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Twitter, when the wall came down

November 5, 2022

I, like many people, have a complicated relationship with Twitter. As Adam and I regaled in a recent Twitter Space, it started when debugging the Twitter fail whale in the offices of Obvious in 2007, where I became thoroughly unimpressed with their self-important skipper, Jack Dorsey. In part because I thought he was such a fool, I refused to join Twitter out of principle.

That changed when after I left Sun, and — acknowledging Twitter’s importance — I passively/aggressively created an account. I quickly learned to appreciate it: for example, at conferences (RIP, #surgecon), live tweets brought an important new element to technical presentations. After giving a talk, you could read feedback in real-time! While there was the occasional nasty remark, I found most of this engagement to be really valuable: because the people who had tweeted feedback on your talk were in the room, they tended to be pretty civil, and if they didn’t have anything nice to say, they didn’t say anything at all. (A reserve seldom summoned for YouTube comments, which turned into a hellhole.) And as an attendee of a talk, it remains fun to tweet the bits that really resonate — which I did as recently as a month ago during Rachel Stephens’s terrific talk at Monktoberfest.

When we started Oxide, Twitter was our marketing department: @oxidecomputer is how we have connected with all sorts of communities — technologists, fans, and future customers alike. It’s been fun to offer up some swag and especially gratifying to watch others discover what we’ve built!

And then came social audio. The Twitter Space that we started as a loony experiment that I talked Adam into has proved really important for Oxide: we have turned it into our Oxide and Friends podcast, which has allowed for some incredible discussions. With Spaces, Twitter felt fresh again: the Spaces team was really thoughtful (especially given that we were so frequently complaining about it!), and it was clear that the product just meant a lot to them — that they saw the same promise that we did. Twitter was flawed, of course, but things seemed to be generally headed in the right direction…

But then, Musk. It’s a tribute to the platform that the first place I wanted to discuss the takeover of Twitter was on the platform itself, and I started an impromptu space on Twitter’s fate. As I write this, that discussion was only a little over a week ago — but it sounds like it’s from another era: we were wildly off the mark about how much damage would be done in just a week!

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising, but Musk has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, having screwed up the most basic element of the business: he doesn’t even know who the customer is! (It’s, um, the ad buyer, stupid.) Instead of doing what any sane new CEO of a troubled entity would do (namely, determining what changes need to be made by spending a bunch of time listening to customers, users, and employees — and then carefully plotting and executing those changes) he seems to be just… making it up as he’s going along. (Who knew that Stephen King is such an effective price negotiator?!) Maybe this would work where customers don’t have a choice or are locked into long contracts, but that isn’t the case here: customers can walk immediately. And advertisers themselves don’t want to be anywhere near controversy, which is why — as Josh Marshall points out — the Drudge Report never had mainstream advertisers, despite having plenty of eyeballs on it. Add to this that Twitter isn’t essential for advertisers and that the macroeconomic environment sucks, and it’s very easy to see how ad buyers would take a wait-and-see approach — reticence which, in the instant world of ad buys, means an immediate decline in revenue.

It’s bad enough that Musk seemed to be surprised by this, but what happened next is truly next-level in terms of executive incompetence: he reacted to the revenue drop by threatening those that are reducing their spend! (Does it need to be said that menacing customers who choose to buy less from you doesn’t really work in a free economy?) And as if this fecal pie were wanting for a topping, there is a fetid cherry on top: deep, bungled layoffs. Even if Musk could plot a path out of this self-inflicted disaster, he will likely lack the team and know-how to do it quickly enough to make a difference for controversy-adverse advertisers.

So it feels like we are at or near a tipping point. I will date myself here, but I am reminded of the extraordinary days leading up to November 9, 1989. Something that had seemed important but small — the opening of the Austrian-Hungarian border in August — led to a chain reaction of change, with each day seeing a larger change than the one preceding it, until it finally reached an unfathomable crescendo: the wall fell. If this predates you this may be hard to appreciate, but no one ever thought the wall would come down, let alone that Germany would reunify. For me personally, it was an early lesson in the dynamics of change: yes, the status quo can maintain itself for a very, very long time — but when change finally arrives, it can happen faster than anyone would have thought possible.

For Twitter, the wall is about to come down: the world is going to change — and it’s not going to change back. I keep wondering about “what is going to replace Twitter”, but I am increasingly of the belief that this is the wrong question, that no single thing is going to replace Twitter. That is, Twitter as an idea — a single social platform catering to all demographics and uses — will become like the evening nightly news or the morning newspaper: a relic from a bygone era. Instead, we will find different venues for different kinds of interaction: where there was one social network, there will be several, if not many — and not all will be open to everyone. Why am I confident about this coming fracturing? Because my kids — ages 18, 15 and 10 — think that this is just stupidly obvious. (As my 10-year-old daughter is fond of saying: “Duh, DAD!”)

So there will be a replacement for social audio (we will gladly pay for a quality service here!), and there will be a replacement for brands building their community, and there will be a replacement for those who want to shitpost or those that just want to engage with folks with similar interests — and they may or may not have overlap. But all of this still leaves me looking for something to replace that personal connection with people I have known over Twitter…

Like others, I created a Mastodon account in early 2017, but (frankly, like others) hadn’t used it really until this past week. And after a week… I like it! Yes, the Fediverse is different: it isn’t trying to glue your eyeballs to the screen, and it’s harder for things to go viral. There is less media, fewer memes, no advertising. And there are humans explicitly in the loop: Mastodon instances are moderated on an instance-by-instance basis — and should an instance descend into a hellscape, it may find itself defederated. But because of all of this, there is also less opportunism, less trolling, less dunking on your enemies, less nastiness. So it also feels more relaxing, more earnest — and easier to put down. It feels a little civic, like BBSs back in the day. It also feels raw, like Twitter did, years ago. And a good reminder that so much about Twitter — the retweet, the quote tweet, the tweetstorm — was invented by its users. So no, Mastodon isn’t the replacement for Twitter, but that’s a good thing, and I intend to be diverting my energies there.

While I won’t be using it as much, I will still be on Twitter, and it will still be around — but I don’t see how this embodiment makes it as a going concern. Musk will surely tire of it, and thanks to the debt that Musk has heaped upon it, it will go bankrupt. And then, like Friendster before it, it will probably be kicked around, bought and sold a few times, before it finally lands as a SlideShare-like ghost town, where you need to watch a 15 second ad before every dril tweet.

In the meantime, you can find me on Mastodon as See you in the Fediverse — or wherever the new world finds us!

4 Responses

  1. I’m not so optimistic about Mastodon. It’s got some virtues, but the pick-a-server aspect of signing up will, I suspect, confuse and deter most people. I found it a hassle, but then the difficulties of following people and liking posts not on my server were even worse.

    Maybe nothing will replace Twitter (if Twitter really does expire) but it’s got a lot of momentum by virtue of the deep, broad social graph many of us have there and the broad embedding across the internet. I like Twitter’s everybody-talking-about-everything style; I would prefer one social network/forum that’s not just like-minded people talking about a particular subject, as in a subreddit.

    I fear also that Mastodon won’t handle the bad actors that come with broader scale. Things are cozier on the internet in the nice early days of a service when people can be themselves, before the trolls, bots, haters, contrarians, spammers, condescenders, arguers, etc. arrive.

    1. Agreed on all fronts, and a week ago I think I would have dismissed Mastodon entirely. But after having been on it for a week, and seeing people absolutely pouring in from Twitter, and seeing Twitter itself commit eye-watering malpractice with respect to its customers, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that change is afoot…

  2. OK I’m an open source guy. I already had a Mastodon account with, but I couldn’t sign in to I had to sign in to linux pizza first. This friction is by design, so it’s more trouble than just going to, which ironically is itself a Mastodon instance. Interesting times!

  3. Never had a twitter account. From my outside perspective the fact that they have all the celebs seemed like their most valuable asset so charging them for blue ticks seems odd. Celebs may not lack money but the hassle alone is a cost. For mastodon, the domain can act as verification like for e-mail, especially if it ever reaches a point where things like the BBC, CNN, political parties etc run their own servers.

    Hopefully a new sound social network emerges to replace whatever twitter thing you use because the audio quality on Oxide and Friends is atrocious. I really loved On the Metal and have enjoyed many of your other podcast appearances. For every hater on youtube, rest assured there were many people like me that have found your talks fascinating but remained silent. I’ve not got a youtube account either, only use it via invidious so I don’t even see the comments.

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