Twitter is Dead
a eulogy to a monster
Before I express what I would like to say, I need to caveat this piece. No socialist assessment of the situation surrounding the protracted demise of this social media giant should fail to foreground an expression of solidarity with its employees. I have few positive things to say about Twitter, but whatever was good about it, even in potentia, was so entirely thanks to the efforts of those who were exploited to bring it about.
The cults of CEOs (for example, the sad alienated personalities of Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, for whom incomprehensible human suffering is permitted to allow lifestyles that nonetheless seem to offer them no especial joy) obscure a single crucial fact. Nothing substantial, nothing whatsoever, happens in this capitalist world without hideous human exploitation, resulting in untold and too often unheard abuse, being its material basis.
Having said that, Twitter’s death, still ongoing, and quite possibly proceeding a longer period of undeath, is an unalloyed good. I have written extensively about Twitter as a medium, and in some ways the way in which these Web 2.0 mediums fold the focus back on themselves as intractable problems is just one of their many hideous consequences.
During my writing I have dithered back and forth on the question of their overall malignancy and benignancy. As a marxist I hope that I am somewhat trained to spy out the two-sidedness of such things, but having previously forced such a perspective on myself I have slowly come to the view that web 2.0, never mind the dumpster fire that is the bird app, is not two-sided.
There are two prominent examples on the left of arguments for something like Twitter contributing some level of social good. Both are really variations on the same point. The first is to point to social democratic radical movements that have made use of these tools to promote outsider parliamentary candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. This argument ignores the abject failure of such movements, and the socialist demoralization they have left in their wake.
The second argument is subtler, it argues that the marginalised, especially the geographically dispersed marginalised such as queer people, benefit from such mass forums. But again, this crucially ignores how fundamentally alienating online connections frequently prove, and the emergence of so-called tenderqueer/puriteen subcultural groupings online, whereby very young people adopt more and more cishet conservative attitudes within the queer community, is highly correlated to the failure of the internet to provide spaces of radical cultural transmission.
(We see this more widely in the online flourishing of Stalinism, a bizarre resurrected cult to counter-revolution, but also in the online flourishing of reactionary anti-trans radical feminism, the violently misogynistic manosphere, the alt right, and so on and so on and so on. In the 90s millennials, at least in the anglosphere, had tentatively seen off such forces within the mainstay of their generational catchment, and now these fascisms and bigoted hate cults return in “too online” variants, aligning atomised and traumatized Gen Zs with petit bourgeois boomers in the legacy media.)
All of this comes down to a neatly summarized point made by Richard Seymour in his book The Twittering Machine. He argued that such social media, because of the way in which they marshal extremes of writing around sensationalist, microcelebrity orientated, attention economies, supported by the much-dreaded algorithms but a far broader online infrastructure and its interactions with the offline world, is incipiently fascist. As Musk welcomes Donald Trump back onto a Twitter seeing massive spikes in hate rhetoric, Seymour’s words are prophetic. Thankfully, however, the degree and speed of the horror seems to have also killed this platform.
Musk himself is a perversely poetic executioner. So much coverage has talked of his predatory takeover bid in terms that make him sound like an external virus that hooked on and captured an otherwise healthy organism. If my essay so far has not conveyed a forceful rejection of the premises of this viewpoint, I have not done a particularly good job characterizing my perspective. In fact, Musk, whose social positionality as a billionaire predisposes him to levels of dangerously disorientating and unhealthy disconnection from humanity, was a monster cultivated by Twitter itself.
That is, Musk learned to love the attention of an adoring cult to his alleged genius on this space, and his hubris, which has seen him make business decisions in the past that defy all sense and his company’s interests, is very much of the “too online” type. Twitter played Frankenstein to this monster, and that story has its own logic and trajectory we now see play out in real time.
So Twitter is dead, or at least dying, what next? In an article I wrote for the A*CR some time ago, I suggested the emergence of what I called Carnivalesque Capitalism with the oncoming merging of social media with virtual reality (and, likely in the not too distant future, augmented reality) technologies. It is tempting to say that with the (to date) failure of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta project, whereby he has consistently failed to eclipse even quite niche alternatives such as VR Chat either in delivery or take-up, this was premature of me.
I do not agree. The Metaverse has not succeeded, and presently social media (represented chiefly by Facebook and Twitter) is in a welcome decline. But the technology has all the potential to do exactly as I predicted, and to create mediums with a much greater potential to alienate and distort humanity than even the platforms we are now seeing in their early death throes.
Better options will surface, too; Mastodon is not perfect, but as a parred down microblogging website that excises word searches and quote tweets (capacities used to mostly toxic ends on twitter) it shows a bit of promise. But social media does not exist in a vacuum. The context that defines it is a ruthless internet rentier economy of advertising and subscriptions, itself intimately tied to a moribund capitalism in a long-term profitability collapse overseeing a warring world it is poisoning and burning.
The point is not to lose hope, but to seize every moment and reject the allure of passivity. An allure the contemporary internet largely makes that much more alluring. The death of Twitter is a good, but it is not enough. We must engage with the internet not as solitary individuals, but organised into democratic class-consciousness, with a capacity to resist the designs of present and future monsters. If we do not, I maintain that the death of Twitter (and even Facebook) is but the grotesque beginnings of a Carnivalesque Capitalism the “innovators” of old (the likes of Zuckerburg) could not sufficiently grasp to become its architects.
To conclude my eulogy, since that is very much what this essay amounts to, Twitter is hopefully passing into the same internet afterlife that once claimed the (in my opinion far superior) corpse of MySpace. It was a foul thing, with any formative suggestions of potential quickly squandered. There are no kind parting words to give to the medium I most associate with prejudice and the narcissism of petty-minded egomaniacal opinion columnists and pseudo-journalists, who sacrificed so much of the fourth estate’s already scant credibility in their love-hate relationship to it.
Goodbye Twitter, you will not be missed.
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