X Marks The Spot

I’ve been using social media since I found Usenet as a PhD student in the early 1990s. I was teaching at Yale when Facebook arrived from Harvard (one day it wasn’t there, then suddenly it was), I remember the debates about whether blogging was a risk to one’s academic career, and I joined Instagram to follow my kid’s musical activities.

But Twitter has been my online home for the last dozen years. A combination academic water-cooler and a small soapbox when you want one. If you are not a scientist, Twitter may have looked like a source of science news but it also supported remarkably productive conversation between scientists. And it is of course the portal to “Kiwi Twitter”, a loose community tied together by quickfire commentary, word-play, and a fondness for pictures of cats and sunsets. Wordle went viral after it was discovered by local puzzlers, you stand (or at least stood) an even chance of getting a Cabinet minister to reply to comments aimed that their account, and for many people it has been a place that will help them out in a moment of need. And the usual online drama, of course, but the good always outweighed the bad. It’s a little hard to explain if you’re not there, but not unlike Irish Twitter, apparently.

Even if you don’t personally participate you may have heard that Twitter is no longer the place it once was. New owners have arrived and the neighbourhood has taken a dive — the wrong people are moving in and the lights are going out in old establishments.

I’m not a big deal on Twitter but I have a few thousand followers, and just recently it felt that many of them had moved on. So I downloaded my “engagement” data, at least for the last 12 months beyond which it seems to run out. Twitter analytics is one of the many things that is a little broken under the new management. And what I found was that the number of people looking at my Tweets had indeed fallen off a cliff. Maybe I’ve stopped saying as much, maybe the people who used to see my tweets have jumped ship, maybe the algorithm has turned its face from me. Possibly all three. It’s simultaneously nerdy and watching yourself in a mirror as you walk into a room, but here it is…

So I wasn’t wrong. But what happened in August? The one obvious thing that happened is that Twitter became “X” and that icon on our phones is far less inviting than the previous blue bird — if not the actual blue bird of happiness, then at least one that added something to my day. And it seems I am not alone, and every day or so people I admire announce their departures — with their accounts either vanishing completely or becoming what ham radio enthusiasts evocatively call a silent key, the callsign of an operator who has passed away.

Oddly, I feel like I’ve been here before. I was on Usenet for Eternal September when a tsunami of newbies rolled in as the doors of the internet were flung open to those beyond the university and research community. I even remember Canter and Siegel, the first spammers. I never quit, but one day I realised I just hadn’t looked at Usenet in a week or so. Twitter seems to be speed-running the demise of Usenet, both via the withdrawal of those providing worthwhile content and the torrent of nonsense flooding in to replace it.

Unlike Usenet, which was deliberately decentralised, Twitter is of course responding to the whims of its new owner. For all that Musk enthuses about free speech the steady hum of Blue Checked disinformation (the sight of a now-deleted Buzz Aldrin post being followed by a string of conspiracist claims from “verified” users is one of the odder spectacles of 2023) is treating Twitter to a variant of the “heckler’s veto”. Some are actively silenced by unchecked harassment and a barrage of noise drowns out worthwhile conversations — “flooding the zone with shit” — as anyone with $8 to spend gets to float their opinions past your eyeballs and troll-farms peddle misinformation with impunity.

But a decade is a long time in Internet years and Twitter had a good run. For now I am taking heart from an adage from Usenet days; that the internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it. New social media sites are popping up aiming to catch the flavour of the old Twitter while perhaps avoiding some of its weaknesses. None of them are perfect and all will struggle with the risks of centralised control balanced against a distributed quasi-anarchy. Kiwi Twitter seems to be migrating to Blue Sky, while science Twitter seems to be dividing itself between there and Mastodon.* And those who are not making noisy departures (or actively cheering the changes) may be sticking on what is now called X in part because the ongoing spectacle makes it difficult to definitively disconnect.

Me? I’m @rjme.bsky.social — see you there! And who knows, maybe blogging will make a comeback?

* Not actually a new site, and old-timers there are looking at the influx with some apprehension of their own. I am also rjme@mastodon.nz but largely doment; it seems I can’t do more than one or two social media sites at a time.