By Sarah Green Carmichael
Twitter’s rapid descent into corporate chaos has prompted a wave of nostalgic posts and witty laments from users who fear these are the app’s final days.
Without a doubt, Twitter has had a unique role shaping the cultural zeitgeist, and for better or worse it has had a disproportionate influence on how some people, journalists in particular, do their jobs. It can be very funny or rather horrifying, but it often has felt essential. What if it goes away?
In an era when all workers are supposed to sustain a personal brand that in theory will insulate us from job losses and other workplace misfortunes, something important could be lost if the site disappears or becomes a junkyard of spambots and trolls. And yet, I also wonder what we might gain from its demise.
One of the great things about Twitter is how flexible and customisable it is. In my line of work, I’ve used Twitter to find new voices; to track academic research; to keep in touch with professional contacts and make new ones; to promote pieces I’ve written or edited; to share job descriptions for roles I think are interesting. I’ve had great professional opportunities slide into my DMs. When I’m about to interview someone, I like to first scan their tweets. One especially gratifying aspect of Twitter has been following people different from me as a way to expand my perspective. And when a truly big news event hits, the endless scroll is addictive.
And yet for all that apparent professional utility, when I was on maternity leave I barely signed into Twitter for a full six months. Somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the reply-guys or the flame wars or the snark. And it’s not like I was too busy to be on social media; in fact, my phone was barely out of my hand. The best tweets found their way onto my new platform of choice, Instagram, as screenshots. I read newspapers and magazines rather than hopscotching from one random link to another.
It turned out that although it felt like Twitter added a lot to my professional life, it had also taken things away. Despite my careful attempts to curate an interesting feed, I wound up with an echo chamber that gave me the mere illusion of knowing what people were thinking. I realised it had been years since it had meaningfully expanded my professional network, perhaps because the site had grown shoutier, whether as a result of changes to the algorithm or changes in people’s attitudes.
Then there is the opportunity cost. It’s painstaking work to build a following — it takes hours of tweeting, replying and tweeting again. You have to be provocative or no one will want to engage with you, but you can’t be so provocative that no one will hire you. Perhaps all those hours and effort would be better devoted to the core work of one’s paid job, whatever it is — or to building up a different, more durable way of connecting with people.
Because after all, what is the value of a tweet? In theory having a Twitter presence can make you a thought leader who presumably becomes more employable. Yet only the very largest accounts gain the kind of following that translates into something clearly monetisable such as a book or a podcast. And even then, if Twitter goes under, you can’t take your 100,000 followers with you. (Twitter’s struggles have strengthened calls to create a measure of portability for users’ information and allow users to communicate across platforms.)
If the promise of Twitter for professionals has always been nebulous, its risks are only too obvious. At any given moment, we’re all just one bad tweet away from being fired or publicly embarrassed. I’ve lost count of the number of professionals whose attempts at sarcasm or humour were met by stone-faced human resources representatives and a quick walk to the door. I remember a few years ago a former boss asking why I’d “liked” a certain tweet. I ended up apologising for my over-eager thumb.
After my six-month Twitter break, I realised that the app had become a professional obligation rather than an entertaining hobby.
Frequently, people I respect have tweeted things that make me think less of their judgment. Trolling is rife, not only between accounts of dubious verifiability, but between professional people who, if they had met in a real-world setting, undoubtedly would have been able to disagree more courteously. (Just take a look, if you have the stomach, at some of the flame wars that have erupted between experts who disagree over Covid school closures or the value of homemade cloth masks.)
After my six-month Twitter break, I realised that the app had become a professional obligation rather than an entertaining hobby. If I didn’t feel I had to be there, tweeting, I would open it no more than I do Facebook or LinkedIn (that is, rarely).
Social media companies are still a relatively new phenomenon. Maybe it’s just not in their nature to stay dominant for very long. Friendster and Google Wave are gone; MySpace limps along; Instagram (owned by Facebook parent Meta) is now threatened by TikTok. Elon Musk seems to be running Twitter into the ground, but the company wasn’t in fantastic shape when he took over.
As I began enjoying Twitter less, I started spending more time reading books. One book I read this year with the time I used to spend scrolling is “No One Is Talking About This,” a novel whose protagonist spends a massive amount of time using a Twitter-like app she calls “the portal.” The author, Patricia Lockwood, is sometimes called the poet laureate of Twitter. One passage has stuck in my mind:
“The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those legendary experiment rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.”
Things on the internet come and go. I still miss Google Reader. If Twitter goes away, there are aspects of it I will miss. But I won’t miss feeling like a rat.
Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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