As Twitter burns we must not forget it is people that create social movements, not apps | Samantha Floreani

The Twitter we once knew is dying. While the site is still functioning (for now), the signs of collapse are clear. The value of a social network is its users and the communities they build, so as Elon Musk burns trust and core users leave the platform in droves, Twitter as we knew it seems to be gasping its final breaths, even if the site itself manages to cling to life.

There is plenty to be said about the negatives of Twitter – many users did call it “the hellsite” after all – and about the absolute fiasco that has been the month after Musk’s takeover. But social media is complicated. As the site starts to circle the drain, many are reflecting on what made Twitter so special and what will be missed if it ceases to exist. The final act on Twitter might just be a crowdsourced Twitter eulogy.

In anticipation of the site’s potential downfall, users have begun to post in humor and earnest their farewell messages to the platform. Scrolling through #RIPTwitter, you can observe a collective grieving process, oscillating wildly through denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

There is no denying that Twitter has affected people’s lives on a personal level. For me, it’s led to new jobs, opportunities, and a thriving professional network, despite working from home for years. More personally, it fostered some of my closest friendships, a handful of dates, and even a partner. It’s enabled me to join and help build the Australian digital rights movement; working together to stand up for human rights online. I’m not exaggerating when I say that being on Twitter has tangibly changed my life.

I’m not alone in having these kinds of experiences on Twitter, nor am I the only one now having complicated feelings while watching it burn at the hand of a megalomaniac billionaire. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye to a platform that we all loved to hate and grew to rely on, leaving us mourning our former captor in some kind of bizarre social media specific version of Stockholm syndrome.

For years the dominant narrative has been that all social media is bad – that it is just addictive and harmful, akin to smoking cigarettes. But this overlooks the powerful, democratizing and liberatory potential of social media, especially Twitter. If we zoom out beyond the personal, Twitter has played a fundamental role in shaping and enabling important social movements.

Take for example, Black Twitter, which became a powerful online network of people circumventing mainstream channels to have their voices heard, shaping cultural moments and powering social justice and protest movements on racial justice, gender, and sexual equality. It’s possible to see the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement through the use of the hashtag Since 2013. Recognizing that Twitter was spiraling under Musk, Black Twitter held a funeral for the dying platform.

The #MeToo movement took off on Twitter in 2017, with the hashtag being used more than 19m times over the course of the year. Twitter was also the place where the original movement founder, Tarana Burke, was able to reclaim credit for her work in the face of it being commandeered by white women.

A #MeToo march in California in 2017. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Closer to home, activists including Lyndsey Jackson and Asher Wolf used #NotMyDebt and #Robodebt to collect and share experiences related to the Australian government’s harmful automated debt program. This vital work developed supportive communities for those suffering harm caused by Robodebt, giving them a voice at a time when the government was all too happy to ignore them. Ultimately, it paved the way for Robodebt to eventually be halted and for the current royal commission.

Social media doesn’t create social movements, people do. But more than any other platform, Twitter has played an essential role in amplifying movements and enabling many to build thriving online communities. This is in no small part thanks to many ex-Twitter staff. They didn’t always get it right, but they fought to uphold important rights like the ability to be anonymous online, and grappled with the challenges of content moderation at scale.

null

This isn’t the first time an online space has collapsed. After acquisition by NewsCorp, Myspace crumbled under bad management, politics, greed, and of course, stiff competition. It went from one of the most visited sites in the world to losing 10 million users in a single month. After LiveJournal was acquired by a Russian media company and instated censorship of LGBTQ+ discussions, many users fled to Tumblr, which was once renowned for its progressive community, and seen as a place where identity and sexuality could be discussed openly. In a terrible irony, Tumblr then introduced a porn ban in 2018 and suffered its own kind of death, leaving many people once again looking for a new online home.

None of these spiraled quite so quickly and drastically as what we’re currently witnessing on Twitter. But there is a trend here: people spend years building online communities only to have them ripped out from under them or irrevocably altered as a result of sudden change in policy or leadership. Digital platforms are essential social infrastructure of modern life, and we shouldn’t accept them being dictated by the whims of billionaires. It’s crucial that we start to consider the potential of publicly owned digital platforms.

So where can we go now?

As we move towards the final stage of grief – acceptance – many are looking for the next place to go. Thousands are flocking to Mastodon, which is an open source platform where anyone can set up a server and run a community. Many are also excitedly talking of the potential of the fediverse. Some are turning to other sites like Hive and Cohost. Others are dusting off old Tumblr or Reddit accounts, and revamping email lists and RSS feeds.

Nothing will directly replace what Twitter used to be. Instead of trying to replicate it, or any other failed social media platform, we should take this opportunity to find, create, and nurture other, better online spaces. The potential for virality and amplification on Twitter that supported many progressive social movements is also responsible for some of the worst outcomes of the site. Any new platforms will need to contend with this challenge.

Twitter wasn’t perfect. Most of us would complain regularly about just how awful being there was. But it has also been a powerful tool used by activists fighting for critical social change. At one viral tweet summarises: “this wasn’t just a hell site, it was a hell home.”

Samantha Floreani is a digital rights activist and writer. They are the program lead at Digital Rights Watch

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: