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The Swan Song of the Bluebird

“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square,” Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter said in his post titled “Dear Twitter Advertisers”, followed in the next breath by the ultra-capitalist claim “Low relevance ads are spam, but highly relevant ads are actual content!”

Emblematic of the fractured nature of social media, the first semi-official statement from the new self-described “Chief Twit” was three photos of dense text, without the necessary alt text to provide accessibility.

Pretty Hate Machine

Twitter has served an outsized role in my personal and professional lives. On the app I’ve made great new friendships and ruined old ones; created professional networks and burned bridges; helped people through difficult personal and professional times and offended others; been misunderstood and misquoted while myself misunderstanding and misquoting; blocked people and had people block me; found new limits for the highest heights of elation and the deepest depths of despair.

On Twitter I watched one friend livetweet their first child’s birth and another livetweet the bombing of his home. I watched people find their tribes and people falling into the gravity wells of hateful conspiracy theories. I watched new technologies emerge that will make the world a better place and technologies emerge that are destroying the very fabric of our society.

To say I’ve had a fraught relationship with the bird app is an understatement. When asked to describe Twitter, the first phrase that comes to mind for me is “Pretty Hate Machine,” but “Petty Hate Machine” might be equally apt. Open Twitter on any day and you’re two clicks away from whatever rage bait the “Explore” algorithm is currently selling. Political conspiracy theories, medical conspiracy theories, climate conspiracy theories, celebrity conspiracy theories, social media conspiracy theories, whatever flavor of rage you want to fill up on, the blue bird is fully stocked and eager to deliver.

A Bluebird in the Coal Mine

As Musk stepped through the glass doors of Twitter HQ carrying a giant porcelain sink (a reference to the lamest of lame dad jokes “Let that sink in” finding a new audience as a TikTok trend, or a reference to a so-called Q drop depending on who you ask and what online radicalization bubble you live in) he caused a tectonic shift in the social media landscape. As expertly chronicled in Nilay Patel’s spicy The Verge piece “Welcome to Hell, Elon,” the Bird App is a centrepiece in the ongoing public discourse around the role of free speech laws and moderation on global digital content platforms.

On the news of Musk’s intent to buy Twitter back in the spring of 2022, right-wing pundits and their loyal followers celebrated the “end of censorship” and “return of free speech,” and in the two days since the Sinking In, the platform has become a testing ground for online extremists, trolls, and bots wanting to see how far they can take things before whatever moderation tools and staff are still in place step in:

The man who less than a year ago promised to spend $6 billion on ending world hunger instead spent a reported $44 billion to buy an app right-wing extremists want to weaponize for their own power grabs and entertainment. Let that sink in.

Allow me to quote my thred from last night on Twitter:

Remember: when free speech absolutist and Silicon Valley techno libertarians talk about “the extreme left” they are talking about anyone who thinks you should be able to be online without being subjected to constant harassment and death threats because of who you are.

The vast majority of content moderation is there to prevent platforms from overflowing with spam. The rest is there to prevent platforms from being used to share criminal harassment, assault, terrorism, and CSAM content.

The right-wingers who claim they are being “#shaddowbanned” or “censored” have no reality to back them up. Studies show political bans fall evenly on the left and the right. The main diff is people on the right build their enormous platforms on the story of being censored.

People should be free to speak their minds on social media. People should also be protected from having those freedoms removed by hateful mobs. Organized online extremists have made sport of driving women, LGBTQIA2+, PoCs, and other historically harmed people off platforms.

If Twitter has any serious aspirations of becoming a “common digital town square” like Elon said, it has to be managed like a town square. If you show up at a town square screaming rape and death threats at the other people there, you will be removed, and likely arrested.

There is no civil discourse without moderation. That’s why debates have moderators. The people who claim they want to end “censorship” on social media are really saying they don’t want to be held accountable for what they say and do on social media.

In spite of what Musk and the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley want to believe, Twitter and its ilk are not “common digital town squares.” Twitter is a firehose, a deluge, an all-encompassing flood of every aspect of the human condition, pouring into your eyes the moment you open them. And like Alex DeLarge strapped to a chair with our eyes pried open, we stare down the torrent of hope and misery and joy and pain and love and hate and everything in between hoping to be cured of our own boredom, or disconnection, or unmet promises, or hope, or whatever the algorithm tells us ails us.

To Kill a Bluebird

When Musk says “highly relevant ads are actual content!” he simultaneously reduces the term “content” to its most basic meaning (under which spam must also be defined as “content”) and says the quiet part out loud: The only content that matters it the content that makes Elon money.

Musk is out $44 billion. He needs to make that back. Cutting 75% of staff won’t make a dent (though deep cuts are inevitable). The only meaningful revenue stream Twitter has at the moment is advertising. For advertisers to want to be on the platform, content moderation is necessary. Thus his other promise in the aforementioned inaccessible-text-in-pictures tweet directed at advertisers: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

The free speech absolutists on the far right are unlikely to see their unmoderated dream app; not because Musk doesn’t want it, but because the only thing that matters to Elon is Elon making his money back. Instead I predict we’ll see a Twitter leaning harder than ever into Surveillance Capitalism, a doomed subscription model (leaks from internal meetings claim Musk “wants subs to be 50% of revenue at some point”), and creator-based advertising spec work, aka “the Creator Economy.”

Considering Twitter was already struggling to catch up with the new social media giant TikTok before he had an itch to scratch and randomly said he’d buy the platform, Musk and Twitter now have to weigh the need for an active user base agains the need for quick and large revenues.

In the short term, a cynic like me points squarely at the upcoming US elections and predicts we’re about to see the floodgates of political advertising open to the max. In the long term, Twitter will succumb to the full-bore ultra-capitalist model of its ilk where creators are encouraged to become marketing machines while the platform garnishes most of their profits.

Bye, Bye, Bluebird?

As I write this, my Explore page shows terms including “CEO of Twitter,” “free speech,” “mastodon,” and “delete” trending. On the app as in the real world the app presides, the takeover of one of the biggest global communication platforms by an ultra-rich oligarch whose modus operandi seems to be playing troll to the masses to make a profit is the rage inducing trend du jour. Journalists, scientists, and creators are setting up new accounts on other apps including TikTok, figuring out how to migrate their followers to the federalized Twitter alternative Mastodon, and screaming their Medium and Substack and WordPress links into the void hoping the world will continue to hear them should they be kicked out of the bluebird’s nest.

So is this the end for Twitter? Should we all delete our accounts and move our oversharing elsewhere? As I’ve explained before in relation to the ever resurgent #DeleteFacebook trend, until we’ve built suitable alternatives, being able to step away from these commercial apps turned critical infrastructure is a sign of extreme privilege.

For better or worse, Twitter is the place people turn to for news and information in a crisis. TikTok is too video-heavy for quick communication. Facebook is too … Facebook. When protesters flood the streets in Iran or Berlin or Hong Kong or Minneapolis, Twitter is their platform of choice for rapid dissemination of information. When a hurricane, or earthquake, or war, or insurrection or coup strikes, Twitter is the first place for immediate breaking news from citizen and professional journalists. When researchers want to know how disinformation spreads and transforms the populace from people who are in it together to people who will rather let you die than have to wear a mask, they turn to Twitter’s robust APIs and data discovery tools.

Take it from journalist and author Sarah Kendzior: “Twitter is a hellsite that also houses a vital time-stamped chronology of state corruption. It shows who know what and when, and gives some insight into why. Chronology is an enemy of autocracy. Altering Twitter is altering history, and that’s the appeal to autocratic minds.

I am not leaving Twitter (yet), but I am preparing for a future where Twitter no longer plays a meaningful (if destructive) role in my life, making sure all my eggs are not in the bluebird’s nest if you will (and yes, I’ve taken this whole bluebird metaphor thing way too far at this point. I’m tired, ok?)

I joined Twitter in May of 2008 to explore its APIs as a possible example for a web development book I was writing. The tweets from those early days are as mundane as they are prescient of what my relationship to the Bird App would become. I’ll leave my first Tweet as my last word for now:

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly lynda.com specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.