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Can We Please Get Over Your Twitter Obsession Already?

Can We Please Get Over Your Twitter Obsession Already?

Thursday, 5 May, 2022 - 05:15

I started my Twitter account in June 2008. And after 14 years on the platform, I have a lot of feelings about it. Twitter is meaningful to me, while constantly leaving me wondering why, exactly, that is the case.


Loads of other people evidently have opinions about Twitter, too, particularly after the company announced it would be selling itself to Elon Musk for roughly $44 billion. Several of my Times colleagues, also users of the platform, have weighed in about what Twitter is and what Twitter will be. And according to a quick Google News search, so have writers at just about every single news source in America. (And, yes, I am aware that I am contributing to this tsunami, but if you’ll bear with me, I do have a good reason.)


Perhaps you are also a Twitter user with thoughts and feelings of your own. That would mean that you are a part of a very specific and limited group of people. All of us who tweet are.


Most people don’t utilize the platform or care all that much about it. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 77 percent of American adults did not use Twitter. Most of those who do tweet don’t visit the site every day, according to that survey. A Pew study, also from 2021, found that 97 percent of tweets are produced by the top 25 percent of Twitter users, the people who are most active on the platform.


The fact is, Twitter just doesn’t matter as much as we users seem to think it does.


One possible reason we give Twitter so much weight is that we seem to believe that it plays an important role in elections. But that’s another misconception. For millions of people on the platform, politics isn’t even at the core of why they’re there. According to Pew, discussions about national politics made up a remarkably small number — just 13 percent — of tweets as of a few years ago.


Those of us who tweet should probably rethink why and how we do so. Twitter can be a news source and a place where we go to talk about real life. It is not where real life is actually happening. We need to keep Twitter, and our tweets, in perspective.


It might sound unbelievable, but when I joined Twitter in 2008, I did it to have fun. Early Twitter was about telling people what you had for lunch and talking about your favorite TV shows. And most important for me, it was a place where I could talk about sports.


I love sports Twitter, which is a community of fans, sportswriters and athletes (like Kevin Durant, the Brooklyn Nets star, who, like some of us, spends a lot of time beefing with random people). It is also an amalgamation of sports-adjacent memes and thoughts and made-up quotes from an ESPN commentator, because imagining that Stephen A. Smith said, “crab rangoon, things of that nature” is hilarious. Sports Twitter aficionados live-tweet games and react to plays as if we are all in one huge sports bar collectively losing our minds about a dunk or a touchdown or the time a Rutgers quarterback spiked the ball on fourth down against Michigan State, immediately losing the game. (It was extremely funny.)


If this sounds preposterously insular to you, totally detached from how regular people watch sports, well, it is. Most people who watch the football and basketball teams of my alma mater, the University of Michigan, for example, are not a part of “Michigan Twitter,” where users share a meme that combines the state ideology of North Korea (Juche) with the name of a former Michigan linebacker, Josh Uche. Even writing out that sentence made me feel a little ridiculous.


That’s not to say that Twitter doesn’t matter at all. Actual people are on Twitter, after all — legislators, journalists, celebrities, college professors — and they are often talking about real things, reacting to police brutality, the war in Ukraine, inflation, the Jan. 6 insurrection. We are talking to one another as well as witnessing conversations among powerful people — and even getting into those conversations ourselves. It can be fascinating. As Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight founder and writer, put it (on Twitter, naturally), “The elite-to-elite interactions are what make Twitter distinctive.”


And that’s actually just my point: The “elite-to-elite” interactions held on Twitter can be edifying and inspiring, and can spur people to real action, but online politics works when it is tied to offline efforts — getting obsessed with Twitter itself is just getting in your own way.


Twitter also can distort political reality. If you spend a lot of time there, you are most likely seeing other people who tweet a lot, a group that doesn’t represent real life. So you might vastly overestimate the number of people who support, say, packing the Supreme Court and underestimate the number of people who don’t vote at all. (I have never, for example, met a “tankie” in real life, but they yell at me on Twitter fairly often.) Twitter users also can be more negative than the general population, and negativity spreads faster on the platform than positivity. American Twitter users are also likely to be Democrats, and those Democrats are more liberal than non-Twitter-using Democrats at that.


And sometimes Twitter lends itself to the unfortunate Extremely Online attitude, which I defined a few years ago as being deeply enmeshed in internet culture and believing that events in that milieu — like trending topics on Twitter and viral Facebook posts — matter in the offline world, too. Donald Trump’s win in 2016 wasn’t due to his Twitter account, but as I’ve argued before, part of what I think contributed to his loss in 2020 was his obsessive focus on Extremely Online subjects (Russiagate! Section 230!) that most likely had little to do with what people predisposed to vote for him cared about (the economy, crime, et cetera).


Elon Musk is Extremely Online, too — as evidenced by his untethered Twitter behavior, randomly insulting senators and saying he’ll put cocaine back in Coca-Cola — but he is also a person whose work matters offline. His companies Tesla and SpaceX are likely to have far more impact on how everyday people live their lives than Twitter ever will. It could last for another 10 years or could easily go the way of MySpace (remember MySpace?). And as for his ideas for where to take Twitter, Musk sounds, to me, like a very wealthy person who is wrong about what free speech means in the context of a private platform, but, hey, he’s got company on that front.


I think that the reaction to Musk’s deal to buy Twitter is perhaps more telling. If you think his purchase is a harbinger of doom or a sign to start a truth and reconciliation commission about so-called past manipulation on the site, maybe that’s not really about Elon Musk. Maybe it’s more about you.


The New York Times


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