What Twitter Was

In retrospect, it's easy to see why the world’s richest person would want to purchase and dismantle it

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The 1997 Austrian film Funny Games takes the form of a social experiment.

A pair of young men, armed with golf clubs, subdues a family of three and holds them captive in their own lakeside vacation home. The invaders malevolently toy with the family, betting them they’ll be dead by dawn.

Excruciating by design, the film quite literally dares its audience to stick it out and watch.

“What do you think?” asks one of the invaders, turning directly to the camera, about a third of the way through. “You think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on, hm?”

In some ways, it’s less a movie than a test, a trick played on the audience to gauge its willingness to be complicit.

The director, Michael Haneke, once famously agreed with a Sight and Sound interviewer who suggested that the most appropriate response to Funny Games — perhaps the only moral response to it — was to walk out.

“Anybody who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film,” he said, “and anybody who stays does.”

Fifteen years later, Haneke made Amour, about an elderly man providing care to his wife as her mind and body progressively deteriorate amidst a series of strokes. Far more tender and widely embraced than Funny Games, Amour earned Haneke an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a nomination for Best Director.

Both movies, in very different ways, tackle versions of the same question: When it becomes clear that a trajectory is locked in — that a situation will only ever get worse and never better, destined for an end that is not just foreseen but a virtual certainty — how do we respond? How do we deal?

Due to, you know, looming climate catastrophe, it’s arguably one of the questions of our time. But I also find it useful for navigating more mundane life decisions, in which the stakes are far from existential.

In 2017, for example, I left a job at NOW Magazine for a job at Canadaland, in large part because I thought it might represent a psychological improvement to work for a startup that offered at least a hope of growth, over a print-based alt-weekly that was only ever going to continue to contract. I used the metaphor of the printer: NOW used to have a giant, full-colour, laser thing that could spit out beautiful pages and scan hefty court documents with ease. But when NOW moved offices after selling its building, it traded in that printer for something smaller, bonier. When I joined Canadaland, it also had a crummy printer — a much crummier printer, in fact. But there was always the hope that maybe, someday, it might get a better printer. (And it did, though not that much better.)

These days, this question — of how to respond to terminal decline — is also something I think about every time that I open the platform formerly known as Twitter.

A social network is always a social experiment. But like Haneke’s titular funny games, this one now seems malevolently rigged — as though to keep playing, and to keep playing along, is necessarily to lose.

Twitter changed information. How it’s distributed and how it’s consumed.

Being there was like dipping your toe into the collective consciousness, maybe splashing around in that a bit. Or like those glass viewing portals you sometimes see at aquaria, that you can poke your head into and look around 360 degrees: clusters of clownfish zipping about, sea turtles briskly gliding through their element, a shark here and there. Dozens of other fish you couldn’t begin to identify, moving in masses with unexpected purpose.

Twitter was the sound of thoughts, everyone’s thoughts, everywhere all of the time, and every bit as magical and unnatural as that sounds.

At its best, it tapped into creativity and wit that had lain dormant in the population, showcasing talents that didn’t previously exist, because there had been no form or shape for them to take.

Live-snark became an art. You could contribute new terms to the language. (We have Toronto writer Kyrell Grant to thank for “big dick energy,” which she’d offered in tribute to Anthony Bourdain on the June 2018 day that he died.) You could trace the evolution of an idea, forwards and backwards, through its constituent particles.

There was no one right way to use it, but for me it was a game: What was the most meaning you could pack into a dispatch of up to 140, or later 280, characters? Often, that meant taking advantage of substantially fewer.

In that sense, Twitter was like poetry — the constraints of the character limit enforcing metric efficiency.

I first clocked that via a 2009 tweet from Margaret Atwood, in which she took to task a new follower who’d described her feed as mundane:

What form other than Twitter might there have been for even an established literary figure to write that: deceptively ephemeral, semantically economical, ostentatiously public?

Twitter, more than any written medium before it, collapsed the space between having a thought and publishing it to the world. Or of learning something — hopefully, something factual — and then telling it to everyone.

Not just breaking events, but all news, became a round-the-clock lapping of waves, rather than something carried in on the tide.

At least as recently as 14 years ago, the Toronto Star, for example, would typically refresh the bulk of the stories on its site just once a day, at 4:30 a.m. precisely. You’d awake to new online content as you would a newspaper arriving to your front door.

Having trouble sleeping one night in February 2010, I wandered over to my computer to check out the Star’s 4:30 a.m. dump. There was one story, kind of off to the side: “Adam Giambrone apologizes for ‘inappropriate’ contact with woman.” From the headline, I thought that maybe the lefty Toronto city councillor and newly registered mayoral candidate had bumped into someone and knocked them over.

It was actually an exclusive about the 32-year-old Giambrone’s long-running sexual relationship with a 20-year-old, who felt betrayed to see him introduce a different woman as his partner at campaign events; he’d claimed the other woman — with whom he’d in fact been living for some time — was strictly there for “political” purposes. The story led to Giambrone exiting the mayor’s race the next day. (This was all mind-bendingly weird for Toronto politics at the time, and arguably set the tone for its next decade.)

At 5:46 that morning, I tweeted the link — adding, “Every. Single. Sentence. Makes. Me. Slap. My. Forehead. Progressively. Harder” — and then enjoyed watching on Twitter as one person after another woke up to the news.

That’s still more or less what happens online when news breaks overnight. But these days, it’s hard to imagine a story like that being quietly tucked on a site at 4:30 in the morning, waiting for passers-by to perhaps catch it from the corner of their eye.

By the end of that year-long mayoral election (which Rob Ford ultimately won), news in this city and elsewhere ceased to be something delivered as a package at an appointed time. Rather, it became an endless unfolding — with each item crafted for maximum, instant impact, as gauged by its real-time absorption into the feverish Mother Brain.

Very often, this was exhilarating. For those of us immersed in it — with a professional responsibility to, and/or personal interest in, keeping up with current events — it transformed the way we think, the way we lived in the world. Like how, over the course of a century, the sky and the air went from having no signals at all to being saturated by all manner of wireless transmissions, we could now choose to become part of an ever-rolling, shared headspace.

In retrospect, that was probably never going to be sustainable. Who would have guessed that being attuned to all of the world’s injustices at once might have some less-than-stellar psychological effects?

Asked in a 1993 episode of Seinfeld why postal workers sometimes snapped, the character of Newman spelled out his Sisyphean torment:

“Because the mail never stops! It just keeps coming and coming and coming, there’s never a letup, it’s relentless. Every day, it piles up, more and more and more, and you gotta get it out, but the more you get out, the more it keeps coming in! And then the barcode reader breaks! And it’s Publishers Clearing House day!”

That essentially describes Twitter, if each bit of anxiety were itself converted into a new piece of mail.

Despite this — and if we can agree that Twitter as Twitter ended last summer, when Elon Musk changed its name to X — I would still argue that it was the only major social media platform that, over the course of its life, was actually a net positive for the world. And even served as proof that the world was something that words could change.

My first tweet came on Thursday, March 12, 2009.

I pointedly wrote it in the form of a Facebook status: “is trepidatious.” As in, “Jonathan Goldsbie is trepidatious.”

Within three months, I tweeted something that cost me a job — well, really a poorly-paid online-writing gig — when I highlighted some Globe and Mail reporting that revealed that one of the new owners of the city blog I wrote for had been quietly guiding the potential mayoral bid of a right-wing city councillor.

From that experience, it was abundantly clear that Twitter had some stakes. But it was about a year after that that I first encountered its ability to create cleavages in reality.

Toronto’s G20 weekend is, today, in large part remembered as a police riot: that time in June 2010 when cops lost their shit en masse, attacking peaceful protesters — or really anyone who just happened to be around — scooping up over a thousand people and tossing them into tightly-packed cages in a makeshift warehouse-jail.

For most Torontonians, however, that wasn’t how it was seen at the time. For those following the events of that weekend on CP24 or via most other mainstream media, the chaos was characterized not by police brutality and mass detention but by smashed storefronts and a handful of burning police cars — in the face of which, some arrests, and perhaps even some use of force, would, naturally, be appropriate. People should stop whining and be grateful to police for restoring order.

But if you followed the events on Twitter, your perspective was different — radically different, informed by thousands of real-time dispatches from friends, journalists, randoms, documenting moment by moment as police just arbitrarily swarmed or trapped them.

Police could claim that the people they were kettling for hours in the rain at Queen and Spadina were potentially dangerous. But when you could attach names to many of those people and read real-time accounts relayed via their dying phones… That wasn’t something police were accustomed to having to compete with in the moment.

Roger Ebert tweeted that night:

In the last years of his life, the legendary Chicago-based film critic had lost the use of his voice but become deeply immersed in Twitter.

“Eerie,” he observed the next day, when passing along a video of police charging at protestors. “The words ‘O Canada, we stand guard for thee’ are the signal to advance.”

Seeing Ebert recognize what had just happened in Toronto was validating. Even Toronto’s nominally progressive mayor at the time, David Miller, insisted that we had not seen and experienced the things that we had in fact seen and experienced.

At a press conference in the immediate aftermath, Miller declared that, compared to what he’d seen in coverage of similar events around the word, “The only conclusion you can come to is that we have a police service that respects people’s rights, that acts with incredible professionalism. You know, on a hot sunny afternoon, to be in riot gear with criminals throwing rocks at you, and not a single police officer I’m aware of ever lost his professional demeanour.”

I was present when he said that, and the rift in the room was alarming and disorienting, growing ever more so as increasingly flummoxed journalists flung questions at him.

There was, of course, nothing new or special about different people having differing opinions, or even divergent understandings of events. But this felt closer to an existential fracturing — and which universe you occupied depended on the medium through which you’d consumed the news.

There was a massive march up University Avenue that evening, representing an extraordinary cross-section of the city’s artists, musicians, academics, activists, and journalists — the 2010-era civic Twittersphere made flesh.

Twitter, a medium chiefly rooted in text, which didn’t even yet have native photo or video functionality, had managed to radicalize us by offering a competing — and, crucially in this case, a fuller and more accurate — version of the world.

Rob Ford was not a writer — in the sense that, as far as I’ve even been ever able to discern, he didn’t communicate in writing. Among all of the documents and records ever released in connection to him, I can’t recall a single example of an email or other message that he appeared to have actually written.

And Ford’s supporters were not big into smartphones — not circa 2010, when he was elected mayor. While other candidates released their own apps, his campaign pointedly kept things low-tech, correctly observing that his supporters weren’t the kinds of people who had iPhones. Rather, they were webbed together by talk radio. Maybe TV. A little Facebook. The Toronto Sun.

“The Rob Ford campaign,” I tweeted at the time, “is the inevitable result of every comment troll on every newspaper website banding together to form a political party.”

That was probably condescending and perhaps naive.

But I’m struck by how my main reference point for online expressions of ambiguous right-wing rage was the comments sections under articles on newspaper websites. They were likely the only places I regularly came across people who were angry about everything from potholes to what they perceived as the dominant liberal order. There weren’t that many central, online spaces where they had an opportunity to both be angry together and angry in the faces of everyone else. They were, in large part, scattered.

As in different ways, we all kind of were.

In the following years, social media in general — and Twitter in particular — famously gave rise to mass movements like #IdleNoMore, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo, which emerged from the coalescence of innumerable voices that, individually, had for too long been marginalized or dismissed.

On an April 2022 episode of Canadaland’s Short Cuts podcast, the writer Sarah Hagi joined me to talk about what it would mean for Elon Musk to buy Twitter, why the platform had been important, and the kinds of things that might or might not stand to be lost.

“A huge thing for people who support Palestinian causes is finding each other on Twitter,” she said, because “Palestinians and those who support Palestinians know that you won’t see these voices in the news. You won’t get to see Palestinians write about what’s happening to their people.”

“I do think there is power,” she said, “in people being like, ‘Well, you can’t take my voice away from me if I’m tweeting about these things.'”

Sometimes, when Twitter would splinter from the mainstream, it meant that those within a shared headspace would gain a better understanding of structures of power, say, or how colonialism or racism or misogyny work in practice. It could could create new empathy by offering a fuller and more accurate picture of the world.

At other times… Well, as I write this, X is telling me that Tucker Carlson is the #1 trend in Canada and that the top topic in the States is “Civil War.” (I did click through to confirm that, no, it was neither a reference to the historical event nor the upcoming A24 film.)

The kinds of people I’d dismissed as Ford’s “comment trolls” also found each other. Those disparate voices — not necessarily marginalized but certainly of the belief they were — coalesced in the same online spaces, and on the same online platforms, that gave rise to other movements.

These days, when X and its headspace part ways with the offline world, it’s not usually suggestive of a better one.

I’m a better writer than I am a talker. Audio is not necessarily my strength. If you’ve ever heard me on Short Cuts, or spoken to me in person, chances are that you’ve heard me stammer, zip in circles, second-guess myself mid-sentence.

Twitter was a good medium for me: it was written, but with the immediacy and liveness of speaking.

And the power in that was not just collective but also individual.

In 2009, The New Yorker film critic David Denby published a book-length polemic on snark. It was called simply Snark, and he was not a fan. The paperback edition carried the subtitle It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.

I haven’t read it. But every so often, I do revisit The New York Timesreview of Denby’s book, by the novelist Walter Kirn, in which he affirmed: “Snickering at power has it uses, whatever Denby imagines drives the snickerers, and however he belittles their spitting prose. Playing polite, though, exacts a higher price…”

Twitter was not just a place to spit prose at the powerful, but a place to do so where they might actually see it. It took advantage of a fundamental insecurity shared by political leaders, business magnates, and pretty much every person who shapes our culture: these are people who crave to learn what’s being said about them, and who can be quite perturbed by what they find.

Armed with sufficient creativity, intellect, and/or wit, any given Twitter user could potentially land a spitball on the nose of a person at the top, who might otherwise be insulated from criticism or accountability, and while millions of others bear witness to the humiliation.

When viewed in that light, it’s less surprising that the world’s richest person would choose to purchase and dismantle it.

To be fair, before Musk bought Twitter in October of 2022, it was already becoming the worst version of itself.

Every social platform gradually withers, as bad actors figure out how to game it, dragging garbage of all kinds from the margins to the centre. And the people in charge of these sites rarely see a net benefit in addressing the mutation, if they even consider it a problem at all.

But since Musk took over, that transformation has been by design. Throughout late 2022 and all of 2023, every time I went on, there’d be a new, evident change making it, tangibly, just a little bit worse.

Hanging out on Twitter/X felt a bit like going on holiday to a place with an increasingly spotty rights record: yeah, some of the beaches are still open, but why do journalists critical of the regime keep mysteriously disappearing?

Of all the places in the world we could be… do we still choose this one? It does look like it’s rather keen for civil war.

Among countless other things, Musk has been using X to spread false claims about the American voting system, having already eliminated the controls in place to keep others from doing so. As an NYT report — not an op-ed but a news report — plainly stated last week, “No major media owner of the modern era has used his national platform to insert himself so personally and aggressively into an American election.” (Yes, they are saying even moreso than Murdoch.)

Is sticking around there useful for the sake of bearing witness? Of trying one’s best to counter the harm? Or would that simply lend credibility to, and play into the hands of, the whole dystopic enterprise?

As a way to quantify my presence on the site: From the time I joined Twitter until around a month after Musk took over, I sent 77,200 tweets, or about 15 per day on average. I sent fewer than 15 in the whole latter half of last year, including the one I posted by mistake, intending it for Bluesky.

I actually spend far more time on TikTok these days.

The past few years of TikTok have been thrilling, the way early Twitter was thrilling. It taps into creativity that lay dormant, showcases talents that didn’t previously have forms to take.

Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical — a joke that snowballed via thousands of people, until it sort of became an actual thing — was like witnessing the birth of a new form of art, collective creation as emergent consciousness.

But I’ve never posted a single thing to TikTok. It’s not my medium.

Twitter prized information and wit. Instagram is about aesthetics. TikTok, theatre-kid energy.

I don’t have theatre-kid energy.

I’m a better writer than I am a performer.

Rob Ford, so long as someone else were actually making the videos, would’ve rocked TikTok. I’m not sure that would’ve been a good thing, but it undoubtedly would’ve been entertaining.

And even from where TikTok is right now, it’s pretty easy to see what it will look like as the junkiest content continues to encroach from the edges.

I’d like to think, therefore, that it’s time for a new paradigm. And that’s why I’m on Mastod— no, that’s not where this is heading.

I can’t pretend to know what’s next. But I’m reasonably confident that it shouldn’t be more of the ever-worsening same.

Perhaps anyone who leaves Twitter no longer needs it. And anyone who stays, does.

Top photo — of Tim Etchells’s All We Have (Double Line) mounted on the Onassis Stegi in Athens — taken by Jonathan Goldsbie.

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