The Madness of Twitter

People just can’t stop tweeting about all the tweets they see.

An image of the Twitter logo in a mirror.
Getty; The Atlantic

We are living through the most Twittery moment of all time. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, whose users sometimes call it a “hellsite,” tweeters have been tweeting in panic mode, as if from an aircraft about to careen into a mountainside. Woe, Musk is ruining Twitter! The service will collapse! It’s sure to grind to a halt any day now! Where will we go next? Some are even calling the exfiltration to platforms such as Mastodon (a bewildering perplexity), Hive (a CIA front?), and Post (what even is this?) a search for “lifeboats.” The result is super embarrassing and even profoundly shameful.

Yes, look, okay, there are actual stakes here. Elon Musk, a prolific tweeter and also the richest man in the world despite losing $100 billion this year, might be single-handedly destroying a major social-media platform. At the very least, he is upending it, wreaking havoc on the company that makes the tweet-tweeting software. He resurrected the once-suspended account of Donald Trump (and of Kanye West, The Babylon Bee, and others). He fired half the staff, then called some of them back and demanded oaths of fealty from them, perhaps in violation of labor law. Musk’s role seems to oscillate between Stalin and Paul Blart, mall cop, severe reprisal giving way to cringey oafishness and back again.

All throughout, others tweeted nearby. The media, who tweet as if their lives depend on it, were already concerned that Musk’s antics might kill off the service, which has offered them both easy access to reporting and a valuable platform for professional attention. Soon, nearly every tweet by Musk produced its own news story, as outlets followed the chaos live. Twitter teeters on the edge; Musk orders coders to HQ; A timeline of Elon Musk’s takeover; Twitter death watch captivates millions.

Does it “captivate millions” though? I’m going to try to be honest with you here: We, the media, are giving Twitter more credence than it deserves. The community of professionals whose job and privilege it is to communicate urgent events and ideas to the public from august and storied platforms such as this magazine have massively overcompensated, mistaking Twitter’s importance to them for its importance in general. Twitter feels important because it appears to represent a cross section of all voices speaking all at once for everyone, a representative democracy of one-liners.

With some reason. Twitter has, since its start, embraced the sublime disorder of many voices speaking over one another. Back in 2006, when the service first launched, it even boasted a public timeline, in which a stream of all tweets was visible by anyone, whether they followed the tweeter or not. The bedlam of Twitter, fused with the brevity of its form, offers an interpretation of the virtual town square as a bustling, modernist city.

At least in theory. In practice, Twitter is more like an asylum, inmates screaming at everyone and no one in particular, histrionics displacing reason, posters posting at all costs because posting is all that is possible. Late last week, for example, a litany of end-of-days tweets fell upon the service, frenzied posters just certain that Musk’s firings would cause the site to literally fail at any minute. These posts looked extremely embarrassing to some onlookers even at the time, but even more so when morning came (and then another, and another, and others still) and the tweeters kept a-tweeting. A journalist-spurred Twitter Space about the supposedly imminent death of Twitter encouraged participants to gaze at navels for three hours (three hours), reportedly drawing almost 200,000 lost souls across the event horizon of its sticky maw. A New York Times Style article on journalists’ egress to a Mastodon server included one writer’s invocation of a “trauma bond” with the app. This is neither press nor paean but just—ugh—painful.

The platform is optimized to make the nonevent of its own exaggerated demise seem significant. At times, people post to share important and timely information about something happening in their immediate vicinity. Some of those posts justify further discourse, including news stories. Most of them do not. And yet, the very existence of tweets about an event can make that event seem newsworthy—by virtue of having garnered tweets. This supposed newsworthiness can then result in literal news stories, written by journalists and based on inspiration or sourcing from tweets themselves, or it can entail the further spread of a tweet’s message by on-platform engagement, such as likes and quote tweets. Either way, the nature of Twitter is to assert the importance of tweets.

Tweets appear more meaningful when amplified, and when amplified they inspire more tweets in the same vein. A thing becomes “tweetworthy” when it spreads but then also justifies its value both on and beyond Twitter by virtue of having spread. This is the “famous for being famous” effect, a kind of Kardashification of all ideas.

This propensity is not unique to Twitter—all social media possesses it. But the frequency and quantity of posts on Twitter, along with their brevity, their focus on text, and their tendency to be vectors of news, official or not, make Twitter a particularly effective amplification house of mirrors. It’s easy to get stuck in a feedback loop: That which appears on Twitter is current (if not always true), and what’s current is meaningful, and what’s meaningful demands contending with. And so, matters that matter little or not at all gain traction by virtue of the fact that they found enough initial friction to start moving.

Twitter shapes an epistemology for users under its thrall. What can be known, and how, becomes infected by what has been, or can be, tweeted. That’s bad enough for ordinary folks, but it’s particularly dangerous for the press. Journalists overuse Twitter as a professional community and as a source for sources. Producers of supposedly actual news see the world through tweet-colored glasses, by transforming tweets’ hypothetical status as news into published news—which produces more tweeting in turn.

Musk’s Twitter calamity plumbs a new nadir of this bad practice: Who could be a more tempting call to tweet than one of the biggest tweeters, a long-standing chaos agent who, despite his enormous wealth, resembles a shitposter more than a magnate? He appears to be destroying the site in the name of saving it, right in full view of its most obsessive users.

For them, and others on this website, it has become an awful habit. Habits feel normal and even justified because they are familiar, not because they are righteous. Even good habits, such as exercise or thrift, can overheat into excess when carried out with obsession. Twitter convinced us that it mattered, that it was the world’s news service, or a vector for hashtag activism, or a host for communities without voices, or a mouthpiece for the little gal or guy. It is those things, sometimes, for some of its users. But first, and mostly, it is a habit.

What more perfect use of this hellsite than to turn it over entirely to tweets about Twitter, tweets about tweeting, tweets about leaving Twitter, tweets about how Twitter runs, or should, or won’t, or how it will end, any day now … This is what we were after all along, the purest distillation of a service that devours itself in order to fuel its own furtherance.

We never really tweeted to say something. We tweeted because Twitter offered a format for having something to say, over and over again. Just as the purpose of terrorism is terror, so the purpose of Twitter is tweeting.