The Twitter I Love Doesn’t Exist Anymore
At its best, the platform was a reminder that there are quick-witted and even wise people in the world with ideas to share.
This is a sentimental story about Twitter, a little Twitterbilly elegy. I spilled tears, heavy Patsy Cline tears, for the platform for the first time a few weeks ago, during a walk with Amanda Guinzburg, a writer and photographer I’d long followed on Twitter for her excellent tweets about American politics and photos of libidinous flowers.
Guinz—her Twitter handle—and I had never met face-to-face, but with the arsonous new management torching the platform’s vibe, we had decided to stroll together in Brooklyn Bridge Park and slag Elon Musk. Before Musk took over, you went to Twitter to satirize the high-hats, while also learning and teaching. But Musk seemed to think Twitter was chiefly for propaganda, self-aggrandizement, and enemy-smiting. He never took the time to loiter and banter and approach new subjects with equanimity, curiosity, amusement. Yes, he had long waxed anti-vax and hammered away at edgelord palaver, but what did it (for me, anyway) came on October 30, when he amplified some truly twisted and false cruelty implying that Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, had solicited sex from the QAnon-promoting intruder who cracked his skull with a hammer.
The joy left Mudville. It hasn’t returned.
Today, Twitter feels more expired than evil. The company is worth less than half of what Musk paid when he bought it in October, according to the chief twit himself. The firm Bot Sentinel estimates that nearly 900,000 users, including some celebrities, deactivated their accounts in the week after Musk moved in, and as of January, more than 500 of Twitter’s biggest advertisers had stopped spending on the platform. The market-research company Insider Intelligence predicts that by the end of next year some 32 million users will split, fed up with hate speech and tech glitches, the most visible consequences of Musk’s prodigious layoffs. The people leaving the platform, Insider Intelligence further predicts, will be those unwilling to tolerate a “degrading experience.”
I asked Guinz what she truly thought about the Twitter sunset. She said she wasn’t quite ready to jump to an alternative platform like Mastodon. “I’m leaving it the way I have all my toxic relationships,” she later wrote to me by email. “Slowly, head down, curtseying in reverse toward the door.”
Me too. I had downloaded my tweet archive and deleted the app, but not my account. I had a U-Haul idling outside and was spending nights in my unfinished studio on Mastodon. But I was still returning to tweet.
On Thursday evening, with the news of former President Donald Trump’s indictment, I reflexively popped over to Twitter, the way a person might turn to CBS for March Madness. After all, I grooved in many of my most compulsive social-media habits during that grim interval in American life: the Twitter heyday, when Trump’s bleating presence on the platform made it the only sensible place to track, expose, and gallows-mock his designs on democracy.
The high-water mark for Twitter’s relevance has to have been the Trump-pandemic slough, 2015 to 2022, when, at least for some of us, American “news” and Twitter were one and the same. The news quoted tweets—important figures were forever “taking to Twitter” as if to a pulpit in the sky—and tweets then hashed over the news, and thus gave the news more inches of copy, which in turn gave Twitter more characters. So much quote-tweeting and retweeting meant that the exact same words whipped around in a spinner until “word salad,” a meme of the era, used to mock nonsense by exploitative gurus such as the NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere and Trump, seemed to be more broadly apposite.
In 2018, Twitter even had its first profitable year. It seemed to have found its reason for being.
But that wasn’t the Twitter I missed most. Instead, in reminiscing with Guinz, I cast back further, to Twitter’s early years and the moment when I began to appreciate the fascination of the new microblogging service.
I signed up for Twitter in 2007, shortly after the service had been showcased at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. In those days, you still responded chiefly when you heard your name called: @jack, @ev, @page88. Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, with Biz Stone and Noah Glass, were Twitter’s founders. @page88 was—and I guess still is—me, my middle name and my birthday, August 8. Why did I choose a cutesy handle? Because Twitter looked like a porn shop or a payday-loan place to me, and I didn’t want any of my antics there to get back to my bosses at The New York Times, where I then worked.
In 2009, I found myself at SXSW. The Times media critic David Carr (who died in 2015) was there too—and adept at tweeting. Later, when my mentions filled up with comments on the keynote interview I conducted—and some of them were, let’s say, barbed—David counseled me to remember that Twitter is for twits. For sure. But some of the tweets were funny. At SXSW, the platform was put to use as an expansive but not limitless group text for making plans to get barbecue or see Metallica at Stubb’s (good show). I realized then that I could endure a bit of hazing if it meant I’d get to listen in.
To my surprise, sometime after I got back to New York, a white checkmark in an Aquafresh-blue badge flickered up next to my handle. At first, I worried that it might signal a bench warrant of some new social-media kind. But a top editor at the Times told me it meant I was trustworthy, the way stars indicate that an eBay seller has a good track record. My boss also instructed me to use my real name on Twitter, tag the Times, mix it up with readers, and (above all) keep my voice. The newspaper in those innocent days was aiming for glasnost—or maybe noblesse oblige—when it came to the upstart platform that would later bedevil it. (Musk is set to begin erasing such “legacy” checkmarks today, making them available only to users who buy them.)
Not long after, I discovered an even more vital use for Twitter. I was pregnant in Austin, and a baby soon showed up to go with my existing 4-year-old. I’ve heard that some women are entirely fulfilled by motherhood. But I’m with Rachel Cusk, Kate Chopin, and Elena Ferrante in finding blessed babies maybe not 110 percent intellectually fulfilling. No need to rehash all the feminist truths here, but suffice it to say that I found nursing an infant and chasing a preschooler, while engrossing, not a perfect match for a decent set of wits. Almost everyone who tries this stuff tends to have some intellectual resources sort of left over. For me, that’s where Twitter came in: a sop for cognitive surplus.
While pregnant, I had read books, but now that the new baby had brought its thrillingly condensed biorhythms into the household, life was a bit too fragmentary for sustained concentration. Anyway, I was already feeling internal. My heart was breaking in slow motion, in sync with my marriage. Something unlonesome was what I needed, but also something I could do from a rocking chair; I required a reminder that there were quick and even wise people in the world with ideas, quips, even lectures that would force me to learn something. I was also groaning under the weight of my own caringness, so the connection I sought would need to be bracing, nonintimate, and entirely unmaternal.
One of my earliest tweets, as I recall, was: “If they follow, will I lead?” Why did Twitter give people “followers” and not something neutral, like “contacts”? Later I decided the word was less cultlish than physical. On Twitter, you followed existence with your eyes as the text scrolled on—threads and feeds and trains of thought. The now-familiar user experience has been described many ways, several of them scary (“doomscrolling” in a “cesspool”), but my own experience of Twitter is something I simply call reading.
It was just the tonic I craved in those postpartum days. With educations and experiences different from my own, and areas of distinct expertise, people on Twitter were writing. Reporting what they had seen that I hadn’t. Dilating on what they knew that I didn’t. Even as years passed and army after army of trolls, like something out of Lord of the Rings, charged me with idiocy and worse, I could never see Twitter as sewage or snakes or the apocalypse. The ubiquitous claims that it “breeds toxicity” come with far more fury than metrics, and such claims rarely, if ever, mention the insight, polemic, conviviality, and fellowship the site also bred.
Over time, I acquired navigation skills. With some blocking finesse, I could tune out the threats I got from the far right, and—watch, I’ll screw it up now—I never felt in reputational danger from the left, even when activists criticized points I made about gender or sex work. To discover you’re wrong is to open up the possibility of being right, and being right is great. There was bliss, in those days, in watching someone I’d never heard of unfurl a fully formed aria that mixed memoir, reporting, and data—maybe something about voting in North Carolina, or abortion among Mormons, or the moment apartheid became inevitable in South Africa.
I would give that version of Twitter to the heroine in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story about a woman whom men have confined to a disturbingly ugly room for the crime of having ideas. It was when I told this to Guinz that I started to cry. “I think it could have kept her from going insane,” I said. “I think it saved me from going insane.” Later, I’d imagine sending the Twitter app back fully 124 years, to Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Edna would surely miss Robert less and divorce Léonce more if she knew that she could tweet her analysis of the feminine mystique at @rgay and @pussyrrriot, and probably—she’s Edna Pontellier!—get some superb replies.
And oh how I wish I could shoot Twitter to Olga in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the novel that surely contains the greatest-ever depictions of mothering under pressure. As a source of reality in the form of news, and strength in the form of human contact, Twitter might have been just the thing for Olga. At the very least, she might have DMed a friend to break down her door, bring her a babysitter, and order her a grappa.
The nameless narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” forbidden to work, remarks that if only she could write, she might be able relieve “the press of ideas.” What a great phrase. The press of ideas is what I also felt in my kids’ early years, and a deep curiosity about the ideas pressing inside other isolated skulls.
Fifteen years is an eternity in social media. That lively, chatty, tart-but-good-faith Twitter had an excellent run, but it’s vanished from the app now—gone like my kids’ childhoods, and David Carr, and Trump’s presidency, and the rocking chair for nursing. In its place, as often as not, are heavy-handed tweets from Musk himself.
The good news is Amanda Guinzburg is my real friend now, and even more than the delightful @Guinz, she always gets it right.
In a recent email, she compared the bygone Twitter to Thanksgiving dinner. “Now and then,” Guinz wrote, “you’d get up the nerve to interject an idea of your own or respond to someone else’s, and people at the table would burst into laughter or nod in recognition, and you could take a breath, feeling briefly safe, understood, and not entirely alone.”