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If Twitter Fails, They’ll Be Free

The literary critic Fredric Jameson once said it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what about Twitter?

Over the past 15 years, the microblogging service created a remarkably durable digital forum — and within it, a new kind of internet addict, who consumes the world in 280 characters or less, all day long. (A few of them even admit they have a problem.) Now, amid the chaos of Elon Musk’s early run as chief executive, some of them have started to conceive of the previously inconceivable: the end of their Twitter dependency.

“If it was gone, I think we’d all be better off,” said Ben Ritz, the director of the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank. He estimated he uses Twitter three to four hours a day.

“I would have a lot more time in my life,” said Molly Jong-Fast, the Vanity Fair special correspondent and liberal media star.

“What if it did just implode totally?” said Jesse Singal, a journalist and the co-host of “Blocked and Reported,” a podcast about internet controversies, who has himself been the subject of Twitter controversy for his writing on transgender issues. “I think I would feel a sense of relief. It would resolve my own tortured relationship with it by default.”

Founded in 2006, Twitter quickly became a hub and a stage for, among others, journalists, wonks, academics and politicians interested in up-to-the-second news and commentary. Many joined out of a sense of professional necessity, as the platform was a place to stay current and build an audience. Soon, vernaculars, inside jokes and etiquette particular to Twitter drove users to stay connected, lest they fall behind. Over the years, some of those people started to visit the site more and more — and then more often still.

“I have a constant thought in the back of my mind that I need to check Twitter,” said Matthew Donovan, a host of “Neoliberalhell,” a popular podcast about left-wing politics and internet culture.

During the Trump years, as President Donald J. Trump came to dominate the platform with his unfiltered style and relentless pace (he tweeted more than 25,000 times during his four-year term), some Twitter users found themselves with shortened attention spans, unfinished to-do lists and annoyed family members.

“I walk my parents’ dog with them,” Mr. Ritz said. “And when the conversation stops, I check my phone. They’re pretty unhappy with it.”

Ms. Jong-Fast, who has built a million-follower audience on the platform, said she was so fused to Twitter that she couldn’t escape it, even when she was resting.

“At one point, I closed my eyes and I could see the graphics of the site,” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “It’s burned into me.”

Twitter’s potent brew of breaking news, social competition, professional jockeying, wisecracking and personal abuse has always been an acquired taste, even for the most prolific users. That it may not to be healthy to spend so much time on Twitter is a frequent topic of conversation on the site itself. Long before Mr. Musk took over as chief executive in October, joking about the platform’s being a “hellsite” had been one of the telltale signs of a hopelessly addicted user.

For some, what’s good about Twitter — instant access to the thoughts of millions of other people — is also what’s bad about it.

Journalism, said Dylan Matthews, a senior correspondent for Vox, “can feel like yelling into the void. What’s specifically addictive about Twitter is it tells you what the void thinks.”

But, he added, “I don’t think man was meant to have hundreds of people yelling at them at once and survive psychologically.”

Even by the masochistic standards of many longtime Twitter users, Mr. Musk’s reign has been trying: He has — erratically — reworked the site’s verification system. He has suspended some journalists, only to reinstate some of them shortly after, and opened some of the company’s internal emails up to others. And he has seemingly left significant decisions about the direction of Twitter, including whether to allow previously banned accounts back on the platform and whether he should remain as chief executive, up to simple polls on the platform.

Among the users who were banned before Mr. Musk’s purchase who have returned to Twitter thanks to the “general amnesty” plebiscite is Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. (Mr. Musk separately reinstated Mr. Trump, though he hasn’t resumed tweeting.) Thousands of Twitter staff have either been laid off or quit, leading to speculation that the remaining work force is no longer big enough to sustain the site long term.

Many of the site’s most loyal users are now considering the idea that the platform could lose its status as the central hub of digital media.

Mr. Matthews, who is concerned about Mr. Musk’s suspension of journalists’ accounts, also considered an intriguing prospect: “Maybe I’m the kind of journalist who could get banned, too,” he remembered thinking. “And maybe that would make me happier?”

Many users remain on the app, waiting to see what happens. Quitting, for them, feels awfully final and extreme given how fast the environment is changing. On Tuesday, Mr. Musk said he would resign as chief executive once he found someone to replace him.

Micah Musser, a research analyst at a think tank in Washington, D.C., said that even though “it feels like the site has gotten a lot worse,” he still hadn’t left. “But it would be good for me, personally,” he said.

Indeed, power users find Twitter notoriously hard to quit. In July 2021, the writer Caitlin Flanagan published an essay, “You Really Need to Quit Twitter,” in The Atlantic; as of today, she remains on the platform. And many of the prominent Twitter users who have created accounts on alternatives like Mastodon and Post are still active on Twitter. (Mastodon has a reputation for being difficult to use, and both it and Post face the major obstacle of any Twitter challenger: inertia among users.)

Mr. Singal, who has previously quit and come back, has deleted the platform’s app from his phone as a first step.

“If I was more mature or psychologically healthy, I could drop it completely,” he said. “But I get dragged back into fighting with people, which is totally futile.”

Still, for those who think Mr. Musk has already taken, or will take, the platform past a point of no return — and can’t yet muster the will to leave — there is at least one success story.

Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and the author of “How Fascism Works,” was for years a fixture on the platform, where he tweeted frequently about what he viewed as threats to democracy. Along the way, he said, he became addicted.

“I can’t let go of an argument,” he said.

Mr. Stanley said that after the 2016 election he quit Facebook, which many liberals argued had played a role in Mr. Trump’s victory. When Mr. Musk bought Twitter, Mr. Stanley said he had similarly negative feelings.

“I’m on Twitter to talk about democracy, and if it’s not going to be that, I have no excuse to be in this kind of sad space,” he said.

Mr. Stanley quit in early December. He said it was easy. Among the benefits: His children no longer draw pictures of him with his phone in his hands.

“Being connected to my family is the first, second and third most important thing,” Mr. Stanley said. “More important than American democracy, even.”

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