Tesla founder and professional online griefer Elon Musk paid a visit Wednesday to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, carrying a sink to execute a visual pun I won’t condescend to explain here. This was the beginning of a significant week in the life of Musk and the company. The headline-making deal that has left the venerable social media firm in his hands has, after fits and starts, come to fruition. Employees were invited to say hello to Musk as he swanned about the building—a dicey proposition given that Musk had announced that he’ll be shedding three-quarters of the firm’s workers as one of his opening moves.
As Musk neared the completion of a transaction that he may end up regretting, there was a lot of “last week of Twitter” talk circulating. The fears are not entirely unfounded: If Musk carries out his planned purge, people more deeply invested in knowing how Twitter works predict that the move will likely have a “major impact” on the company’s “ability to control harmful content and prevent data security crises.” Of course, for all anyone knows, Musk won’t gut the workforce in this fashion—in fact, while he immediately made a series of splashy firings, he already appears to be walking back this threat. This is typical Musk: His favorite commodity to manufacture, after all, is bravado, which is probably why he wants to be the “chief twit” at the internet’s biggest hot-take mill. It’s very possible to overstate Musk’s malevolence. But as I listen to the doomsaying, I’m reminded that it’s equally possible to overstate Twitter’s importance.
What does it actually mean for Twitter to “end”? Is it going to be like when Friendster ended? Is it going to be like when we all stopped using manual typewriters? If and when Twitter meets its final demise, it stands to reason that we’ll not easily replace it. As Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick notes, there aren’t “any platforms well-established enough to collect Twitter refugees all at once,” and there’s no guarantee that one will. Twitter has, over time, accreted a bunch of different functions that make sense in its skin but aren’t necessarily worth another company replicating. “Historically,” Broderick argues, “the exact features of a dead platform never really come back.”
But it’s one thing to feel wistful about the platform that allowed us all to gasp together when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock in the face; another thing entirely to feel anxious about the possibility that this one may fall into crapulence. I think that most of these fears are based on a misapprehension that Twitter is some kind of manifestation of “the public square”—something that Musk himself still seems to believe as well (though his vision for this public square is less content moderation and more advertising, two ideas he does not understand are in tension with each other).
Here’s the good news, however: Twitter isn’t a “public square.” I don’t mean to downplay the way this platform can and sometimes does have uplifting effects on people’s lives and careers. But you can’t have a public square without the public, and the public has proven itself to be very resistant to Twitter’s charms. A study by Pew Research found that fewer than one-quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter at all. Of this sliver of the population, an even tinier cohort is responsible for the vast majority of tweets: “The top 25% of users by tweet volume produce 97% of all tweets, while the bottom 75% of users produce just 3%.”
As it turns out, Twitter really is just a weird bubble of self-selecting outlier freaks; we’re disproportionately elite but largely unfollowed by the masses. We’re loud and we’re persistent and we’re representative of nothing in particular. And if what we were doing on Twitter was some kind of threat to the powers that be, well, there would probably already be a well-funded campaign to stop us from tweeting, the way there is a well-funded campaign to strip Democrats of their voting rights.
Besides, there’s another way of thinking about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. It may be that the very reason it’s happening is precisely because Twitter is already well on its way to becoming a distressed asset without Musk’s influence and thus ripe for the plucking. According to the firm’s own research, Twitter is struggling to maintain the engagement of its most active users, and an overall shift in user interest—from news, sports, and entertainment to cryptocurrency and “not safe for work” content—stands to “make the platform less attractive to advertisers.”
The picture being painted is of a site struggling to stay relevant and influential, to which Musk is going to tether himself like a subprime mortgage in a doomed effort to refurbish a property that can’t be saved. Even in this regard, we should consider whether more tidal forces are at work. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is also having epochal problems as its “metaverse” play founders and the company (and its founder) shed market value. Maybe what’s happening right now is simple evolution: Social media’s neolithic age is simply giving way to the next era, and the old dinosaurs are sinking in tar.
At any rate, if you’re in need of an actual public square, there’s always the real thing: public and civic life, political organizing, and citizenship. And more and more, we need more reasonable and sane people in that space. We need more people out in the world to outnumber antisemitic thugs who preach hate on highway overpasses and to show up in greater numbers in rooms where monstrous idiots are bullying children to tears because of their insane belief that the mural they painted is “satanic.” Liberals need to be working, in numbers, at polling places on this Election Day and the next. We can all live with Twitter rotting out from the inside, but we can’t allow the same thing to happen to democracy. If these are the last days of Twitter, let’s embrace the fact that we’ll all have more time to do the things that really matter.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.