection laws).

Musk also assured advertisers that Twitter would not become “a free-for-all hellscape” in light of earlier promises to loosen Twitter’s restrictions on speech, including permitting Donald Trump back onto Twitter. (The former president was banned due to concerns that his tweets might incite further violence following the January 6 insurrection. While Trump praised Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, it remains to be seen whether or not he actually returns to Twitter.)

Not surprisingly, all of this has generated considerable controversy, with many Twitter users seeing it as a sign of the platform’s demise. Some have reduced their Twitter activity or left for other platforms like Mastodon, citing worry over the rise of hate speech and Musk’s intentions (and trollish behavior). There’s a definite fear that Musk’s takeover will contribute to misinformation on Twitter, especially since Twitter’s content moderation efforts will almost certainly be affected by Musk’s layoffs — and all of this upheaval is particularly disconcerting for the midterm elections.

I certainly have my own worries. Musk has always struck me as a chaos agent, someone who’s willing to stir the pot and be a “disruptor” but has difficulty delivering on his lofty promises (Hyperloop, anyone?) and often resorts to surprisingly childish behavior. Speaking as a developer, there’s no better sign of this than Musk’s request that Twitter developers print out the last 30 – 60 days of their code so he could personally review it. (Tell me you don’t know software development without telling me you don’t know software development.) Those developers were later told to shred their code printouts because, well, obviously. I’m sure Twitter’s IT team was totally OK with physical copies of the company’s proprietary code just floating around the office.

But if there’s one potential bright spot to the Musk/Twitter story, it’s this: perhaps it will wake people up to the fact that we’ve ceded far too much control to Twitter and other social media platforms. At its best, Twitter is both entertaining and informative, its timeline awash in tweets that are by turns frivolous and fascinating, with delightfully stupid memes coexisting alongside thought-provoking threads and breaking news. But here’s the rub: we don’t actually need Twitter.

In fact, we’ve never needed Twitter. Rather, Twitter, like all of the other social media platforms out there, needs us generating content and community through our tweets and interactions in order to survive, because that’s how it gets traffic. Traffic means eyeballs, eyeballs mean happy advertisers, and happy advertisers means Twitter gets paid.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al., do have two great advantages. First, they make it super easy to post content online, be it animal GIFs, silly dance videos, personal news, in-depth analyses, calls to action, or even (*cough*) the occasional music or movie review. And second, they make it easy to connect with friends, family members, and acquaintances, and build a community for your content. In other words, they lower the bar of difficulty for creating an online presence, which is not nothing. In doing so, however, their algorithms require you to give up control over what you see and who can see what you post.

Which is why I hope that everyone who’s so worried about Musk’s version of Twitter — and I share their concerns — will realize that it’s easier than ever to create an online presence that you control. Maybe not as easy as signing up for a Twitter account, but much easier than you might realize. And while it might be more difficult to generate the sort of community that’s possible on a centralized social network, you don’t have to worry about some algorithm or “feature” downgrading or otherwise preventing others from seeing your content, or presenting your content in a manner that you don’t control.

To that end, Ben Werdmuller’s “Get Blogging!” is an excellent resource. It’s filled with links to blogging services (e.g., WordPress, Substack), writing apps (e.g., MarsEdit), and tools for reading and finding blogs (e.g., Feedly, Blogroll). Werdmuller even explains why one shouldn’t rely on social media platforms (emphasis mine):

[I]f you only write on Facebook, Facebook controls who sees your thoughts, what you can write about, and how you write. If you control your own site, your thoughts aren’t subject to the policies of any other company or individual.

If you’re a business, it’s important to control your relationship with your audience. As an individual, giving a company control over how you share your ideas gives them outsized influence on how you represent yourself.

Basically, a website that you own and control should be the canonical, gospel source for all of your thoughts, ideas, etc. You should then use Twitter, Facebook, et al., to direct people back to your website, by posting links to your website’s content (e.g., blog posts, photos, portfolio pieces).

I certainly post frivolous, off-the-cuff stuff on Twitter and Facebook, including the occasional personal update that won’t be a huge loss if it vanishes into the ether. But anything of substance or importance that I want to last? That’s always posted here on Opus, and then I use Twitter and Facebook to promote it and bring it to people’s attention. That way, if those sites ever go the way of Friendster, Google+, and Pownce, or if my account gets closed for some reason, the stuff that really matters to me — all of my music and movie reviews, for example — won’t disappear, too.

Remember: You don’t need Twitter or any other social media platform to make your voice heard, to publish your thoughts for others to see, or to connect with others. They, on the other hand, need you in order to make money, and while they do make it easy to start posting and connecting, that all comes with a certain loss of control over your own voice, your own ideas, and your own community. Now’s the perfect time to start taking it all back.

To be clear, I hope Twitter survives Musk’s acquisition (though I do feel a certain schadenfreude at seeing the world’s richest man throw tantrums after clearly getting in over his head). I even hope it flourishes, because for all of its faults and flaws — like taking too long to ship anything that might benefit its users — I think Twitter can serve an important function.

That said, if Twitter disappeared tomorrow, there are some things that I might miss, but I wouldn’t shed any tears. There are so many better ways to share your thoughts with the world. I hope you take advantage of them.

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