Spring 2009. I’ve seen LiveJournal posts from friends full of updates from a site called Twitter.com. This has been going on for about a year, short micro-updates with things like “Bananas foster day in the dining hall” and “Hour 3 of all-nighter. Two pages in. Not sure what I’m doing.” The inanity of the updates made me dismiss the site as stupid. Why would you want to tweet (another silly term, I thought) something in 140 characters? It could be its own LJ post.
May 2009. I’m experiencing those blissful days between turning in my last final exam and graduating into the worst job market with no idea what kind of jobs to apply to, much less what to do with my entire life. I ditch the idea of grad school. I can apply for math Ph.D. programs in the fall if I change my mind.
What better thing to do in a fit of boredom than to sign up for Twitter and figure out what the big deal is?
So I do exactly that, using the same username you know. I have no idea how my life and the world will change in the coming years.
My first few months of Twitter were mundane. My alma mater gave me a fancy piece of paper, I created the website you’re reading this post on, I applied to job after job after job, knowing I was more qualified to be a math graduate teaching assistant than whatever else people do in the real world but also not wanting to go to grad school right away.
The fail whale made a frequent appearance, a sign that I wasn’t the only person checking out Twitter just to see what it was all about. Sometimes I would refresh the fail whale for several minutes at a time, waiting for Twitter’s return so I could instantly share anything on my mind that wasn’t worth its own LiveJournal post.
The first big thing that happened in my stay on Twitter was the death of Michael Jackson in June 2009. It was surreal, to be honest. Even though I was pretty indifferent to his work, the circumstances of his death and his legacy left Twitter with little else to talk about. All the trending topics (which weren’t customizable by The Algorithm) were devoted to him. It was the first thing that united us all.
Many other things followed.
That year I started following a few NaNoWriMo participants on Twitter for the first time, along with the then-new @NaNoWriMo Twitter account. They ran occasional sprints live on Twitter, using the real-time nature of the platform to connect writers in a way that made perfect sense in November. Discord wasn’t even a concept yet, Facebook groups were barely available to everyone, and IRC was in that awkward phase where it was antique but nothing had replaced it yet.
I made friends. I like to think I didn’t make any enemies, but who knows.
Years passed. Twitter became home. I updated LiveJournal less, which is a combination of LiveJournal’s new ownership, Twitter becoming a better home for fleeting and real-time thoughts, lots of Wrimos also joining Twitter, and trying to turn this website you’re reading now into a more serious platform (which involved getting fleeting thoughts out of my head somewhere). Any one of these not happening may not have led to me adopting Twitter as quickly as I did.
And now a petulant toddler with money is trying to burn it all down.
When talking to friends over the years who don’t interact with Twitter the way I have, the common theme is that they’re not already part of some community that has a home on Twitter. The NaNoWriMo community had a large presence on Twitter for a long time, along with the wider writing community.
But when other people join, they see recommendations to follow public figures and news outlets, a one-way lane to news, outrage, and parasocial relationships. Without an existing community, it’s easy to flounder and not feel at home, and this issue isn’t unique to Twitter. Platforms have tried to solve it with The Algorithm, showing content that feels relevant to you based on some combination of who you follow, who they follow, tweets they like, and a bunch of machine learning witchcraft. The truth is, if you’re on Twitter to talk to a community, you don’t want the algorithm dictating what you see. Tweetdeck is how I’ve kept my sanity on Twitter over the last few years as The Algorithm took over.
The Algorithm is no longer just that. It’s the anger algorithm. We’ve learned that only negativity and one-liners get views and retweets and likes now, and it’s affecting how we communicate outside of Twitter. The Algorithm forces you to see and hear only voices like yours, so no matter what your views are, someone is louder and more negative and less moderate than you. What else is there to do besides out-do those other voices?
May 2023. My 14th anniversary on Twitter has come and gone. Outside of NaNoWriMo, it’s the longest time I’ve been active on one social-like platform.
My generation is used to platform instability. We’ve survived the rise and fall of AIM, MySpace, Xanga, LiveJournal, Flickr, RSS feeds, and too many forums and websites.
(I hear Diaryland, my original diary site, is still kicking but far less active. Bless Andrew, for real.)
Somehow, we still manage to reconnect. Even if we don’t reconnect with 100% of our people, we still manage to find some of them. Heck, I’ve reunited a few folks from past online adventures through my Twitter following. Some of us have kept the same handles. Heck, mine is over twenty years old. Unfortunately, I suspect these reunions will become more difficult soon.
Even when the world became more polarized and real-time over the past ten or so years, largely thanks to sites like Twitter, there has still been a sense of community. Now people are leaving for other pastures.
Twitter is beautiful in its real time content. We can learn about news when it happens, for better or for worse. We can share our observations and feelings in the moment without writing a blog post about it. We can read other hot takes, memes, and questions, both within our niche and outside it, depending on who we follow. And even when we’re yelling at people we disagree with, the fact that we’re exposed to those differing views at all makes us grow, even if you can’t have a nuanced argument on Twitter. I’ve learned so much by just listening to people on Twitter talk about things that I knew nothing about, about human rights and policy, race and feminism and intersectionality and so much more.
The beauty of Twitter is that there’s nothing truly like it. The problem with Twitter is there’s nothing truly like it.
Which means there’s nowhere to go when it all burns down.
Meanwhile, you have to log in to preview a community.
Discord, a chat community that consists of servers and channels, was first widely adopted by gamers and then by many other communities, especially as the pandemic made the world a virtual one. Several of my friend groups use Discord servers as group chats, replacing email threads and group Discord DMs.
There’s one downside: If you’re not already on Discord, it’s harder to find your people. Even if you are on Discord, there’s a hard cap for how many servers you can join. Gone are the days of exchanging AIM names, or getting someone’s AIM name and then messaging them. Gone are the days of previewing a community to decide if it’s a good fit.
This isn’t unique to Discord. Many Facebook groups offer login-only access, and more and more websites block or limit content if you’re not logged in. (Looking at you, Instagram and Pinterest.)
While the walled garden of communities creates more barriers for trolls and spammers to join, it also creates barriers for curious folks who just want to know if a group is a good fit for them. It creates a wall of thought. Do you really want to create an account to take a peek, or do you want to just… not?
The NaNoWriMo forums are a curious case here. The login requirement to access the forums was enforced once to reduce the spam. Then it turned out people liked it for the privacy. Now Discourse uses authentication to automatically log you into the forums when you’re in the NaNo site, and removing the login requirement means you’d have to log in twice, once for the main site and once for the forums. But at least you can preview the main site.
For some communities, Twitter is the main home. Black Twitter comes to mind. Activists. Protestors. Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter would have had a much harder time gaining momentum without Twitter. All of them came together by the real-time nature of the site and created homes and movements that changed the world.
But with the good things comes the bad. Attempts to dismantle democracy. Another petulant toddler becoming the biggest internet troll in the Oval Office. The Algorithm forcing you to see and hear only voices like yours, so no matter what your views are, someone is louder and more negative and thinks you’re not active enough.
I miss online forums where we can agree to disagree and actually have long-form discussions. The Algorithm of the world has changed our brains, where we see the world as “Us vs Them” on every issue. In some cases this is rightful (just let trans people exist peacefully, y’all). In other cases there’s room for discussion, and that nuance no longer exists. On a small scale and a large one, it’ll take a long time to repair this damage. Sometimes I envy my friends who aren’t extremely online.
What now? I don’t know, but I know none of these Twitter alternatives are the one solution. For once, sticking to a lifelong username may be one of my smarter choices. See you… somewhere.