Endings and Beginnings
Back in 2012, when I first signed up for Twitter, academic “quit lit” was a popular genre of writing. Several of those people whose work I followed went on to make a living as writers. Some wrote books, many write very smart articles for mainstream publications. I joined Twitter for a very specific reason: I had a grant to build a large scale (200+ students), asynchronous online class. It had to be built into my university’s new LMS, Canvas. I had done a fair amount of work with the flipped class pedagogy so I wasn’t starting completely fresh; but, on the whole, I didn’t know what I was doing.
Helpfully, I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. There wasn’t anyone at my institution who could help with the major challenge: how to design something that wasn’t lecture-based. On a platform that nobody had used (spoiler: biggest mistake was building it into Canvas, because it’s now stuck there, it was distributed without my permission to others, and Canvas never delivered all the promised functionalities).
I started a blog (“Teaching Without Pants”; I think it’s still out there) and found a community of ed tech policy experts, online course design experts, and DH scholars. It was fantastic and that online class never would have been built without the help of this community. I wish I had listened to their warnings about trusting my institution to respect my IP because they nailed that one. August 2013–2015 was a really good two years, made so much better by my Twitter community.
In August 2015, some things happened in my workplace. I decided that it would be wise to get off Twitter and lockdown my social media. An odd but consequence of this is that I completely missed the Trumpification of Twitter. A lot of other stuff happened, most of it not great. Fast forward to August 2022. Things had resolved enough that I felt I could broaden my online community again.
When I did return to Twitter, I was absolutely horrified. It felt like the tidy, nice house I’d left had been overrun by rabid raccoons. It was wonderful to reconnect with some academic friends and to meet some younger scholars in my areas of research. But it was also deeply unpleasant. I am privileged enough to have plenty of opportunities to talk to academics. I had missed talking to smart people not in my line of work. What struck me immediately was how divisive Twitter had become. I had obviously seen all of this outside of Twitter since 2016 but didn’t fully realize how much of the dis/misinformation, conspiracy theories, fact free arguments, and general trollish behavior was incubated by Twitter. It wasn’t a place to go for reasonable discussion with people I didn’t know IRL.
I discovered the value of blocking and muting. But also discovered that any attempt to engage on a divisive topic meant that the algorithm sent threads full of trolls my way. Nobody really attacked me. Rather, it just created an incredibly negative energy. To be clear, the trolling was bipartisan. The center was gone, rational discourse was gone. I started blocking and muting. A lot. I engaged in “inside baseball” talk with the other Classics and ancient religions people. It was ok but the whole energy of the place was different. I felt like one of those Romans living under an emperor and yearning for the lost golden age that never really existed.
At first, the daily conspiracy theories were so ludicrous as to be entertaining. In time, it just became sad to see people leap to conspiracy as an explanation for anything they didn’t understand or like. The “Elon has a plan” talk is all part of that same cognitive pattern. Maybe he does. Maybe he’s just an out of touch billionaire who has no idea what he’s doing? Maybe he’s actually not very good at managing a social networking platform?
This weekend I have been thinking a lot about all of this, and especially about the “Trump Effect” on public discourse. We don’t know how to talk and listen to each other. We have normalized radicalization. As someone who missed the making of 2022 Twitter, it looks like the lobster in the pot: the water is boiling, the lobster is dead. This is incredibly sad, given that Twitter has been a wonderful home for marginalized communities. It’s also a site that many people depend on to pay the bills. Walking away is not easy or even possible.
But I suppose this is my 2022 version of “quit lit,” except Twitter instead of academia. Somehow, I lucked into getting to Beta test a new app, Post. news. It reminds me a lot of 2012 Twitter. People share writings, podcasts, art, etc. There is a monetization model in place that does not depend on ads. It permits long form posting. Most of all, it feels like a space dedicated to cultivating community, empathy and the exhange of ideas, not stirring up negative emotions that get translated into a mean-spirited, impulsive tweet.
It won’t be a place for everyone, but I suspect it will be a place that people who enjoy building community will like, especially as the community continues to broaden. It’s very much early days but it looks promising and has a nice vibe. I hesitate to say that it is civil, even though it is. I know that, sometimes, incivility is necessary. The thing is, it’s the default on Twitter and that’s a problem. The current waiting list seems dauntingly long, but I suspect that the real wait time will be weeks, not months (go to post.news to sign up).
It’s not Twitter nor is it trying to be. It won’t be the thing for people who like to write witty 240 character tweets. It won’t be the thing for people who are curating their best life. But if you care about community, learning from others, being an informed citizen, it might be a good place for you. As it grows, it may also be a site that lets us drop all our media subscriptions and pay only for what we want to read. I am always the latest adopter on the planet, so it’s weird to be in on the ground floor. It’s also interesting, especially because so much of my research boils down to “how did humans interact with each other, especially when they did not agree about something.”
I know a lot of people will stay on Twitter and fight the good fight. I admire you. I realized that, at this point in my life, I don’t have the spare energy for Twitter trolls. Too many years of fighting IRL trolls will do that to a person. What I crave is civil discussion, good faith disagreement, learning new things, being persuaded to change my mind. I think this is ultimately how we all have to decide what is best for us: what are we trying to get from our engagement on any social media site? What are we willing to sacrifice? To what extent are we willing to find ways to fill in gaps created by leaving a space?
Despite his current position, I have little doubt that Trump will return to Twitter. That was never a significant part of my decision to quit Twitter. Twitter is already Trumpified. His actual presence would be a bad thing and likely very dangerous; but his absence does not change the fact that his presidency reshaped public discourse for everyone, not just the MAGA crowd. Of course there is a way to mitigate his presence by blocking words and accounts. The problem is, he never really left. EM’s purchase of the site, his courting of the MAGA “anti-woke” and “free speech” crowd just accelerated the inevitable.