You Can Never Go Back to the Old Twitter

The platform’s return to a chronological timeline won't be enough to recapture its original magic.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Twitter is bringing reverse-chronological timelines back. It won’t be the new default, but CEO Jack Dorsey announced that you’ll be able to go back to the simplest way to organize a timeline with a setting change. Uncheck “show the best tweets first,” and out will go the algorithmically shaped experience—tweets from 4h ago, lingering with tweets from 10s ago—and in will come the old rhythm, the newest tweets first.

Reverse-chron was the schema of what was called Web 2.0. For a time everything was reverse-chron (except Wikipedia). Blogging was reverse-chron. Twitter was reverse-chron. It’s the logic of news: put the new up top. But in the Twitter context, reverse-chron also lets people be all together in real time, watching this thing, the Emmys, the game, the dissolution of the republic, the hurricane, the hearing.

That was the original appeal of Twitter. It put the there in the web. Where was the internet happening? Right there, where all these people were processing it together. It could feel like the “internet reacted” all at once, all its peoples hashing it out.

But this was a myth. No such thing was happening, no matter how it felt. Time and again, Twitter has been shown not to be representative of the country’s viewpoints or interests (let alone the globe’s).

It was different in the old days, though. Most everyone seems to agree on this. And maybe it was the mishmash of tweets that randomly passed through the tubes at the same moment that made it so.

Twitter always had a high-modernist novel’s scope—you peer into the boxes, and see someone having tea, a war you should have known was going on, a parent’s take on a 4-year-old, the latest ProPublica investigation, a screenshot of some idiot, a video of a black person being killed by police, an ad for Quiznos, and then Donald Trump tweeting about the television program he’s watching. The stack of information was contextless, traumatizing, and bizarre, but also energizing, the way a city makes you walk faster. It did that, but for your mind.

But Twitter’s algorithm increasingly selected the most popular tweets to show you—which tended to be the ones that made you go “What! Ah! Ooooh! Eff that!” To pull down your thumb was to ingest different (quantitatively proven) emotional cues one after the other, your brain a player piano, simply responding to the notes in the feed. No one meant to build such a machine, but there it was. And it was addictive as hell.

At the same time, the things people said on Twitter became real things. Real historians extensively corrected people’s fantasies about the Confederacy on Twitter. People got hired and fired because of Twitter. Innovative companies’ share prices tanked when their CEOs said weird things on Twitter. And, of course, the president did things on Twitter.

This platform juices us up into strange emotional states, and now, whatever people say or do on the platform has ever-more real-world consequences. “Never Tweet” was born, on Twitter.

Reverse-chron cannot reverse the development of the platform, nor the changes that have come to the world outside Twitter, the high-keying of everything. But maybe reverse-chron will ever-so-slightly push Twitter away from what it became and back toward something simpler. The most potent tweets will not all be stacked together. Twitter could still be the place that surfaces important topics that the mainstream media ignores, but with slightly less emotional whiplash. Twitter could feel less like a battleground and more like a healthy corrective conversation. Poco a poco, change for the better?

Probably not, though.

Over the last few years, I’ve tried everything to make Twitter not Twitter. I limited my usage, turned off notifications, turned off retweets, used tools like Nuzzel to sort links from talk, and culled and diversified who I follow.

Other people unfollow everyone, mute extensively, nuke their accounts, try to switch to Mastodon (or whatever), or simply await the rapture, scrolling.

None of it really does anything to the service itself. It doesn’t return Twitter to the edenic state I remember, and loved, the one that introduced me to new social worlds, brought my attention to important injustices, the one that Kathryn Schulz called “sentences with friends.”

Twitter has become like New York. You love it, you hate it, you can’t leave it, it makes you crazy, it’s getting you down, you leave it. Because the media is all there, and everyone on Twitter sort of becomes part of the media, when you leave, you write an essay detailing the euphoria, the sense of loss, the superiority you feel over those who have stayed, the shrinking halo of relevance that hurts like a phantom limb.

You go back, probably, shamefully re-install it in your mind, tweet a few times to see how many people make fun of you for quitting. But everyone forgot four minutes after you left, so, like, whatever.

For me, as the years have gone by, the specific stories, the jokes, the information, the wins—matter less and less. This haunts me. It makes me recall a line from Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by the MIT scholar Natasha Dow Schüll. She’s interviewing a compulsive gambler at a slot machine, and this woman tells her that she’s stopped caring about winning. “Why, then, does she play?” Dow Schüll writes. “‘To keep playing—to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.’”

Nominally, I’m on Twitter to be informed, to catch potentially useful information, to see the world from other perspectives. All of which happens.

But, emotionally, I’m just on Twitter to be on Twitter. Whatever happened to me over the last 10 years cannot simply be reversed by reverse-chron. In real life, timelines are not so easily rearranged.