Important vocab first:
tumblr, verb: to misunderstand a network so badly that you fire your core customers on day 1. Not your best customers, but the ones who are connected in such a way that your ecosystem evaporates when they are removed. Also when wordpress buys your unicorn for one penny on the dollar
I am a lapsed social media luddite. After abstaining through the 10s, I joined twitter for real in march 2020, neck deep in nyc covid, because I sensed it had information not available in the news.
This is technically true if you define ‘information’ as muttered 10-word prophecies exhumed from 2014, or meme formats with 36 hour half lives. It is less true if you’re talking about things that will still be true in oh, call it 8 hours.
Rocky beginning. But it’s a language that I learned to read, albeit in middle age, and while I was never fluent, I’m conversational. I know and like some of its classics.
This is an epitaph for the civilization that produced those classics. I’m not the person to write this; I have only been a leaf on a large tree. But twitter is a part of my external brain and it will feel like a phantom limb when it is gone.
This is about what I will lose as an organ to which I have outsourced some of my neurology goes dark.
- Gold teeth and
- What happens when an elephant dies
- Tinker as in des moines
- Too many notes
- Millicronkite exposure
- Appendix: other takes
Gold teeth and
Twitter was not the biggest social network but it was the biggest social network of text1. Maybe that makes it the smartest network. As with all parasitic interactions, a lot depends on whether you have latched on to the neck or the armpit.
It is also inscrutable unless you dip constantly into the stream. A river of anti-lethe, a drug that stops being addictive if you forget to use it for a day. A tower of babel built 40 words at a time. A ladder to heaven made of haiku-length snark shot out of a cannon. If the cannon stops (or if you are busy and can’t keep up), the tower falls.
It provides dense shared context; it’s the densest of the surviving large platforms in terms of how many different authors you can read at once. It’s the most curation-friendly.
Comedy, if you’re lacking context, is very hard to translate, in a way that literal text is not. Mastodon (at least the version I’ve had access to) feels sedate and careful compared to twitter. Jokes on mastodon have to be decoded by scholars like the doctor in nippur. There are too few eyes.
The most online of us are filter feeders, like oysters. They clean the water, convert garbage to a luxury food, and possibly mitigate storm surges I think.2 Once in a while we crack one open and find its injury has been converted to a pearl. (In this metaphor, the shared context on twitter is the polluted water. Dirty water as full employment program for oysters).
Learning to read twitter made me think of New Slang, the Shins song.
I always thought the song was about being kicked out of vegas, but the guy says it’s about trying to return home and discovering that you can’t – about ‘saturn return’3, an astrology concept where in your late 20s you go back so that you can move on. I’m not sure how old twitter is in actual years but in zodiacal platform dog years, what, about 29?
Dense shared context supports rapidly evolving language and allusions, but the other side of that coin is ‘context collapse’, the friction when private languages are interpreted or misinterpreted in the harsh light of day. You could read a danah boyd article about this OR you could just watch comic patti harrison’s 30 second apology for being kicked for abusing her blue check by impersonating nilla wafers.
(More later on fun with blue checks).
It is also a prayer wheel for making brands, and other incumbent powers, look unhip4.
What I’m saying is it’s a giant circulatory system for memes (memes as in motile ideas, not as in photos with text caption). What happens when a giant circulatory system stops?
What happens when an elephant dies
If you’ve watched the nature channel after 10pm, or 1 full metal alchemist episode, or the 2nd season of the WB teen drama Lavoisier, you know that when a large animal dies, its matter and energy are conserved.
This is of little help to the elephant, who is not the beneficiary of a conservation law. Elephants can be created and destroyed, or at least converted into several billion ants plus 0.58 hyenas.
Something I learned on twitter which I think is approximately true is that all coal comes from trees which died before fungus figured out how to break down lignin. If twitter gets shut down and reduced to the training set for GPT-5, this may be some kind of metaphor for future content.
Networks of course have no moral valence, but many of the things I like are delivered via a network. I’m not just talking about podcasts and git repos, but also: safe water, various kinds of climate control, foods fresh + stale, cardboard boxes and what’s inside may surprise you.
Networks also deliver bad things, like 9/11, and so we sometimes try to disrupt them. They can re-form, for the same reasons and under similar conditions as they formed in the first place, but are legit weakened for a while like when one cuts an undersea fiber and one’s internet slows down.
Degrading communication links is in fact a great lightweight way to disrupt networks. In other words, let’s chill some speech.
Tinker as in des moines
Tinker is a free speech case that prevented a school from punishing siblings who wore black armbands to protest vietnam.
It applied originally to on-campus expression. More recently, school districts are trying to apply it to a wider range of places, such as the internet. The interesting recent case is Mahanoy v BL, where a high schooler sent a snap captioned ‘fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything’ and got suspended. How did she get suspended, you ask, if snaps auto delete? Some rat brought in a screenshot.
The rule she was suspended for:
There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet
Not incorporated by reference into twitter’s rules yet, but the tone is spot on.
Speaking of scotus, some frisky ex-clerk triggered new management into promising a nuclear name and shame for advertisers who didn’t renew their ad buys this year. The incentives here are clear I guess, and the methods, while gross, are not exactly novel, and the strategy is probably dumb but also not surprising.
Still, ‘punishing a boycott’ is a fascinatingly bad way to frame your reaction. It is taking the badness of opening fire on strikers, and somehow being so entitled that you project it on your customers. Henry Ford, if he tried to reincarnate on the day the photocopier was low on toner, might talk like this.
The last few years have been such a combination of new weirdness + cyclic history that I often wonder what my grandparents would say. I suspect some combination of liking the authority, hating the tone, and reminding me that ‘in my day the customer was always right’.
Have seen some takes like ‘he’s shutting off blue checks the day of a national election, this is a fascist plot’. (example but there are many. Note also that the company moved this date forward because of criticism and also probably because the new system isn’t working yet). Or like ‘EM seems to want to be a right-wing darling, has murderbot autocrats on speed dial, and has substantial business interests in china, and this move is related to those things’.
A premise of platform moderation is that sufficiently dumb lies radicalize dumb people towards reactionary violence, eating poison, and paying into pyramid schemes. By contrast EM’s take on moderation has been to devote eng resources to blocking his parodies and to lash out at journalists.
‘He bought it to kill it and also expects to turn a profit’ sounds unbearably dumb, but you could view the private equity playbook that way: study how to farm the customers, buy the business, then sell before the customers learn to build their own. But the things PE firms buy are 1) not quite so network-based and 2) they don’t ruin them so thoroughly so fast.
The FT got this quote when bezos bought the post in 2013:
Asked why a crop of wealthy individuals would buy newspapers, Alan Mutter, an industry analyst, says: “I assume they have large fortunes they are trying to make smaller.”
Stupid explains a lot, but hanlon’s razor cuts both ways and it is sometimes hard to tell. It’s troubling that there are people who, either forgetting history or remembering it too well, want to erode this:
Too many notes
I came for the information, but my friends who read a newspaper twice a week are better informed about many topics. I know things 6 to 12 hours early, but the version I know is in all caps and seldom right. Times readers get those checked details.
I stayed because there are some very smart people there. I’m a B and when I talk about having an external brain, it means having access to the thought patterns of As, even if I can’t adopt them or apply them to my life. I’m salieri, but less jealous.
I have not eaten horse paste (yet), committed political violence, or paid into (too many) pyramid schemes. But in my way I’ve been radicalized from my time here. I control the inputs, but this is still a filter bubble. It simultaneously validates and programs my beliefs, an overton hypersphere. It limits what I can see, a self-selected hubble volume. I’m not too smart to be fooled.
Deciding what an A looks like, or sounds like, is part of the process of learning to read a network. For me, they are people who amplify, and sometimes answer, the questions I ask when I read something dumb. (Clarification: this doesn’t mean ‘but her emails’, this means ‘is this monthly or yearly’, ‘where did you find that in the original document’, ‘what is the effect size’).
They also look a lot like Lester Bangs from almost famous: they make their reputation on being honest and unmerciful – and call them anytime, they stay up late. They are not infallible, but they are more careful than they seem, while also completely willing to jump on a grenade if it lets them be first to a joke. They’re replies that outreach the original post.
I don’t know if journalists are the core of the network, in the sense that if you remove them the economic value goes away. I don’t know if the A-brains I’ve curated for myself, who are mostly not journalists, are the core. But I suspect this ‘public square’ argument is approximately right – despite all the sarcasm and entertainment content on there, the fact that there is a core of news keeps the network alive.
Companies like huffpo and buzzfeed which emerged in the 00s talked about the ‘mullet model’, where in dollar terms, entertainment content funds news. But in trust and reputation terms, news ‘pays for’ entertainment. To operate an information service, you need both.
And the blue checks would like to stay but can afford to leave. They mostly make their money off-site, either from day jobs or various substacks and podcasts. Their access to information, which happens more in private rooms than mine, won’t be totally cut off by disrupting the network.
When I think about what will replace twitter, I worry that it was run basically as a public service, and grew organically, and, like a forest, cannot just be replaced. I worry it will be replaced by private rooms which I can’t access. I’ve been trying to port my networks, but what about their networks. The ‘central extended network’ has been sliced up.
Yes, substack + patreon win, yes science has moved to mastodon, yes tumblr gets a boost and post is trying to launch, yes news still works, and ‘IRL is back’. But twitter was the raw version of those – unfiltered, hard to drink, unedited, but a fountain of youth and wisdom if it doesn’t make you crazy.
LBJ probably didn’t say5 ‘if we’ve lost cronkite, we’ve lost the nation’. And twitter isn’t the myth version of cronkite, a single trusted voice – it is closer to the opposite. But using it has helped me to understand what cronkite might have been for 60s american news watchers.
The idea of cronkite is commitment to public trust. Twitter is island gigantism for people who can’t not commit to a gag, but somehow it has turned out that reliable dunking is almost the same as public trust.
What I have seen this week is blue checks, with very little hesitation, impersonating EM by the dozen and getting kicked. The feeling is the same feeling I had in real life in march 2020 – party at the end of the world. Celebration not because there is something to celebrate but because you have no illusions about the platform still being open tomorrow.
Imagine you’ve bought a theater and you walk in shouting ‘fire’ in an attempt to scare the audience into compliance. (Sorry to the 1st amendment scholars who are triggered by this language; I’m not making a free speech argument).
But the theater is a place people go to watch people set themselves on fire, and the audience also lives here and have taken turns on stage. So you walk in and everyone stops and stares as you fumble with a matchbook. Maybe you escalate by saying ‘You’ve never seen the building on fire have you’ and they’re thinking, you’re right, that’s the only thing we haven’t tried.
But that theater is also my brain. Alas.
Appendix: other takes
- this will stancil thread. ‘eyes in a lot places, if it goes we’ll be blind’. ‘institutionally-approved viewpoints’. ‘all the counterarguments and alternative viewpoints are going to disappear’. ‘quality that made elites uncomfortable’
why not facebook? never having had a facebook acct for more than 2 days without being banned (upcoming post), I can’t say for sure, but my sense is that fb is a social network either for family photos or for rage (possibly both). And also for swap meets. ↩
my source for the storm surge claim is probably the 99 percent invisible podcast? or an old blog ↩
minnie is WHAT