When I asked Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post’s humor columnist, to imagine a world without Twitter, she saw endless possibility. “I have no idea what I would do with that spare time. Probably rethink my life, finish my book proposal, and, uh, reaffirm my personal connections with human beings face to face,” she said. “I guess I’d become a more productive, better person who had to go physically type in the URLs of websites. I’d regain the strength that’s currently sapped from my fingers.”
Which isn’t to say Petri is ready for anything that radical.
“What would I do in the restroom?” And if she lost her 78,000 followers, she said, “My self-esteem would evaporate, obviously.”
Petri was joking, but there’s a serious underlying truth: Many of us in journalism are addicted to Twitter. It’s a professional tool for following breaking news, sharing insights, finding story ideas, and promoting work, but it’s also more than that. Twitter is a social environment unto itself, one in which reporters often spend more time than in actual, real-world social environments (and even then, they’re still on Twitter). “If Twitter went away,” Daily Beast senior editor Erin Gloria Ryan told me, “at first it would feel like a phantom limb.”
Journalists’ awareness of their addiction, and inability to quit it, causes no shortage of angst for some.
“Like everyone, I have a love-hate relationship with it,” said Emmett Rensin, a contributor to the New Republic and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I’m one of these people who declares every few months that I’m quitting Twitter and then shamefully slinks back. I think we’ve entered an era where we’re just never going to log off.”
Assuming, that is, Twitter continues to exist, which is no sure thing. As The New York Times reported in April, the company “has struggled to maintain growth even as other social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, have seen their popularity and user numbers surge.” In January, Wired declared 2017 as the “Year That Twitter Learns to Thrive or Dies,” noting the site’s inability to curb user harassment and the “revolving door on the company’s C-suite.” The company isn’t on the brink of collapse—its first quarter beat earnings and growth expectations—but its long-term survival is by no means assured.
This has major implications for journalism more than any other industry. Yes, many reporters and editors would miss the “social media” aspect of Twitter, but more important, they would have to manage without a major tool of the trade—like a handyman suddenly deprived of a wrench. Given Twitter’s significance to the Fourth Estate—not to mention to the sitting president—would a private or public entity step in to save it, if necessary?
Petri, who told me “Twitter-less me sounds like a better person,” isn’t the only journalist who thinks the death of the platform would give jumpstart to deferred life goals. Everyone, it seems, has writing projects they’ve been putting off, or exercise regimens they’ve been neglecting.
“I would write the goddamn TV scripts I’ve been saying I’m going to write for years,” Ryan said. “I’d get a lot more done on feature writing. I’d probably spend a lot more time outdoors.”
“I sometimes joke that Twitter is what I do instead of smoking,” Garance Franke-Ruta, Yahoo News’ senior politics editor, told me. “It occupies the same interstitial space. I think if Twitter went away we would all go into withdrawal and have three very uncomfortable weeks—followed by being healthier, happier people.”
Dave Pell, author of the popular NextDraft newsletter, isn’t so sure. “In some ways it would mirror the effects of coming off an addiction,” he said. “On one hand, I’d be happy to be getting off the crack. On the other hand, seriously, where the hell is my crack?”
It would also be professionally devastating to some journalists.
“It would be a disaster for our news gathering here at HuffPost,” said Ethan Klapper, the site’s global social media editor. He said nothing compares to Twitter as a “real-time platform that provides for the real-time exchange of ideas and information,” and without it, reporters would have a harder time tracking down eyewitnesses in breaking news situations. Ryan told me it would be more difficult to find interview subjects who fit specific profiles—a female military veteran who spends time in Tennessee, for example.
“I do think it would be a loss for wise journalists when it comes to listening to what the public is saying and thinking and asking, and when it comes to collaborating with the public,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York. He pointed to the Post’s David Fahrenthold, who recently crowdsourced his investigation of President Donald Trump’s charitable giving. Dave Weigel, a political reporter for the Post, said Twitter doesn’t compare to “the classic internet of bloggers reacting to articles and hashing it out in a more humane way,” but that it does allow him debate other writers, and often they can “figure each other out.”
Other journalists view Twitter less favorably, and are weaning themselves off of it. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens declared in a column last week that he’s forswearing the platform “for good.” “Twitter is terrific when tailored as a personalized wire service and can be a useful way to communicate with readers,” he wrote, but it “erases nuance, coarsens thought, [and] facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.” He called Twitter “the political pornography of our time: revealing but distorting, exciting but dulling, debasing to its users, and, well, ejaculatory. It’s bad for the soul and, as Donald Trump proves daily, bad for the country.”
And yet, even Stephens isn’t quitting cold turkey. “I’ll keep my Twitter handle, and hopefully my followers,” he wrote. Which raises this crucial point: Many writers also depend on their Twitter following, which they’ve worked hard to grow, for spreading their stories widely. “Yeah, I’d be bummed,” Rensin said. “I’d be unsure at first how to distribute my work.” Weigel said that selling his new book on progressive rock would be harder without “a fan base that’s easy to activate” on Twitter. Having a large Twitter following is also an asset for journalists in the job market, because of the traffic it drives to their employers’ websites. Were the platform to evaporate, these journalists would lose that competitive edge.
Ryan said she would celebrate the death of some of the laziest forms of journalism spawned by the platform. “If Twitter didn’t exist,” she told me, “a lot of people who have relied on the bad-tweets beat would have to develop some skills. Those people would be the first eaten post-zombie apocalypse: the bad-tweets people. I’m sure they’re delicious. They’re very soft.”
So the curators at Twitchy would have to find a new line of work. But more important, what would President Donald Trump do without his early-morning megaphone?
For now, the collapse of Twitter is an unlikely hypothetical. None of the journalists I spoke with were particularly alarmed about the platform’s future. “It’s hard to imagine you can’t find a business model and survive,” Jarvis said. “My fear isn’t that it dies. The question is who buys it when the price gets low enough, and the likely candidates give one pause: Comcast and Verizon.” (He worries these companies “would try to be more controlling for the brand risk,” threatening the platform’s openness.)
“I’ve always thought that Twitter was sort of too big to fail, and that if they were in a precarious position financially someone would swoop in and buy it,” Klapper said. It would be a “Jeff Bezos type of a person” or “Facebook could buy it.” Weigel told me he’s less libertarian than when he was working at Reason magazine years ago, but he still puts faith in the free market to sort this all out.
Journalists to Weigel’s left entertain a federal solution instead. “Sometimes I like to think the only upside of the Trump administration,” Rensin said, “is that Trump loves Twitter so much that if it were failing he’d nationalize it.” Ryan told me, “I could imagine him trying to make overtures for bailing it out. If he’s going to bail out anything, it would be something that contributes to his vanity.” And if Trump didn’t rescue Twitter? Pell sees a silver lining there: “Every journalist knows that however much losing Twitter hurts them, it will be hurting Trump twice as much.”
On the other hand, Twitter could well be what brings Trump down. For his opponents, this is reason enough to root for Twitter’s continued existence, even if it becomes irrelevant to everyone but the president. “It’s tempting to wish for Twitter’s demise just to get rid of Donald Trump’s tweets, but the best thing he can do for democracy is to keep implicating himself in crimes,” Jarvis said. “I suppose one fantasy would be that it does turn into MySpace and the only person still talking there is Donald Trump, just talking to the wall.”