Mugged by Musk

I intended this month’s column to be a cold exploration of how social networks die. The internet’s old enough now to offer rich precedent: Friendster killed by Facebook swallowing its ecosystem; MySpace throttled by the dread hands of Rupert Murdoch in an ill-fated attempt to capture youth; Bebo assassinated by an AOL acquisition; Vine bolt-gunned in its prime by execs who didn’t understand it; Google+ simply dead on arrival. 

The demise of a social media site can be slow: Facebook is now in a long death spiral with Mark Zuckerberg an online Ozymandias obsessed with building a metaverse that no one wants. Or its extinction can be grotesquely quick: Elon Musk seems determined to euthanise Twitter with the poison of his sheer ignorance. The risk of writing this for a print deadline is that by the time the ink is dry, the final collapse may already have happened. 

There’s a good chance you have neither heard of some of the services I’ve mentioned nor used them. To the TikTok teens, Facebook may as well be a mausoleum. Conversely, many older internet users find TikTok’s endless stream of short videos – a world with a finger permanently fixed on fast-forward – to be the unbearable creating the unwatchable. To the outsider, social networks always appear inscrutable and banal: clubs enthralled with their own customs and lore.  

The hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of words I have poured into Twitter over the years could have been dedicated to articles or books that might last after my own death. Instead, they are mayfly moments, now either deleted by the automated service I have set up to save myself from future embarrassment or held hostage by Musk, the billionaire who appears to have bought Twitter to pull off its wings and watch it squirm. 

It’s easy to look at those who have been obsessed with Twitter over the years and wonder why. (What I did in that sentence was a bit of distancing to pretend I’m not talking about myself.) But the word we should focus on is “social”, not “media”. The power of these sites when they work is that they give anyone the opportunity of connection. All sorts of odd connections, some devilish and some divine. I met my wife because of Twitter. I heard the news of three separate friends’ deaths as a sparse scattering of words among a stream of links, jokes and disconnected daily updates on Twitter. 

It was about 2am on 19 April 2019 when I woke up, picked up my phone to check the time, and saw that my friend Lyra McKee had been shot and killed in Derry. She was a “real life” friend by then, but we had met first through gossip and jokes on Twitter, the public chat soon moving to the hushed private space of direct messages. If hearing about your friend’s death can ever be “appropriate” then hearing about it on Twitter was the closest it could get.

When I saw the news that Musk was mulling over deleting inactive Twitter accounts, I first thought of Lyra then another of our mutual friends – also taken too early – the ferociously funny and furious journalist Dawn Foster, who died in July 2021. 

The continued existence of their Twitter accounts doesn’t allow their friends and loved ones to pretend they are still with us, but the things they said there feel so alive. I’m writing this on the eve of the World Cup and Dawn’s final display name (“The Poisonous Euros Atmosphere Fan”) still makes me laugh. Lyra’s last tweet (“Derry tonight. Absolute madness.”) with its image of a police Land Rover in the foreground and smoke in the distance is a reporter’s instinct caught in amber.

My experience is not unusual or an outlier. Real friendships and relationships have been born of time spent on Twitter; careers have been built and destroyed there. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is the Old Testament god of the social network in so far as he created it, but it is the users that have given it life. That’s the fundamental mistake Musk has made: he thought he was acquiring a company and some technology to do with as he wished, but he was buying a space where all sorts of communities exist. 

Despite Musk anointing himself “King Twit” and issuing edicts such as changing the site’s verification system to end “the lords and peasants system”, he rules over nothingHe is like a rich kid in high school who believes he can become the most popular boy in school by holding the biggest party, not understanding he can’t force people to respect him, even if they drink his drinks and dance at his disco.

Witnessing what looks like the demise of Twitter hurts because it is the demolition of somewhere I have experienced meaningful beginnings and endings. It is like watching a youth club being torn down or a library burning. One of the stories of the late twentieth and early 21st centuries in Britain has been the theft and destruction of public spaces: the sale of playing fields, the closure of parks, the removal of water fountains and public toilets, the privatisation and gating of roads where once anyone could walk. 

What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter is the virtual version of that and that’s why this column could not be a cold exploration of internet history or business decisions. For those of us who found new kinds of life and new sources of friendship on Twitter, it’s all too personal.

Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

December 2022, Life, Tech Talk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.