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Extract 'Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover shows we badly need a new future for social media'

In an extract from her new book, Social Capital, author Aoife Barry looks at the early days of Twitter and what it has morphed into since Musk took over.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Apr 2023

WE KNOW THAT life moves fast on the internet, but sometimes its changes can be so swift, they are discombobulating.

As I was writing my new book on social media in Ireland, called Social Capital, Twitter – one of my most visited social media sites, and one of the world’s most controversial apps – appeared to be undergoing an unexpected and shattering revolution.

Things had already been changing in recent years in the world of social media. Facebook had been the first such site to herald a new evolution of online communication, an American website set up by nerdy Harvard students which went global.

It moved relationships online beyond the innocent days of MySpace, Friendster and Bebo, and into a more exciting, interconnected world where social media was soon less of a choice than a necessity.

While the early social media sites were platforms, Facebook showed that they could build themselves into infrastructure: essential for people, businesses, celebrities, politicians, and families.

Something new

This was inspirational to a generation of young, enthusiastic and power-seeking tech entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley was the incubator for attempts at following Facebook’s lead. Two major creations that emerged to capture global attention were the photo-based Instagram (later bought by Facebook), and microblogging site Twitter.

They blossomed to the point where, like Facebook, they became embedded in everyday life. In this new frontier, the founders could become billionaires; their sites could have cultural, political and social power; their origin story could even be turned into a Hollywood movie.

But every story, every narrative, has to have its points of conflict, its moments of peril. By the cusp of the 2020s, the carefree early days of social media felt like a moment of collective naivety – were we all really so stupid as to think that these sites and apps, connecting so many strangers around the world, and helmed by extremely rich tech bros in love with capitalism and at home in the corridors of power, would not lead to issues on both individual and societal levels?

twitter-rate-limit PA PA

Us users, devoid of real power when it came to what these sites, apps and companies could do, had to grudgingly accept that social media was not created simply to allow us to catch up with news or private message crushes: these sites were set up to make money, and our every click, like, and friend request was a coin dropping into a CEO’s source of income.

Changing landscape

We had to realise that nothing, indeed, was free and that we were the product. By the late 2010s journalists, academics and intellectuals were teasing apart exactly what that meant. How could we keep hooked into the internet, and all of the useful, titillating and life-changing content it provided us while being cognisant of what it was taking from us, too?

These questions, and their varied answers, fermented away for a few years. Then came the early 2020s. While Facebook was the main site that kept getting into trouble, a change of ownership at Twitter showed that there might be an appetite out there among users for serious change when it came to how they interacted on social media.

The future for this arena was looking rough, and none of the questions created by its existence were being answered – they were just being joined by even more thorny queries.

When I started to write Social Capital in 2021, Twitter wasn’t having a good time, but I wasn’t to know it would be the site to show what sort of social media future people desired – and how hard it would be to reach tech utopia. The site was, by this time, known by many of its own users as a ‘hellsite’. It had started off as a place to gather and share short, pithy posts, called tweets. Twitter had a similar origin story to Facebook, Instagram, et al: a group of forward-thinking tech-obsessed men had created a new way to communicate online and became rich while doing it. It was a symbol of the possibility of tech ideas, of disruption, of levelling the world of news and connection.

WhatsApp Image 2023-04-20 at 16.54.49 Aoife Barry's new book, Social Capital. Aoife Barry Aoife Barry

When I first joined Twitter, just like all the other social media sites I’d joined over the years, it had felt intimate and even cosy. There were distinct communities, and I was part of ‘Irish Twitter’ from 2008 on, a self-defined community of people who lived in or were from Ireland. It became more than a place to just share your thoughts. Like Facebook, it had shown the power of the internet to connect people.

But unlike any other social media site, it had really shone at moments when it mattered to have people openly sharing their experiences, like during the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter protests, the MeToo movement and the Ukraine war.

The ‘main character’ on Twitter changed day to day. Sometimes its high points, where it felt like everyone on there was talking about the exact same thing, had one leg in absurdity, like the day everyone was tweeting about David Cameron and a pig, or the weeks of arguments over whether a dress was blue or not.

But within a few years, Twitter had become a site with global reach which was owned by a company that was struggling to make an acceptable profit. The user experience was becoming uncomfortable. Ads cluttered Twitter feeds; negative and abusive comments could be sent easily; moderation had to be ramped up but never felt sufficient. The atmosphere on Twitter both reflected and heightened the darkness of the world outside, as Trump’s election, Brexit, the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis and multiple other major news events were broadcast, outlined, discussed and debated on there. Misinformation sprung up easily.

Scrolling through Twitter began to feel like self-harm of the mental kind. It genuinely made people feel bad. But it was too hard to stay away. We needed to know what was going on, and we could find out right there. Every last disturbing thing.

Then came Elon Musk. The South African billionaire, who always seems to wear the smirk of someone who knows he has more power and money than you, was riding high on the success of his company Space X, and the mashup of success and criticism garnered by his electric vehicle company Tesla.

The ebullient Musk was prone to making dashed-off major pronouncements on Twitter, but in a tone that could be read as ‘Just joking!’ if he changed his mind (which he sometimes did). When he announced he was going to buy Twitter and change it for the better, it seemed like a stunt. But he made the purchase – before rapidly trying to reverse his decision.

Eventually, he was forced by a court into completing the sale, for $44 billion.

elon-musk-on-twitter General view of twitter poll result, displayed on a mobile phone in London. Elon Musk looks set to step down from the top job at Twitter after just two months, if he respects the results of an online poll launched on Sunday night. Around 57% of 14 million voters had said that Mr Musk should resign as Twitter chief executive with around three hours to go until the poll closed. Picture date: Monday December 19, 2022. PA PA

The next thing Twitter users knew, a guy who often posted uncredited memes, and who was sympathetic to conservative and right-leaning viewpoints, was the new boss of the place where they spent much of their internet time. Within days, Musk had fired half of Twitter’s staff, including staff in Ireland, and was making plans to monetise membership of the free site. The symbolism of a billionaire buying a company, sacking its board and then setting fire to whatever he disliked was a stunning display of late-stage capitalism and techno-dystopia.

Moving on

As soon as Musk was confirmed as Twitter’s new owner, my feed became populated with people waving goodbye, pledging not to forget the good old days. I thought it best to sign up to at least one alternative social site to secure my user name.

I joined Mastodon, which was having such a heavy influx of new members that it had to undertake funding drives to keep up with the demand. Mastodon claimed to have a better way of solving one of social media’s biggest problems, moderation, by making server owners pledge to undertake ‘active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia’.

But as membership grew, it was clear the same types of moderation issues might end up plaguing Mastodon servers too.

So it turned out, then, that the future of social media was the past. Twitter’s new evolution, with a suspicious ‘baddie’ at the helm, seemed to be forcing a revolution. While people had often threatened to leave, or did leave, Facebook during its moments of crisis, this felt different. Now, there were genuine alternatives – like Mastodon – to retreat to. Twitter users were rising up and choosing to go somewhere else. And they were choosing to go backwards. But the online locations they wanted to step into were not radical, newly-imagined websites that had crashed the code of old. They aimed to do things like we used to back in the early days of the internet, only a little simpler.

Looking back over social media’s previous two decades, as I’d experienced it in real time, I was not surprised to see people deciding to turn back to what they once knew, to when there were fewer people around, less noise. To when an online space felt personal and humble.

What working on this book had shown me was what I had suspected: that life online had meant holding onto intertwined threads that users were desperately trying to unpick.

They hadn’t even spotted how they were coming together, as they were spun by every keystroke and like. The threads were made up of a feeling of excitement about a means of expression and connection; the joy of learning new things and finding kinship; the exasperation and anxiety as more negativity, trolling and targeted behaviour emerged on the sites they used; the desire to be on the very sites that had started to repel them, as they provided essential and enlightening information.

All of the biggest social networks were having and creating problems of their own. Twitter had just forced people to face up to things suddenly. But I wondered to myself, given all that had gone before, how much of the past online we are doomed to recreate.

Aoife Barry is an author and journalist. Social Capital is published by Harper Collins Ireland on 27 April. Pre-order here.

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