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Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

The rise of X

Twitter—I mean, X—my favourite social media platform, which I’ve been using since October 2008 (i.e. 15 years, which means it predates my children) is slowly going down the toilet. Every day I think it can’t get any worse, and then it does.

It definitely started when Elon Musk took over as CEO. I wasn’t as pessimistic about that as other people I follow on the platform, because I thought Musk loved Twitter too.

Boy, was I wrong.

Musk tried to institute Twitter Blue, which was supposed to replace the verification check mark that told you whether or not an account was authentic. I’m all for a paid service for Twitter, but why couldn’t he have made it something that has real value, rather than something that few people would ever pay for?

Then Musk fired a large number of staff—including many moderators. This made the site quite shaky. In Australia and New Zealand, at various times, it stopped working entirely. The number of bot and spam accounts has soared since, and online harassment has continued unchecked—to the point where now the ABC is mostly leaving Twitter because of the abuse their journalists have been facing.

Then Musk turned off the public API and made it a paid service. This meant third party apps and clients stopped working. My primary way of viewing Twitter was through Tweetbot, a fantastic client that served Twitter users for 12 years and made the place seem like much less of a dumpster fire than it is. Tweetbot didn’t have a “For you” tab; it only showed you who you were “Following”, it stripped out all the ads, and it allowed me to read my feed the way I like it: in chronological order, where I scroll forwards until I reach the top. It would also usually remember where I was up to the next time I logged back into the app.

Musk has also talked about restricting access to Tweetdeck, its dashboard tool, to paid subscribers only. That was supposed to start 1 August, but it hasn’t happened yet, thank goodness. I think without Tweetdeck, the user experience of Twitter will be drastically worse, and I expect that many users will finally leave the platform if/when that happens.

Musk’s changes and stance on moderation and free speech caused a mass exodus, which included many of the people I follow—people I’ve been following for years. They’ve left calling cards on their profiles, saying where you can find them elsewhere (on Instagram and Mastodon mostly; most Twitter users aren’t really into Facebook). But of course it’s not the same, and when you don’t like a particular platform, it’s hard to be on there just for the sake of people you’re keen to hear from.

Then Musk rebranded Twitter as “X”—a move that I consider phenomenally stupid and nothing more than ego-building, given Twitter’s current state of global brand recognition. “Tweet” is already in the Merriam Webster as “a post made on the Twitter online message service”. Why would you mess with that?!

Finally, I read recently that Musk is going to use public data from X to train his AI for in-house projects. There’s no word on whether you can opt out.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

See you on socials?

All this is making me reevaluate the way I use social media. I heard a podcast episode recently in which one of the panellists said that people follow other people on social media for one of three reasons:

  1. To be inspired.
  2. To be educated.
  3. To be entertained.

The speaker was a social media consultant, and she was encouraging book authors to make sure everything they post hits one or more of those goals to “add” value to their followers.

I don’t know about you, but I look at that list and immediately feel icky. It’s so consumerist. Granted, there is a grain of truth in it: I do follow some people because I find their work inspiring and interesting. I also like that I learn things from the people I follow—not just random facts I didn’t know about the world, but also industry news. Following comics people kept in me in touch with the comics industry. Following writers, editors and agents helped me understand more about the state of the book publishing industry (and what a dumpster fire Amazon is). Following both groups also meant that I have been following the current WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) strikes. Twitter (which I am refusing to call X for the duration of this blog post) definitely serves me news that I am unlikely to glean from the ABC. (I know this because I’ve been asking Siri to give me the day’s headlines as I fold laundry.) And certainly Twitter at its best is wonderfully entertaining: the Barbenheimer memes, for example, have been a continual delight.

But I look at that list and all I see is what’s missing: the social side. Where is the relational aspect? For me, social media is about relationship. I first joined Twitter in 2008 because of this in-depth piece by Clive Thompson in The New York Times: “I’m so totally, digitally close to you” (5 Sept 2008). He was examining the rising phenomenon of microblogging, the next step forward after the rise of blogs (yes, I recognise the irony of writing this in a blog post!) and trying to understand why people would engage in it. He wrote,

For many people —particularly anyone over the age of 30— the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

But as he looked closer at the trend of “ambient intimacy”/“ambient awareness”, he started to understand:

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.

It was the “novel-ness” of Twitter that I became addicted to, I think. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which lean heavily on algorithms to serve you content (see my September 2021 post, “The problem with BookFace”), Twitter was just one scrolling reverse chronological feed—a feed that I read in its entirety as much as possible. (I realise I am an outlier; most users don’t do this.) Twitter was an ongoing novel that connected me to the world.

Of course, I didn’t follow everyone. I curated my feed relentlessly. I only followed the people I liked following. I followed people I know IRL. (It’s worth noting, though, that some IRL people are very different online and may not be interesting to follow.) I followed people I met at conventions and other events as a way of keeping in touch with them, and sometimes they would follow me back (though I was never fussed if they didn’t). I followed certain media outlets—like publishers, podcasts and websites publishing interesting content. I also followed, as I said before, comic creators, writers, editors, agents and even the occasional actor or musician I love.

I soon found that the best people to follow—or rather, the people I found the most interesting to follow—were comics people. There’s something about working in the marriage of two mediums that makes comics people extremely interesting. They don’t just promote their work and talk about their current projects; they also talk about what they’re interested in—creative works (books, music, movies, TV, podcasts), but also politics, humour, even their day-to-day lives and how they feel about things.

I loved the “novels” that came from comics people. Over time, I really did build up a novel-sized picture of the people I followed. I got to know them on a level above that which you’d get with a mere acquaintance. Sometimes they would even reply to me if I tweeted to them about something. Once I asked a couple of my favourite comic creators about something to do with the comic they had created; they responded straight away. Another time (though I can’t find the tweet now), Neil Gaiman, who is one of my most favourite authors ever, told me that Diana Wynne Jones, who is another one of my most favourite authors ever, based the character of Chrestomanci on him.)

Remember, these are people I followed for years—some from the very beginning of my Twitter journey. When they began to leave the platform, I felt like I was in mourning for those relationships. It was painful. I tweeted, “it’s like a thread between you snapping”. Recently I took a little time to look over my follow list and remember all the people I followed—all 587 of them. I wonder sometimes what happened to some of them.

I know that might sounds nuts—to be so concerned for people I don’t know personally. However, that’s the nature of the internet, isn’t it: following people on Twitter may not be a “real” relationship (in the sense that it’s one-sided and doesn’t go both ways), but it’s still something. The people I follow may not know my name (though some do, after all this time, which is lovely), but I still know them.

And now?

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The possible future of socials

Well, now there is currently nothing that completely replaces Twitter. Meta launched Threads in July, but I don’t enjoy using it because it retains the most irritating things about Instagram—namely, the algorithm. It shows you the people you follow first (but not necessarily in chronological order), as well as (most maddeningly) people’s replies to accounts you don’t follow. Then when it runs out of content from the people you follow, it serves you content from people you don’t follow in the hope that you’ll follow them too. Also, there’s no web interface.

The best thing about it, though, is definitely the Art Gallery of NSW account, which has taken with gusto to posting long art—that is, art that doesn’t get cropped by Twitter’s image requirements. They also encourage others to do the same, and so you see this wonderful curated exhibition of images you wouldn’t normally see.

As for the other offerings, Mastodon is too complicated for the average user. Spoutible barely has anyone I follow on it. Hive Social? I have no idea what’s happening on it; barely anyone I follow talks about it.

And then there’s Blue Sky. It came from Twitter and it operates a lot like Twitter. It has a reverse chronological feed. It shows you the people you follow—and their replies to other accounts, but you can turn those off. It doesn’t always remember where I’m up to, but that’s okay; I just scroll back, and I’m not following a huge number of people for it to be a problem. Also, it’s still just invite-only, which means you need a code in order to join. (Massive thanks to Seumas for giving me mine!)

The best thing about it is that most of the comics/writer/agent/editor people I used to follow are on there, and they are active. They are doing the things that made me enjoy following them in the first place. The social/relational aspect is alive and well over there, so at the moment, it feels a bit like a gated community—like the early days of Twitter.

I know it won’t last. Human nature always has a way of ruining things (yay, the doctrine of total depravity!) So far, Blue Sky isn’t any better at managing spam/bot accounts, and who knows how they’ll handle the trolls when they arrive.

But so far, I am enjoying being there.

I’m still on Twitter. There are still a lot of people/accounts that haven’t made it to Blue Sky yet (though there is the possibility that they may never join). There are lots of IRL friends who would probably join if given an invite, but invites are dispensed sparingly; I won’t have any to give away until I’m on the platform for longer. Blue Sky doesn’t quite cater to all my interests the way Twitter does: there is little about Australian comics, KPop, podcasts and evangelical Christianity. There are also question marks concerning Blue Sky’s ownership: it’s independent, but it’s still tied to Twitter and Musk in some way, which means that it could potentially disappear without warning.

I may be on Twitter until it dies once and for all. At least with Blue Sky, I feel like there is somewhere to go where I can still be inspired, educated, entertained, but most of all, maintain the online relationships I’ve got with the people I’ve been following for so long.

Even so, I do wonder about the future of social media. Will all this upheaval result in a bit of a backlash? Will it die? Will more and more people get themselves off it in favour of other things? So many people see it as a waste of time anyway; the multiplicity of platforms and lack of engagement may be the impetus they need to leave.

I still believe there is a place for the sort of ambient awareness/aggregation as a novel that microblogging makes possible. When I post, it’s with that in mind (which must make it super confusing for people who only see my content through algorithms). I still think there is a place for social media in maintaining relationships—connecting people across time and space in a way that is one of the boons of the internet and something that wasn’t possible several decades ago.

But I acknowledge the limits of that. Online relationships have boundaries. They don’t function the way IRL relationships do. It should be said I invest in those too: I make time to catch up with people. I make regular time to catch up with the people who are important to me. The limitation for IRL relationships is me and my creatureliness, though: there are only so many people I can catch up with in person. There is only so much time I have for that sort of thing. There is only so much emotional energy I can expend. Unfortunately being human means I don’t have the capacity for infinite relationships.

But God does. I don’t know if being made in his image means that in the new creation, we will have an infinite capacity for relationship. I’d like to think that that might be possible—that in exchanging our mortal bodies for imperishable, glorious spiritual ones (as it says in the language of 1 Corinthians 15:42-49), we might also exchange our human limitations for limitless divine ones.

Obviously this is all wishful thinking and speculation far beyond what the Bible actually says. But one thing I know will definitely be true: we will not need social media to relate to one another then. There will be no spam. There will be no trolls. There will be no online abuse. There may not even be any online. There will just be relationship.

And I, for one, am looking forward to it.