What has Twitter done for you? I’ve long found this question embarrassing to answer. I’ve spent most of my adulthood loathing the site, and much of my career critiquing it – and yet I owe it for a lot of the best things in my life. Twitter is how I met my partner and some of my closest friends, and it’s why I get to write for a living, too. It’s where I’ve read the most interesting articles, expanded my politics, come across new ideas and (for better or for worse) gained a greater understanding of people’s different views. I’m not alone – even with Twitter’s pronounced and serious issues, it has remained a place to build connections and generate ideas.
Or it had, until Elon Musk took over in October last year. Almost immediately he began making significant changes – changing it from a platform people begrudgingly used in spite of its problems, into something else entirely. People’s timelines started showing content from accounts they didn’t follow; the app became extremely glitchy and there were regular outages. Musk suspended some of his most vocal critics and began implementing random suggestions his fans tweeted at him. Almost a million users reportedly quit within days.
Musk’s changes are accelerating this month. The most significant development is the end of merit-based verification, where, to gain or retain a blue tick, users will have to pay a monthly subscription to a service called “Twitter Blue”. (Some publications and public figures will retain a different type of badge that is currently being spared monetisation, though it hasn’t been applied uniformly; Musk has removed verification from the New York Times, for example.) Blue ticks did not completely disappear this weekend as expected – instead, all blue-tick labels now read “This account is verified because it’s subscribed to Twitter Blue or is a legacy verified account”.
[See also: I closed my Twitter account. So now what?]
Much has been written about the end of this type of verification – which Twitter invented and is now used almost universally online – and the type of audience Twitter now serves (as Emma Haslett wrote for the New Statesman, Twitter is becoming an “Internet of Losers”, where the desperate and status-obsessed get a taste of faux-fame because they can afford it). With this new era of Twitter advancing, and the platform as we knew it coming to an end, what, as a culture, are we losing?
Usually when a piece of culture dies – particularly a piece of technology – it’s because it has been phased out for something new, which is doing what the old thing did better (or, at the very least, in a way that has become more exciting and addictive to the average user). Facebook is supplanted by Instagram, Instagram by TikTok – and while these various platforms have a distinct niche (boomer posts, pictures, video respectively), their relevance dwindled until they were ultimately usurped by a new offering. Each new platform manages to succeed because it is offering something more interesting – not just a like-for-like option.
But this isn’t what is happening with Twitter. It isn’t dying because some wildly-improved text-based platform has entered the scene, or even because people have grown to find it dull compared to the high-octane content that can be found on Instagram and TikTok – it’s dying as a direct impact of its owner’s choices. In the time since Musk bought Twitter in October, it’s value has more than halved – from $44bn to $20bn – because of Musk’s bad ideas and policies. Not only is Twitter dying, nothing is thriving in its place: while there were some attempts to make micro-blogging sites like Mastodon and Cohost viable alternatives, neither has taken off (realistically, they will never grasp that wide and high-profile audience unique to Twitter).
[See also: Why Twitter has profound impacts on society]
Whatever Twitter was to us, we have to recognise that it will soon no longer exist in that form. But what was it that Twitter was really for? There are a million snarky answers you can find – to massage the egos of journalists, for pointless debate, to create memes that could be screenshotted for Instagram – but there’s a reason its cultural relevance has endured. For good and bad, Twitter has been the closest thing we have to some form of digital public square. It was a place where influential figures read the news, debated politics and shared ideas. And as those ideas were popularised on Twitter, they became policy, mainstream discussion, and informed popular culture. Despite its comparatively small user base and comparatively niche status, Twitter has been a springboard for many things that are now part of – or at least have an impact on – our daily lives.
Of course, a lot of this impact has been negative (arguably, Donald Trump’s entire presidency could be laid at Twitter’s door). But a lot of good has come with it. The communication Twitter encouraged led to a type of connection and engagement few other platforms – if any – could lay claim to. A culture such as this won’t be sustained by Musk’s fanboys. Whether it’s an algorithmic timeline, fewer links, or $8 blue ticks, these new Twitter features come in pursuit of creating a very different type of site, one which superficially suggests it wants to democratise the intellectual engagement Twitter is known for, but actually ringfences it for a community of Musk disciples and desperate nerds seeking a place exclusively populated by each other.
Twitter may never have been an accurate reflection of the real world but for a significant and influential sliver of the population, it did something special – something that has proven difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Whether or not you ever used the site, Twitter once had a serious impact on our lives and our culture. Its impact in the Musk era seems destined to be limited to the self-gratification of the few users it will have left.
[See also: Can Linda Yaccarino save Twitter?]