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In Mild Defense of Twitter in the End-Times
Nerd oracles, normies, and heightening the contradictions.
I made my first Twitter account when I was 19. It was for a job: I worked for Tulane University’s remarkably ahead-of-its time SophieLab, a techno-feminist computer institute that did early, prescient research on how social media was used in disasters (among other things). I was supposed to promote the laboratory’s work in promoted Tweets, and so I did.
But I kept Tweeting.
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I have no clear memory of how I transitioned from Tweeting-for-work into treating Twitter as a nightmare extension of my brain, but it happened very quickly. I moved to Cambodia, and started working in journalism. I started live-Tweeting the Khmer Rouge War Crimes tribunal, just for the hell of it, when I regularly reported there.
Quickly, I made Twitter friends. A social life. Met up with people in the real world. By 2014, I’d met my now-partner of 8 years, after we started chatting about the heroin addiction crisis amongst Vermont lumberjacks. By 2016, it had become unsettlingly clear that Twitter accounted for almost every job I’d ever had.
All this makes me one of Twitter’s deep-sea vent dwelling vent worms. An extremophile who survives, nay, thrives in grotesque and extreme ecosystems and conditions. Because I am a grown adult forged almost entirely in the shitpost fires of Twitter hell.
Where would I be without Twitter? Who would I be? There is only a blank buzzing there, when I try to imagine it. An absence so impossible to contemplate as it is to contemplate a color that only wasps can see. And I do genuinely believe that person might be less interesting.
Like all hopelessly addicted Twitter users, I, of course, hate Twitter. It IS the social network for people who are both too mean and too unattractive to make it on TikTok or Instagram.
But because I am a hopelessly addicted Twitter user, there are many things I like about Twitter. Things it has given me, over and over. Things that I will be sad to lose, as Elon Musk sets Turd Mountain aflame and claims to be surprised that people are running away.
Here are a few of them.
Twitter is at the same time ruthlessly cruel to non-straight-white-cis-men, and a revolutionary way for weirdos to band together to spit in the face of God.
Twitter mirrors the broader Internet in that it has brought with it both revolutionary freedom and a dark mechanism by which the powerful can control and manipulate those they deem to be inferior to themselves. I don’t think that I need to review the horrors that Twitter regularly visits upon everybody who dares to present as anything other than a straight white guy.
They are omnipresent: they’re why I and most everyone else I know who’s extremely online have blocks stretching into the many tens of thousands. I recall the Battledome that was Twitter in the peak-Nazi era stretching from 2015 to 2018, and I’m angry that Elon Musk will almost certainly be stupid enough to bring it back.
But of course, Twitter has also been a truly remarkable way for people who lack institutional power to strike back. Protesters in Iran use Twitter to organize. Trans activists use Twitter to blast out notices about vicious legislation against LGBTQ rights. People who in the very recent past had no platform whatsoever have used Twitter to organize massive followings and to force oligarchs, legislators, and bigots to pay attention to them. We find each other. We piss people who hate us off. We try to take up space in their heads rent-free, space we hope to occupy forever. (Amazingly, sometimes we pull this off).
And everyone has fun trying to provoke Elon Musk into revealing the yawning abyss that yearns to be good at posting and never will be that resides within his soul.
Shitposting goes both ways.
Few phenomena demonstrate how Twitter can make power relations weird more clearly than the NAFO coalition, the band of Shiba-Inu PFP-using shitposters that coalesced not long after the Ukraine War began in May 2022. Their goal was to support Ukraine and to use weird dog memes and mockery to push back against the deluge of propaganda that the Russian Federation had already begun to churn onto Twitter: less than a year later, the Fellas have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
In 2016, after Trump’s election, it felt like Russia had somehow managed to crack the political fake news code, ushering in a new and terrifying era of impossible to counter social media information warfare.
In June 2022, the Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna found himself publicly humilated in an argument with a cartoon dog on Twitter. Then, the cartoon dog people collaborated with St. Javelin to sell t-shirts quoting him to benefit Ukraine.
And then, Ukraine’s official Defense Department Twitter personally thanked the cartoon dog shitposters.
This is a form of progress.
Normies struggle to grasp Twitter’s values to its users - and the value is huge.
Most people do not, as a rule, use Twitter. The normie contingent struggles to understand why anyone would willingly subject themselves, in their free time, to the horrors that lurk within Twitter’s light-blue walls. “Isn’t it full of Nazis?” they ask. “And weird centaur pornography?”
Yeah. Yeah, it is. And yet, we do get value from it. In some cases, immense value. Using just myself as an example, Twitter has been insanely professionally helpful: I’ve used it to form a magnificent professional network, to asnwer work-related questions, to collect information I use in my research and writing, and to find jobs and consulting gigs.
It has allowed me to transform myself from just another rando into the kind of person who people approach at conferences (to my embarassment) to tell me they really like my dumb Tweets.
Twitter is also how I met my partner. I’m not alone there: the freaks who like using Twitter tend to also like each other. I’ve gone to people’s weddings. Whenever I travel, everywhere in the world, I’ve been able to use Twitter to find people to hang out with. Nowadays, I’m using Twitter friends and connections to (quite successfully!) rebuild the ashes of my social life in the wake of peak Covid. At this point, I’ve forgotten which of my friends come from Twitter and which did not. And crucially, that distinction doesn’t matter anymore.
Whenever I am lonely or in a morose mood, I can pick up Twitter and pretty quickly find someone who wants to swap weird spider facts with me. That is a remarkable thing, in our era of ever-increasing connection and crippling social isolation.
Yes, Twitter can make you feel more convinced than any human invention ever devised that you and everything you love is moments away from a painful, hideous death. But it can also make you feel the opposite way.
Twitter is the Weird Oracle.
Yes. I saw Elon Musk’s freshman dorm-esque Tweets about how Twitter is a “collective super-intelligence.” That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about how Twitter is the best tool I’ve ever found for swiftly getting the answer to extremely esoteric questions, from the culinary habits of the Song Dynasty to the medieval use of eels as currency to weird spider identification.
Twitter is a comically shit tool for public opinion assessment (which is what Musk seems to have been implying), because the people who use Twitter a lot are nerdy little weirdos, myself very much included. Heavy Twitter users are a demographic who can, collectively, tell us basically bupkis about what the average American thinks: what they are supremely good at is ferreting out the answer to unusual questions.
For years, it’s gone like this. I’m out with family and friends, and someone summons up a question about, say, parrot behavior or 17th century naval wafare or where one should go to get tacos in darkest Connecticut. “I’ve got this,” I say. I ask Twitter. And lo and behold, I usually get a swift answer from someone who happens to be a world renowned expert on parrot neuroses, naval battles, and New England tacos.
Often, merely asking these questions leads to fascinating conversations. Like when I asked the other day about good introductory books on military tactics: the question swiftly attracted dozens of well-known tactical experts, a huge list of reccomendations, and a bunch of great sidebar discussions among those experts on the topic. Twitter does this sort of summoning-of-the-specialist-nerds stuff like nowhere else on the Internet.
It’s true that Twitter as Oracle works best above a certain follower count, which I completely unscientifically place at “somewhere above 5000.” But even small accounts can often find the right answers from very specialized and very clever people.
I will miss this very much when it is gone. And I am imagining a dark future where Reddit is just about our only option for getting collective feedback from actual humans on the Internet.
Look, They’ll Have to Drag Me Away
Perhaps normal people should leave Twitter, to further tank any vestigial value to advertisers it might have.
But I am not, one way or another, a normal person. I am terminally Twitter-brained. I intend to go down with the dumb ship. (And, as I write this on November 4th, 2022 - after Elon Musk fired half of Twitter - it seems like Twitter may very well sink all around me before I become too fed up to leave).
The truth is, I’m still having fun with Twitter. Hanging out with my friends online. Watching the sun go down over an entire era of social media platform consolidation that we thought would last for much longer, much as we hated the cruelty and disinformation that it enabled.
I’ll be rearranging the deck chairs. I’ll be playing a trumpet right in Elon Musk’s ear. I’ll be dipping into the terrible meme stash I’ve been assembling for well over a decade. There is no escape from this, not for me, and not for Twitter, and not for Elon Musk. And I, perverse as it is, take a certain amount of pride in that.
I do not know what comes next. I take comfort in that.
Yes…ha ha ha…yes!
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