What will the media do without Twitter?
Replacing the Situation Room
I had a really excellent time talking about the FTX meltdown and the chaos at Twitter with my friends Jay Kang and Tammy Kim on their podcast Time to Say Goodbye this week. You can listen to the episode below, or wherever you get your podcasts; I also recommend signing up for their Patreon.
Toward the end of the podcast, we started talking a little bit about a question that’s been on my mind: What might happen to “the media” if Twitter really were to collapse? The post that evolved into last week’s newsletter “Four Twitter Futures” actually started out as a response to a question a friend texted me after Elon Musk took over the platform: “My boyfriend asked me yesterday what will the media do without Twitter?” (I think she meant her husband but she lives in San Francisco, so who knows.)
The Read Max newsletter is almost certainly a better value for your money than Twitter Blue.
I give a sort of rambling/annoying answer to the question on the podcast, but I thought it might be worth writing out my (preliminary, inconclusive, probably stupid) thoughts for all the misguided people who’ve signed up for this newsletter.
The simple way to answer to this question, or at least to start answering it, is to dis-aggregate all of the enumerable and obvious functions to which media workers put Twitter to use and think about how and in what ways they might be replaced, i.e.:
+------------------------------+---------------------------------------+ | Twitter function | Likely replacement | +------------------------------+---------------------------------------+ | Socializing and time-wasting | Discord, group chats | | | | | Publicizing work | Substack, Tiktok (??), cultivating | | | friendship with homepage/social editor| | | | | News-gathering | Read a fucking newspaper, Jack | +------------------------------+---------------------------------------+
So on one level the answer to “what will the media do without Twitter?” is: Retreat to group chats. (In fact, to some extent, speaking only anecdotally, but about a demographic with which I have a deep and unfortunate familiarity, I think this shift has already happened -- it seems to me that many or most journalists and editors have realized that private chats are a better place for the kind of bitching and gossip-trading that used to happen out in the open on Twitter.)
But of course the reason the question is interesting and sort of difficult is that, for the media especially, Twitter is more than just a combination chat room/publicity platform/news wire. In last week’s post I wrote that media people “treat [Twitter] like a battlefield map, or one of the Situation Rooms in a Bourne movie: a way of representing reality, and locating yourself within it.” You learn about things that are happening, ideas people are passionate about, types of guy that exist, but also and just as importantly you (consciously or not) come to locate and even define yourself within the networks of dispute and agreement.
Maybe the way to put it is to say that those discrete functions listed above, once aggregated into a central feed, produce for many journalists/editors/producers/etc. what is essentially a “reality mediation + self-understanding” function, and it’s that “feature” that has no obvious software replacement.
It would be easy to overstate the extent to which Twitter has colonized the media brain; obviously many, many media workers aren’t even on Twitter, let alone outsourcing their entire self-conceptions to it. And certainly, every editor (myself included) has told at least one writer to stop thinking so much about Twitter as they craft a piece. But enough editors and writers and publishers are on Twitter, at all levels of every institution, that its imperatives and restrictions tend to enter the editorial process whether anyone means for them to or not.
I’m an on-the-record Not Huge Fan of Twitter and what it does to people’s time and consciousness, but I also feel quite ambivalent about what might happen when this scaffolding falls away. There’s a lot to celebrate about the prospect of freeing journalism and publishing from a worldview over-shaped by the rewards and perils of a highly competitive reputation economy, but absent an alternative that fulfills the same contextual functions in a less toxic-to-the-brain way I worry that the collective worldview of the “media” would instead be over-shaped, from the top down, by the experiences and biases of wealthy publishers, careerist editors, self-loathing journalists, and canny operators operating in relatively closed social and professional circles.1 Twitter may be distorting, but so are the incentives and pressures of work at any publication; in the final balance the question has to be which distortions are worse. I'm not sure it's always clear!2
So I guess I’m saying one possible answer to the questions of what the media will do without Twitter is: regress. And I can’t, in all honesty, blame Elon Musk alone for this regression, since I think management at media institutions began retreating from Twitter well before he took over. It was hard not to read the attempted rehabilitation of former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet in Semafor and The Washington Post as a public signal that elite institutions would no longer be taking Twitter seriously;3 from their perspective, it’s better to have the context and self-understanding of their writers and employees set by the mores and leaders of the institution itself than by Twitter. In which case, Musk is just giving them a clearer excuse.
Is this an overelaborate way to say that “Twitter is sometimes good because it makes more prominent voices and stories that were previously looked?” Well, it’s not not saying that.
Granted, it feels easier to suggest that the effects of Twitter on journalism might actually have been neutral-to-positive, when all is said and done, after a couple of weeks during which my political enemies were forced into retreat and/or embarrassment.
I’ve written before that I think that “cancel culture” was the product of a period in which major (media) institutions had a sense of Twitter sentiment representing something closer to majority public opinion that it actually does, and now that these institutions no longer trust its representational abilities they will mostly choose to ignore it.