I spent a lot of this weekend glued to Twitter, camped out on the timeline of tech journalist Kara Swisher (1.4 million followers) as she dished eye-popping details of the chaos at the social media company.
“From ad tweep who knows: the drop-off is mostly self-inflicted,” she wrote at the start of one short series of tweets that detailed how Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the brand new owner of Twitter, had been unable to reassure jittery advertisers.
Just a few hours before, Musk had admitted a “massive drop” in revenue, but had blamed “activists groups” who were trying to destroy “free speech in America.” Then, he promised a “thermonuclear name and shame” for companies that decide to not advertise on Twitter.
But it’s not just advertisers who are fleeing Twitter. Users are as well.
My media colleagues and I have seen our follower counts drop over the past few days, between 100 and 200 people. This is in sharp contrast to the steady follower growth we normally see, and we’re not alone.
Bot Sentinel, which tracks problematic activity on Twitter, has “observed an uptick in people deactivating their accounts and also Twitter suspending accounts,” according to the MIT Technology Review.
Bot Sentinel estimates that 877,000 accounts were deactivated between Oct. 27, when news that Musk’s purchase of Twitter was complete, and Nov. 1. Another 497,000 were suspended during the same period. Not enough to make a dent in the platform’s active user base of 237 million, but a big hit in five days. Bot Sentinel calculated deactivations were about double the normal rate, according to the MIT Technology Review story.
Twitter was always heavily used by journalists, and by readers who use the platform to follow the journalists and news outlets they trust. But it’s been taken over by a man who’s made it clear he doesn’t have much time for journalism: in his very first message to advertisers as Twitter's owner, Musk wrote there is “great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.”
Then he blamed traditional media’s “relentless pursuit of clicks” which, he said, have “fuelled and catered to those polarized extremes.”
On Oct. 30, Musk tweeted a link to a site that was pushing a homophobic and entirely false conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Nancy Pelosi. When the New York Times wrote a story about the tweet, Musk mocked the newspaper, calling it “fake news.”
If you’ve worked at a struggling legacy newspaper or at a tech company that didn’t manage to become a unicorn, Musk’s style of management seems eerily familiar — but the level of destruction is supersized, the bad decisions monumental. There was a moment where I realized that Twitter’s official Twitter accounts hadn’t posted anything in weeks (the socials team was fired, of course). Instead, all official company news seemed to be coming from Musk’s own account (114.9 million followers), along with Musk’s habitual shitposts and middle school-level penis jokes.
As Musk created more havoc by firing half of Twitter’s 7,500 staff so indiscriminately that the company later asked some to return because they were needed to build features Musk wanted, the Associated Press reminded readers that Musk had downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic in its early days and opposed banning former president Donald Trump from the platform for inciting violence prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Over at NBC, Ben Collins, a reporter who covers “dystopia” (his description) reported that the layoffs at Twitter would likely hobble the company’s ability to deal with misinformation during upcoming midterm elections in the United States. On Monday, Collins tweeted (yes, we’re still all on Twitter, I guess, for now) that a meme Musk posted on the platform on Sunday just happened to feature a Nazi soldier.
On Oct. 28, the capricious Musk tweeted “comedy is now legal.”
On Nov. 6, comedian Kathy Griffin was suspended from Twitter, “the same day she changed her page's title to ‘Elon Musk’ and mocked the new CEO,” according to NBC.
There are a lot of articles floating around right now, usually featuring established writers, who talk about how going viral on Twitter helped them get noticed by a big editor, or make the connections that helped them land a job at the New Yorker or whatever. Inevitably, these writers are now musing about quitting Twitter.
Apologies to any Canadian writers who actually had this experience, but most of the local journalists I know are toiling, in a very non-famous way, to bring you accurate news from your local city hall, homeless camp or picket line. For us, Twitter has been a helpful, but not exactly life-changing tool.
I like connecting with my readers and people who want to tell their stories, and being on Twitter helped me become more confident as a journalist when I was starting out. It’s probably helped me get jobs, and I sure have found a lot of interesting things to read — as well as many time-sucking distractions.
But there have been downsides. When a former colleague wrote about trans rights issues, she had to avoid using the platform for a few days as abuse flooded in after she tweeted a link to her story. After I mistakenly reported in 2017 that former premier Christy Clark had never marched in the Vancouver Pride Parade — based on information her own party sent me — I got caught in a Twitter outrage spin-machine, with one user suggesting I get a job as Trump’s press secretary (you know, because I’m so good at writing fake news). I learned a valuable lesson about double and triple-checking every piece of information that day.
And during the convoy protests of 2021, two colleagues who responded to my tweet documenting harassment of a journalist during a protest in Vancouver were threatened with violence or received antisemitic messages.
Is there life after Twitter? Of course. I’m currently exploring Mastodon, a social media site created by some nerdy idealists who wanted something like Twitter, but thought “maybe it should not be in the hands of a single corporation.” I don’t use Facebook much anymore, but Instagram offers a lot of different ways to tell stories. If I’m looking for a mix of things to read, there are email newsletters of all types I can sign up for, and get my suggestions once a day or once a week instead of in a continuous, addictive thread.
And for people who want to retain a record of their tweet history, it’s possible to download everything you’ve ever tweeted.
For now, I’m still on Twitter. Breakups are hard.