A bird out of hand: why Twitter is fundamentally and fatally broken.

This is harder for me to say than it should be: I am not liking Twitter lately. I mean, I’m really not liking it. I’ve given some thought to leaving the platform, which is a big decision because, as a blogger and a writer, Twitter is my primary outlet for publicizing my work. I’m basically not sure what to do about it. But I am sure of one thing: Twitter sucks, and it has devolved a great deal since the time I joined it. I thought it was worth at least talking about the reasons for its decline.

This is going to be a long read. Bear with me.

I would say that Twitter is where I spend virtually all of my social media time. I have a Facebook, but I’ve always regarded Facebook as something like nuclear weapons: you don’t really want it for its own sake, but you’re at a disadvantage if all your friends have it and you don’t. In August 2008, when I first joined Twitter (under a previous account than the one I have now), it seemed like a terrific alternative to Facebook. I still remember the very first person I followed on Twitter. It was not a celebrity. I was curious to connect with fellow heavy metal fans, and when I searched for metal-related tweets, this guy was the first one who came up. I still follow him today. I once met him in person. We had lunch together at a sushi joint. He’s a cool guy. That was how Twitter worked on the old days.

This is what Twitter looked like in 2008, when I joined (under a different account than I have now).

Twitter was awesome back then. It was decidedly low-tech by today’s standards. In order to retweet someone, you had to highlight their tweet, copy it and paste it into a new tweet of your own, and manually type “RT” and the person’s handle. Retweeting, in fact, was invented by the users of Twitter, not by the site itself. There were jokes about “Manuel Retweté.” Poor Manuel got killed off by the addition of a button, which admittedly made things easier, but I think there was value in the old system. You did a lot fewer retweets back then because they were much more laborious.

I met some wonderful people on Twitter, people I would never have connected with on Facebook or any other social media platform. Twitter facilitates essentially random connections between strangers, but when those connections blossom into real friendships, it’s a beautiful thing. My friend Karl in Germany, with whom I spent much of the 2014 Wacken Open Air festival, I met because of Twitter. In fact, when he picked me up at the Itzehoe (Germany) train station on the way to Wacken–where we met in person the first time–a reporter from a regional newspaper happened to be there, and we got on the front page of the section about Wacken. The article mentioned as a curiosity that we met on Twitter. Karl is a great friend. I’d be lost without him.

I also did some interesting and, if I dare say, groundbreaking things on Twitter. In July 2009 I created the account CryForByzantium, where I sought to tweet the entirety of Byzantine history, from 330 A.D. to 1453, in 140-character increments. CryForByzantium is now in the hands of a very capable new curator, Michael Birlin, who stepped in to save the account when I didn’t want to do it anymore. CryForByzantium reaches a lot of people. It’s fun and interesting. I’m really glad I did that.

My friend Karl and I met on Twitter in 2013 and eventually met in person at the Wacken Open Air festival the next year. Here we are, on the front page of a German newspaper.

In 2013, before the publication of my book Zombies of Byzantium, I went all-in on Twitter. I changed my approach and started following many, many people with interests in horror and books. I never bought followers and I never used “bulk follow” or auto-follow apps. Each and every one of the people I followed–almost 10,000–I vetted personally, to some degree (even if it was only a glance at their profile and last few tweets). I’d typically follow at least 25 or sometimes 50 new accounts a day, and they were all real people and quality followers. Most followed back. While I never had the reach of real celebrities, my Twitter platform is still pretty considerable. It’s brought me many new readers and fans.

Then came the Nazis. And the Russian bots. And Donald Trump. Not necessarily in that order.

I suppose to some degree the negative elements of Twitter were always there; you just didn’t notice them. I remember one of my first follows in 2008 was a metal guy whose opinion on bands and albums I really liked, and he was fun to talk to. In 2010 he dropped out of sight, his account fallow, for 4 years. (I later learned he was in prison during these years). When he resurfaced, suddenly he joined the GamerGate bandwagon. Every tweet was a howl of rage against Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian intermixed with MRA propaganda. He never tweeted about metal anymore, and was toxic and unpleasant. He later deleted his account.

“GamerGate,” a vicious coordinated attack against feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian (and several others), was the first salvo in the online culture wars that got even uglier during the 2016 election.

Trump was there too, tweeting his Birther shit and conspiracy theories. The night of the 2012 election I remember he tweeted that he thought it was fixed, and it made news–the first time I can recall a tweet being newsworthy. But Trump was just a buffoon then, a reality show host no more relevant to political life than RuPaul or Carrot Top. You could ignore him then.

There were bad days on Twitter. After the horrific Sandy Hook gun massacre I instituted my personal rule: avoid social media on days following gun massacres. The ritual–liberals calling for gun control measures, conservatives shouting about how much they love guns and how much more important guns are than human lives, politicians tweeting their insipid and useless “thoughts and prayers”–was always the same, never productive, and always tragic and infuriating. The sheer number of gun massacres that have happened since then means I’ve missed a lot of days on Twitter.

There was abuse too, even in the fairly early days. One incident stands out in my mind. In the summer of 2011 I posted a single tweet making fun of Libertarian politician Ron Paul, who was then running for President. A Ron Paul supporter found the tweet and RT’d it. The firestorm of ferocious abuse directed my way from Ron Paul’s legion of rabid fans was still going on 26 hours later. This was a result of one tweet. It was nothing like the abuse that became commonplace later, especially for women and people of color, but I got a taste of it then. I thought it was an aberration, and I put it behind me quickly enough. (I continued to make fun of Ron Paul, but thankfully never got that reaction again).

Ron Paul, a Libertarian, was a hopeless long-shot candidate who appealed mainly to fringe interests in his doomed 2008 and 2012 Presidential runs, but he commanded a legion of dedicated followers online. They generally tolerated no criticism of their hero.

All these currents were there, but it seems 2016 was when Twitter really went off the rails. Neo-Nazis seemed particularly attracted to Twitter, and even after GamerGate–which was where Neo-Nazis learned to use Twitter in the first place–the site itself didn’t seem to be very concerned with the rising tide of hate speech. Actress Leslie Jones was chased off Twitter by racist trolls. Her offense? Being an African-American woman who appeared in a movie, Ghostbusters. The virtual lynch mob was organized by Neo-Nazi provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, who was at first “punished” by having his verified status taken away, but was ultimately banned. Still, it was rare to see Twitter act against racists. Disturbingly rare. Don’t even get me started on what happens when you mention on Twitter that you’re Jewish. Twitter’s filters and block lists are at best an imperfect solution. When you have to go searching the web to find a third-party app that blocks images of Pepe the Frog, there’s something very wrong.

The election, and Trump, seemed to bring out the worst in Twitter. In the late summer of 2016, during the Democratic National Convention when Trump attacked (on Twitter) the Khans, the Muslim family of an American soldier killed in Iraq, I expressed outrage about it. I got an @ reply from a guy I’d followed since 2009, and who I used to converse with a lot. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but he had now, in the age of Trump, become a diehard #MAGA groupie and a vitriolic hater of Muslims. I won’t repeat his racist slam against the Khans, but it was pretty shocking. Just before I blocked him I wrote, “I’m disgusted that I ever followed you.” Indeed, I felt shamed, dirty, guilty for thinking, 7 years previously, that this kid on Twitter was funny and cool. There was no indication of racism then, but Trump–or somebody–had poisoned him. I felt so awful, for him, for the sad and hateful mess he’d become, that I dreaded clicking that little blue bird on my phone.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin loves to try to destabilize Western democracies. One of the tactics his government uses is to flood Western social media with agents provocateur.

The anti-Muslim kid wasn’t a Russian agent, but I wound up dealing with some of those too. Before news of Putin’s tampering in our election became common knowledge, I thought it strange that one of my followers, who claimed he was from Macedonia, seemed to speak up every time I said something positive about Hillary Clinton, who I supported for President. This person (?) frequently invoked the bogus email “scandal,” Benghazi allegations and insisted the Clintons had killed people back in Arkansas, a very old conspiracy theory dating from the early 1990s. He was open in his admiration for Vladimir Putin. Another user from Turkey, who followed me, responded to pro-Hillary tweets by mocking my books, my podcast, and my appearance. I blocked him, but I don’t recall blocking the Macedonian. Yet he mysteriously vanished after November 7. Later I read that Russian trolls often pretended not to be from Russia–Greece, Macedonia and Middle Eastern countries were their usual fake origins–and worked from scripts very much like the responses I received.

And then finally, there was Trump himself. Trump does not follow me, nor I him. Yet there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear about his toxic, ignorant and abusive tweets. The news media has made a steady diet of reporting Trump tweets–and almost nothing else. The other day I did an informal tally of how often a Trump tweet was quoted or referred to in the news sources I view on a daily basis. More than half the news stories that came across my news feed had something to do with Trump’s activity on Twitter. More than half! And half of those consisted of stories where a Trump tweet or series of tweets was the sole subject of the article. And, mind you, I’m not seeking out stories on Trump tweets. Even if I were to block Trump there’s no way I wouldn’t see his tweets, over and over again on a daily basis.

Since he became President, Donald Trump has made Twitter his preferred mode of communication. The platform has suffered tremendously for it.

Twitter has essentially become the mouthpiece of Donald Trump–and the louder he is on it, the less the rest of Twitter matters. It’s like we now all exist merely to react to him, whether with outrage, defiance, shock or sadness, or, in the case of his supporters, to cheer his praises and shout down anyone who disagrees. When Trump threatened to nuke North Korea on Twitter–threatening anyone on the platform is a terms of service violation–Twitter promptly changed its terms of service to avoid having to shut him down. Not that the terms of service have ever been enforced. Where were they when Leslie Jones was being attacked? I read an article recently that Trump is worth $2 billion in revenue to Twitter, which is odd for a company that supposedly doesn’t make any money.

Twitter obviously values Donald Trump as a user. It also clearly values abusive Nazis and the Russian intelligence service as users. I’m not so sure Twitter values me as a user at all, despite having been here 9 years, despite nearly 70,000 tweets.

So why should I value Twitter? It’s brought me friends, yes, and it’s brought readers to my books, listeners to my podcast, eyeballs to this blog. But maybe there are other ways to get those without having to feel so…bad all the time.

Twitter has helped me find readers for my books, like this cheerful fellow. But sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the trouble.

In a way this shouldn’t be hard. Twitter is a commercial product, a technological service. Products, especially technological ones, don’t last forever. They break, they become obsolete or outmoded, or people stop using and caring about them and they fade into the twilight of technological and commercial history. Yet there’s something profoundly tragic about how Twitter has become broken, a twisted and hollow shell of the fun and useful thing it used to be. Twitter did not break the way an old vacuum cleaner might. We, its users, broke it. Its broken pieces reflect our collective hatreds, our insecurities, our ugliness, our pettiness. The breakage of Twitter reveals the broken parts of ourselves, our society and our body politic. It’s ugly. It’s hard to face. It makes us feel sad and ashamed, and it should.

Furthermore, Twitter is fundamentally broken. Don’t tell me about new features or filters, third-party apps or code patches that are supposed to do thus-and-so. It’s broken on a conceptual and societal level. We have somehow vaulted it onto an undeserved pedestal as one of the most important fora of free speech in our society. This is why its owners won’t ban Nazis, and this is why lazy reporters just click on Trump’s feed when they want an easy story. But as a forum of genuine human expression, Twitter just doesn’t work. It doesn’t deserve the importance we all think it has. We should treat it like a vacuum cleaner. Instead we treat it like the hilltop where the ancient Athenians built the first democracy. That’s absurd. It’s just absurd.

This is ostensibly Twitter’s mission statement. It rings a bit hollow these days.

I am probably not going to delete my Twitter. It’s too closely tied to the media strategy that I chose–back when Twitter was a much less negative experience than it is now–and it will take time to develop a new one. But I may start to look for ways to start shutting off its taps and disentangling it from my life. I’ll never truly be free of it, not so long as it remains a big, if undeserved, part of the public sphere. But I don’t like it anymore. I’m tired of letting it make me feel bad. It’s time for a change.

The photo of Donald Trump is by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER MICHAEL VADON AND IS USED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS 4.0 (ATTRIBUTION) LICENSE. The photo of Ron Paul is by Flickr user Gage Skidmore and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo of Vladimir Putin is COPYRIGHTED BY THE KREMLIN BUT USED LEGALLY UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS 3.0 (ATTRIBUTION) LICENSE. The photo of Anita Sarkeesian is by Flickr user Anita and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. The header image is public domain. Other photos are under copyright held by me, all rights reserved.
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3 Comments

  1. I decided to join the women’s boycott of Twitter today. However, I continue to enjoy and to value Twitter, for keeping up with the news (particularly in Turkey where I live), and even for making friends, without having to suffer Facebook’s abuse of that term. I enjoyed reading your Byzantium tweets. I stopped using Facebook after the election of Trump: I figured it was immoral to support a platform that accepted no responsibility for manipulating what people saw on it. I didn’t like Facebook much anyway. I have been wondering whether Twitter should be avoided for moral reasons, such as allowing threats of nuclear war by somebody who can realize them. But I personally have not suffered abuse on Twitter, and I have learned a lot from the people I follow. I haven’t understood why people (in my experience) are not interested in Diaspora; any thoughts on this?

  2. I’ve never been quite sure about the correlation between Twitter and sales at my galleries but I’m just so sick of the whole thing that I want to delete. Please keep us updated with any further thoughts you have, particularly any other way of promoting that’s effective.

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