Wednesday, 28 Sep 2022

As Musk buyout looms, Twitter searches for its soul

As Musk buyout looms, Twitter searches for its soul

SAN FRANCISCO (Writer) — A toxic cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the world's pulse. Twitter is all these things and more to its over 229 million users around the world — politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, weirdos and normies, cat and dog lovers and just about anyone else with an internet connection.

For Elon Musk, its ultimate troll and perhaps most prolific user whose buyout of the company is on increasingly shaky ground, Twitter is a “de facto town square” in dire need of a libertarian makeover.

Whether and how the takeover will happen, at this stage in the game, is anyone's guess. On Friday, Musk announced that the deal is “on hold,” then tweeted that he was still “committed” to it. On Tuesday, the billionaire Tesla CEO said he'd reverse the platform's ban of former President Donald Trump if his purchase goes through but also voiced support for a new European Union law aimed at protecting social media users from harmful content. Twitter’s current CEO, meanwhile, fired two top managers on Thursday.

It's been a messy few weeks and only one thing seems sure: the turmoil will continue for Twitter, inside and outside of the company.

“Twitter at its highest levels has always been chaos. It has always had intrigue and it has always had drama,” says Leslie Miley, a former Twitter engineering manager. “This," he says, "is in Twitter's DNA.”

`WHAT PEOPLE ARE THINKING ABOUT'

From its 2007 debut as a scrappy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always punched above its weight.

At a time when its rivals count their users by the billions, it has stayed small, frustrating Wall Street and making it easier for Musk to swoop in with an offer its board could not refuse.

But Twitter also wields unrivaled influence on news, politics and society thanks to its public nature, its simple, largely text-based interface and its sense of chronological immediacy.

“It’s a potluck of pithy self-expression simmering with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, tedium and sometimes useful information,” Associated Press technology writer Michael Liedtke wrote in a 2009 story about the company a few months after it rejected a $500 million buyout from Facebook. Twitter had 27 employees at the time, and its most popular user was Barack Obama.

Today, the San Francisco icon employs 7,500 people around the world. Obama is still its most popular account holder, followed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (Musk is No. 6). Twitter's rise to the mainstream can be chronicled through world events, as wars, terror attacks, the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement and other pivotal moments in our collective history played out in real time on the platform.

“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who are thinking about things tend to be attracted to a text-based platform. And it’s full of journalists. So Twitter is both a reflection of and a driver of what people are thinking about,” says writer, editor and OnlyFans creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who's been on Twitter since 2010 and has over 18,000 followers.

These days, Reisenwitz tweets about politics, sex work, housing and land use issues among many other things. She finds it great for discovering people and ideas and having others discover her writing and thoughts. That's why she's stayed all these years, despite harassment and even death threats she's received on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, in niche fields, those with quirky interests, subcultures small and big, grassroots activists, researchers and a host of others flock to the platform. Why? Because at its best, it promises an open, free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, debated and questioned. Journalists, Reisenwitz recalled, were among the first to really take on Twitter en masse and make it what it is today.

“If I’m on Twitter, (almost) any journalist, no matter how big their platform was, if you said something interesting would respond to you and you could have a conversation about what they’d written and pretty real time,” Reisenwitz says. “And I just thought, this is amazing. Just whatever field you’re in, you can talk to the experts and ask them questions.”

And those subcultures — they're formidable. There's Black Twitter, feminist Twitter, baseball Twitter, Japanese cat Twitter, ER nurse Twitter and so on.

“It’s enabled interest groups, especially those that are organized around social identity, whether we’re talking about gender or sexuality or race, to have really important in-group dialogues,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media.

In a 2018 study on social media subcultures — Black Twitter, Asian American Twitter and feminist Twitter — the Knight Foundation found that they not only helped challenge top-down, sometimes problematic views of the communities but also influence wider media coverage on important issues.

"So there’s this really interesting flow of information that’s not just top-down, mainstream media communicating to subcultures, but allowing various groups, in this case Black Twitter, to have really important, impactful conversations that the media took up and got disseminated to the wider public,” Duffy says.

Software engineer Cher Scarlett says that while Twitter is far from perfect — and, undeniably, home to harassment, hate speech and misinformation — it’s still a step above many platforms. That’s because Twitter has at least tried to address toxic content, she says, with improvements like Twitter Safety Mode, a product now being tested that would make it easier for users to stop harassment. Scarlett has faced repeated online abuse for her advocacy for women in the tech field.

“I’ve been on Twitter since it started. A big part of my network is Twitter,” Scarlett says. “There is nothing else really like it.”


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