I’ve sometimes described being on Twitter as like staying too late at a bad party full of people who hate you. I now think this was too generous to Twitter. I mean, even the worst parties end.
Twitter is more like an existentialist parable of a party, with disembodied souls trying and failing to be properly seen, forever. It’s not surprising that the platform’s most prolific users often refer to it as “this hellsite.”
So I have mixed feelings about what might be the impending takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, whose neural network seems perpetually plugged into the platform. Musk first made an ill-advised move to buy Twitter in the spring. After signing papers with little due diligence, he tried to back out. Twitter sued, and on the cusp of the trial Musk reversed course again, agreeing to go forward with the sale.
It’s far from a done deal — the financing is still uncertain — but Musk appears to recognize that the alternative is potentially embarrassing litigation that he is likely to lose. (Already, the lawsuit has resulted in the release of a bunch of Musk’s text messages, showing many of his sycophantic associates channeling Kendall Roy.)
That means a Musk-owned Twitter is, at the very least, a distinct possibility. I understand why this is, for many on the left, deeply chilling. Musk’s politics are shaped by a fondness for trolling and a hatred of wokeness, and he’s likely to make the site a more congenial place for racist demagogues and conspiracy theorists. Among other things, he’s promised to reinstate Donald Trump, whose account was suspended after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Other far-right figures may not be far behind, along with Russian propagandists, Covid deniers and the like. Given Twitter’s outsize influence on media and politics, this will probably make American public life even more fractious and deranged.
I have a shred of hope, however, that if Musk makes Twitter awful enough, users will flee, and it will become less relevant. I’m usually wary of arguments that declining conditions are a catalyst to progress — contrary to the formulation often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, “the worse, the better,” worse is usually just worse. I’m going to make an exception for Twitter, though. The best thing it could do for society would be to implode.
An obvious question — one my kids ask me all the time — is why I use Twitter if I detest it so much. The easy part of the answer is that it’s useful for my job. It’s a font of breaking news, a way to quickly survey what lots of different people are saying, a tool for promoting my writing, and sometimes a vehicle for contacting sources. It was on Twitter that I learned that Musk had finally agreed, again, to buy Twitter. As soon as this column is published, I’ll post it there.
But more than professional utility ties me to the site. Twitter hooks people in much the same way slot machines do, with what experts call an “intermittent reinforcement schedule.” Most of the time, it’s repetitive and uninteresting, but occasionally, at random intervals, some compelling nugget will appear. Unpredictable rewards, as the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner found with his research on rats and pigeons, are particularly good at generating compulsive behavior.
“I don’t know that Twitter engineers ever sat around and said, ‘We are creating a Skinner box,’” said Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and author of a book about gambling machine design. But that, she said, is essentially what they’ve built. It’s one reason people who should know better regularly self-destruct on the site — they can’t stay away.
Twitter is not, obviously, the only social media platform with addictive qualities. But with its constant promise of breaking news, it feeds the hunger of people who work in journalism and politics, giving it a disproportionate, and largely negative, impact on those fields, and hence on our national life.
It’s true that Twitter can be good for drawing attention to injustice and galvanizing demonstrations, as it did after the killing of George Floyd. But as my colleague Zeynep Tufekci showed in her book “Twitter and Tear Gas,” while social media helps leaderless movements coalesce quickly, the absence of a real-world organizing infrastructure can fatally undermine them. That’s one reason, as The New York Times recently reported, mass protest movements “are today more likely to fail than they were at any other point since at least the 1930s.”
Twitter is much better at stoking tribalism than promoting progress. According to a 2021 study, content expressing “out-group animosity” — negative feelings toward disfavored groups — is a major driver of social-media engagement. That builds on earlier research showing that on Twitter, false information, especially about politics, spreads “significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth.” Trump was almost certainly right when he said that without Twitter, he wouldn’t have become president.
The company’s internal research has shown that Twitter’s algorithm amplifies right-wing accounts and news sources over left-wing ones. This dynamic will probably intensify quite a bit if Musk takes over. Musk has said that Twitter has “a strong left bias,” and that he wants to undo permanent bans, except for spam accounts and those that explicitly call for violence. That suggests figures like Alex Jones, Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Greene will be welcomed back.
But as one of the people who texted Musk pointed out, returning banned right-wingers to Twitter will be a “delicate game.” After all, the reason Twitter introduced stricter moderation in the first place was that its toxicity was bad for business. Back in 2016, Disney came close to buying Twitter, but was ultimately put off in large part by the harassment rampant on the platform. “Disney’s discomfort with abuse on the site indicates that it’s a larger problem for Twitter’s business prospects than its executives imagined,” reported Bloomberg.
If Musk moves Twitter in the direction of right-wing sites like Gab, Parler and Truth Social, he might attract some new users, but at the price of repelling others. Already, Twitter user growth has slowed, and as Musk pointed out when he was trying to get out of the deal, many of its top accounts don’t post much. For A-list entertainers, The Washington Post reports, Twitter “is viewed as a high-risk, low-reward platform.” Plenty of non-celebrities feel the same way; I can’t count the number of interesting people who were once active on the site but aren’t anymore.
An influx of Trumpists is not going to improve the vibe. Twitter can’t be saved. Maybe, if we’re lucky, it can be destroyed.