As the future wreckage of Twitter skywrites a tale of hubris across the sky, many have chosen — or had the choice made for them — to direct their gaze instead at the horizon, in hopes of seeing some beacon of hope, shining through the bomb cyclone: The Next Twitter! But they are being misled. There is no Next Twitter, and really, truly, that’s OK.
First, though, lest at the outset I seem dismissive of the people who rely on Twitter for their livelihood (freelancers, comedians, sex workers, etc.), I don’t mean that there will be no negative effect on anyone from a valued platform disappearing. Their loss is real, as is that of any other group that ultimately found Twitter to be a suitable tool for their use. I hope these folks find something that works for them.
But for the foolhardiness of a certain high net worth individual, we might have seen Twitter trudge along another five to 10 years, following its peer Facebook’s lazy decline into irrelevance — arrested occasionally by a transfusion of youthful blood via the acquisition of some innovative competitor. Now, however Twitter expends its remaining lifeforce, that future is lost.
With Meta having bet on the wrong horse to the continued detriment of its core products, TikTok ascendant but beginning to lose its gloss and Snap and other also-rans spinning their wheels just to stay one step ahead of the wolves of private equity for another quarter, it seems like an opportune moment to evaluate the current crop of aspirants to social media royalty.
Seems, yes — but isn’t.
Illusion of choice
In the first place, though it is premature to evaluate these platforms strictly on the merits they possess today, it’s not so difficult to see that the so-called alternatives generally suck. Some fall short because they are not like Twitter, some because they are too like Twitter, some for a lack of direction, some for suspect direction. But all fall short, which is only to be expected when they more or less did not choose the moment of their debut. Such platforms are all about timing, and who could have predicted what’s happening now? Relevance has been thrust upon them. I am afraid that, found wanting at the moment of crisis, they will be discarded before achieving real traction.
More importantly, though: Think about the forces in play and, as Carlin pointed out, the illusion of choice being offered. Twitter is going down, so here are the handful of pre-prepared options we have for you to choose from: What if Twitter, but someone makes money off it! Or some other quirk. The important part isn’t the product, it’s getting you to keep making the product with as little disruption to the status quo as possible.
It’s a bit like someone wandering dazed out of the wreckage of their former home and immediately being offered predatory, binding terms on a new one. This is a market opportunity. Is it surprising that moneyed interests are squabbling over the fractured attention economy like fishmongers? (With the greatest respect for fishmongers. The practice is customary on the quay.)
Twitter has pervaded, not to say dominated, the social media world for a decade and the choices that have been made on the platform have helped define and calcify how we think about sharing information. But all things pass and Twitter’s moment has come and gone. Good, I say (though I well might, having been a hater these 14 years. But I rejoice for loftier reasons than shadenfreude).
We are at a moment when the very nature of social media platforms, the basic functions they provide, how they work behind the scenes, how they should be led, funded, moderated — all these things are up in the air. This is an opportunity to shake off the conventions and assumptions we have been told for years are fundamental.
Into the void
But to do that, the illusory choice of rushing to The Next Twitter must be rejected. Twitter was more than a product: it was a moment in time, an unrefined manifestation of digital capability that, like any such raw element, destroyed as often as it created. It was necessary and interesting, but these messy delights have messy ends. To recreate it now, with only superficial lessons learned, would be like rebuilding a fallen castle on the same shifting sands. Watch it sink!
So don’t take the bait. As author Robin Sloan pointed out, this is an opportunity unlike any we have seen in years: an chance for people to actually do something new, to get to work on defining the next era of how people connect, instead of simply extending the previous, familiar one.
I don’t wish for the failure or destruction of these Twitter-adjacent platforms jockeying for position. But also I don’t want eggs incubated in Twitter’s cursed nest to be the ones compassing the limits of our online interactions. Like a rebound relationship, it will be twisted and influenced by the previous one.
Why don’t we all try something different? And I don’t mean a new app. How about no app for a while.
Now, this isn’t a bait-and-switch for me to beat the “let’s all connect IRL” drum. In a time when new ideas and methods are potentially of immense value, you can’t think for yourself and meaningfully create and question if you are doing so within the limits of the previous ideal regime. It’s not a matter of touching grass or having in-person conversations (though both are great), but rather just putting a little distance between yourself and the pen in which you have supposedly ranged free this last decade.
My hope is that people take a few weeks at least to disconnect from these old, patched-up ideas and just do other stuff. Read articles, check in on forums, watch a documentary, go skiing, play a game with your friends — do anything but take part in the Twitter-defined style of taking in and broadcasting information. How can you choose what comes next if you won’t leave behind what came before?
The perspective you develop by doing so can only clarify and improve your thinking on the questions to which social media has claimed to already know the answers. You may see that they never had them to begin with, and that the questions remain — perhaps more interesting than any answer.