Not With A Bang But a Twitter
Is Twitter dead yet?
Elon Musk may kill Twitter, or Twitter might die on its own. The death of social networks is rarely dramatic or cataclysmic, though. They fade, rather than explode and the koan becomes, if no one is around to doom scroll, does the feed still make that chirp when you reload it?
A possible fate for the company is that he will drive it into bankruptcy and whoever owns the debt will sell it to somebody who will pay a discount to own its equity and control a much smaller company.
Don’t let the Middlebrow Die! I promise not to sell it to Elon Musk.
Friendster, the first of the popular networks, founded in 2003, was widely considered “killed” by Facebook and Twitter during the late aughts. But it had millions of users until 2015, when its owners finally shut it down. Friendster served tens of millions in 2009 (by which point nostalgic Gen-Xers were writing pieces asking what happened to it) but “the bonds linking the network weren't particularly strong.” Friendster dissipated, but it took another half decade.
For awhile it seemed that Friendster might go on forever, just with new network membership. It found, well, a second life, as an online gaming platform hosting 60 social games that were popular with users in Southeast Asia. So, for awhile, it had a vibrant community, just not one focused on the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes, the Internet can leave large groups of people in obscurity.
Also launched in 2003, Myspace was once the world’s most visited website. It still exists, largely to promote musicians. A a niche network for musicians and their fans, it lacks wide cultural currency but has plenty to offer its users. Before the pivot to music, Myspace still had users who liked hanging out in a “ghost town,” which is a possible fate for Twitter. For some people, hanging out in the more obscure online spots is desirable. Reddit, which ultimately proved that these sites cannot really exist without consent moderation, is built on a foundation of neighborhood haunts that most people wouldn’t be caught dead in but that its denizens can’t live without.
Second Life, the prototype of what Mark Zuckerberg seems to be trying to recreate with Meta, still has tens of thousands of users at a time. Maybe Zuck is onto something, though he seems to be unable to even build avatars with legs. The Middlebrow always thought it was hands that were hard to draw. While all eyes now are one whether Musk will kill Twitter, it would be equally fair to ask if Zuck will kill Facebook by less obvious means — did he lose focus trying to make Meta the equivalent to Google’s Alphabet and let his core business slip, or did he have to do this as Facebook hasn't been cool since, well… Facebook has never been cool, it’s just the everyone you knew used to be on it. Now they’re all still on it but nobody ever posts.
Twitter could schism and whither like Friendster, though the platform never really relied on personal, real life connections the way other social networks do. In one sense, this was a strength, as it allowed regular people to feel like they were in conversation and celebrities and newsmakers. In another sense, it’s a weakness because it was never a real conversation and most people know that.
Tweeting at a prominent person’s account, which The Middlebrow is guilty of, is a lot like yelling at the television. Most of those big accounts are run by social media representatives anyway. They can be an effective path from a company’s marketing department to better customer service, but that’s about it. Real engagement with a notable person or leader is rare and risky for both sides.
For Twitter’s notable and celebrity users, the platform might be had to give up as it is a cheap and easy way for people with fans to broadcast to them, while seeming to enjoy a personal connection. So, Twitter could devolve into a collection of news tickers for special people (like Myspace is for music). In that sense, it will have its users so long as people are invested in their fandoms. It remains the platform that killed the prominence of the RSS Feed.
In the early days of Twitter, the idea was that it was a clean slate for expression where unknown people might find and build huge audiences even as the traditional gatekeepers kept them off the op-ed pages of The New York Times and out of the pages of glossy magazines (these things used to matter more). But as Twitter shifted from a simple chronological timeline of who you follow to its “editorial by algorithm” approach, traditional social hierarchies were reinforced.
Twitter could still fill a niche for writers and readers. The other networks reward flashy graphics while Twitter rewards text. There’s also an opening here (some white space, as they call it) as Goodreads has never properly served this function (it’s just too much of a sales tool). But this is clearly not Elon’s goal. If he can’t even get along with Stephen King, he’s not going to build the site of books for the bookish — and nobody makes any money doing that anyway, unless they sell books for a living.
Years from now, the “What Ever Happened to Twitter?” think piece will surely blame Elon, just like “Whatever happened to AOL?” articles blamed TimeWarner (and whatever happened to TimeWarner?)
But I don’t know if Elon is a cause or more like that fatal pneumonia that shows up to kill a severely ill hospital patient. Because of how Twitter went public, it was always for sale to some big money buyer, be it a person or corporation. This isn’t true for Facebook, which went public but granted its founder super-voting shares so that any transaction would need his enthusiastic approval, no matter what other shareholders might think. When Musk made a pot joke by offering Twitter’s shareholders the princely sum of $54.20 a share, Twitter’s board had an obligation to hold Musk to paying every cent that was written into the merger agreement. They couldn’t, say, sell to Disney for less in the hopes of getting more stable corporate ownership and a better future for the network. The obligation was clear.
But to blame Musk isn’t exactly right. The way Twitter is set up, it could have been almost any buyer from Jeff Bezos to Warner Brothers Discovery (Oh, THAT’s where TimeWarner went, without Time!). There are even scenarios, though U.S. regulators would have to go along, where one could imagine that foreign corporations connected to governments with propaganda objectives might have paid up for it — a long shot given U.S. concerns about media ownership and data privacy, but you never know in a democracy.
Another reason that Elon might be more symptom than cause is that Twitter is, for a faddish company that started as an online diversion but is past the prime of its cultural relevance, kind of old. That means a lot of its users are old. That’s not cool.
Not cool like The MiddleAge. Erm… Brow.