What’s happened to Twitter, you ask?
It’s sinking into irrelevance. The same thing that’s been happening to Facebook for four years, only a lot more publicly and a lot faster.
The owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, is spiraling downward, out of control, outside the reach of reason or sound advice. He’s off in Qatar, he’s back in Los Angeles. He’s tweeting at all hours. He isn’t sleeping, and bragging about it. He’s firing off diktats about the new rules on his platform, repealing them, explaining them and then asking what we all think about it. (Also known as: “making it up as he goes along.”) He’s suspending journalists, and then is surprised to be mocked by those who point out the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed champion of free speech arbitrarily squashing speech.
And he’s making polls on Twitter to set major policies, including about whether he should continue to lead Twitter at all. When that survey didn’t come out the way he wanted, he questioned whether bots skewed the results. (Surprising no one.)
In short: He’s loving the attention and hating the attention and is fully, 100% addicted to the attention.
And that addiction threatens to kill his new $44 billion plaything.
For those of us who are pained to watch the swift demise of what had become our public square, the journey of Twitter over the past six weeks is instructive. Twitter was already a place that gave trolls the cover of anonymity and thus often invited the most unkind discourse.
But it wasn’t only that. It was also a place to share joy with strangers, or personal news with friends. It was a place to get recommendations for what to watch on Netflix. To be surprised by unexpected beauty or amused by somebody else’s baby. To get birthday wishes. And for media figures everywhere, it was a water cooler for conversation about current affairs.
Almost none of that is happening anymore. It’s just anger and toxicity about what’s happening at Twitter. It’s all about Elon, all the time.
On Saturday night, there was an extraordinary, spontaneous gathering of prominent media figures – mostly journalists – on Twitter Spaces to talk about the suspension earlier that day of several reporters who had linked or referred to an account tracking Musk’s private jet, including New York Times reporter Ryan Mac and Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell, among others.
The moment was simply stunning. Before the existence of Twitter there would have been no way for such a group to gather and debate in real time. This impromptu panel discussion included former CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, author Walter Isaacson, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, NBC News Washington correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, Semafor co-founder Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulous, tech writer Ben Thompson, yours truly and many, many others. In all, 102,000 people logged on to the discussion – including Elon Musk.
Musk stopped in to briefly cross swords with the so-called offending party, Elonjet founder Jack Sweeney, and then ducked out again. About a half hour after that, someone at Twitter pulled the plug on the Spaces chat and the debate over Elon was cut short. Lights out.
Since then, many media figures have logged off completely. Others, like me, feel deeply conflicted. There’s discussion over whether to stop using Twitter to share news at all, a major decision for a news organization like ours. I’m not ready to give up my account, but I don’t really feel comfortable sharing news on Twitter as I did before. Am I tacitly lending credence to Twitter by using the platform? It’s a habit and it’s hard to break.
Whatever I do personally or TheWrap does institutionally, it’s pretty clear: The site is descending, fast, toward some kind of endgame. And irrelevance.
So, back to Facebook? That too has become more or less irrelevant. Just a short time ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was one of the richest men on earth. He had a media platform that was swaying elections and scooping up billions in profit every quarter. But Zuck insisted Facebook was a tech platform, not a publisher. He did not want to decide what content was problematic; he wasn’t going to be an arbiter of what was true or false or deliberately misleading.
Instead, in the face of the havoc Facebook’s platform was causing to elections in our own country, and the division it was driving in distant places, Zuckerberg opted out. He pivoted the whole company to become about virtual reality. He renamed the company Meta, and poured billions of dollars into that new identity. But that gamble has yet to pay off as the company reported its first-ever decline in revenue this year.
Media, it turns out, is really hard.