Journalist | Attorney | Author
The Collapse of a Digital Nation: What the Demise of Twitter Means to the Internet and the World Beyond It
The WIRED article I link to below this essay is a fantastic article. I think it’s even a must-read article.
And yet I do not think that, as the article’s author repeatedly insists is the case, most people actually underestimate the significance of the death of Twitter.
My sense is that most of those who use Twitter regularly are in fact experiencing its somehow simultaneously fast and slow demise as the collapse of an entire digital nation—one that exists at the center of political and cultural and economic discourse the world over. I think we have a reasonable handle on what is happening, on the fact that we are watching a digital Atlantis slip beneath the waves.
But perhaps for selfish reasons, I was struck most by the article’s reference to the holders of certain high-traffic Twitter accounts begging their followers to stay on the platform. To go down with the ship, however long and harrowing and inevitably fatal the gesture might be.
The article avers that these individuals know that they were “made” by Twitter—that they could never have the same influence or reach or audience anywhere else—and that therefore they would selfishly seek to chain their readers to Twitter even as it gradually succumbs to the dark and unrelenting weight of neo-Nazism, trolls, spammers, bots, and insurrectionists. These Twitterati would, the article assures us, rather see their readers drown in misinformation and disinformation and harassment and scams than imminently lose what Twitter has given them.
Maybe so. But that is not my story.
I am one of the Twitter writers this author is speaking of. Unlike Molly Jong-Fast, who is mentioned repeatedly in this article (and who, for what it’s worth, is no fan of mine, possibly because we share neither the same values nor experiences), I do not come from a famous family, I am not ultra-rich, I do not live in New York City, I do not attend (let alone orchestrate) fabulous “A-list” parties (in fact I am an introvert who never networks and prefers to work alone), I did not experience my first taste of having a large audience (and this is something many people get wrong about me) by writing about Donald Trump.
Heck, before Trump was even a thing I had an article I had written about the Star Wars sequels get read by millions and translated into eight languages. I had been asked for my autograph at literary events. I had worked homicide cases in New Hampshire that repeatedly made the newspapers, and fought off reporters trying to get quotes from me. I had been (for a brief time) perhaps the most widely published American poet in U.S. literary magazines, such that when I showed up to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a non-traditional student in 2007 almost all my classmates already knew who I was. My research on metamodernism has been quoted in academic journals and doorstop-size anthologies, and as early as the aughts I was writing cover stories for industry magazines whose content was so controversial (in-industry) that when I went to national trade conferences I had to hide my identity to avoid harassment. For that matter, the first time I was quoted by Rolling Stone for my political commentary was—and this will surprise a heck of a lot of people—in 2005, many years before I created my first Twitter account and indeed even before Twitter existed.
So my story—I hasten to add, like anyone else’s story—is far longer and weirder and more complex and winding than simply the story of signing up for Twitter and beginning to speak there. Maybe Molly Jong-Fast was “made” by Twitter after what the article below calls a “troubled” childhood, and maybe she (as the article strongly suggests) quite self-consciously sought to parlay her clout on Twitter into cultural capital elsewhere through networking and a glittering social life, but I am a loner who was made by me over the course of a difficult lifetime.
Just like all of you. Just like almost anyone, I’d say. I think the notion of a life being wholly defined by single digital platform is basically fantastical. I’m not even sure it’s true of Molly Jong-Fast—I have not attended her “A-list parties” in her “multimillion-dollar New York apartment,” and would never be invited to such events (nor would I accept any such invitation, given how much I hate crowds and small talk and celebrities and artifice), so I really can’t say. Maybe Molly is indeed wholly a creature of Twitter.
There’s no question, and this is something I’ve already said repeatedly here at Post, that Twitter changed my life in every way a life can be changed. I will still never be able to fully process that an obscure rumpled smalltime professor from New Hampshire was flown out to Los Angeles by HBO to give a televised interview about the sitting President of the United States; or that I actually sat for a Playboy photo shoot; or that a documentary is being made about my life; or that I was contacted by the House January 6 Committee; or that for a time I was a regular on CNN and the BBC and routinely quoted in major media reports; or—well, I suppose I could go on forever reminiscing about what ultimately was just one stage in a long life. It all feels a little bit like bragging about a high school football career, now. So much of that is over.
But all of it was, at the time, a whirlwind and bewildering. And it would be easy to credit Twitter for all of it, because all of it happened consequent to the explosion of my Twitter feed in January 2017 (which event itself was almost exclusively the product of a single cutting tweet I made about Kellyanne Conway, who ironically ended up being one of my most steadfast Trumpworld Twitter followers during the Trump administration; her husband George was also a follower on Twitter, and is one of the main reasons I discovered and came to Post—as some of you may know, he’s now the most-followed person on this platform).
But the difference between the collapse of Zimbabwe—a country discussed at great length in the article below—and the collapse of the digital nation we know as Twitter is that Zimbabwe cannot be recreated anywhere else. Once lost as a homeland, it cannot be regained.
The author insists that Twitter has a similar character; it is irreplaceable. And I suppose that is true to the same extent than anything is irreplaceable—get rid of an old car you’ve had for 15 years, that you’ve given a name to and had sex in and crossed a continent in, and your new car might be better in every respect but it will still not be your old reliable Samwise.
On the other hand, for many years I taught poetics for a living: the idea that it is every communicator’s idiosyncratic relationship with self-identity, culture, language, and the genre structures one works within—a relationship birthed by everything about the said communicator, from their traumas and successes to their native temperament and relationships, from their experiences and expertise to their anxieties and peccadillos—that ultimately determines a communicator’s unique contribution to real-time or digital discourse.
Writers who are alive to what makes their capacity to communicate unique are more likely to be engaging and inspiring and memorable, and therefore more likely to develop an audience. It is one reason, frankly, that I think anyone who wants to develop an audience should study poetry at length—as only in poetry do we find such an irreplaceable approach to language that one can honestly say it’s indispensable to digital virality. While Instagram and TikTok influencers may in some instances find success merely because they’re young and beautiful, even on those platforms we often detect a discernible, reducible-to-summary poetics in the highest-traffic accounts. Certainly, the history of literature—not just in the United States but around the world—assures us that only writing undergirded by a poetics actually lasts.
What’s my point? My point is that poetics is portable in a way that Zimbabwe is not, and while Twitter constitutes a genre structure in itself and therefore dramatically inflects poetics, it is not the only digital platform—past, present, or future—with this capacity. Indeed, Post is right now establishing itself as a unique locus for poetics development that’s at once related to and quite distinct from the one we have seen for 15 years now at Twitter.
Perhaps this is why I did not do what this author expected I would—and claims that many other high-traffic Twitter-feed account-holders are doing—as it becomes clear that Twitter is in the midst of a dramatic collapse: I did not urge people to stay on Twitter.
And perhaps part of that is because I did not feel, and do not feel, that I (or anyone else, for that matter) will be unable to reproduce my public exhibition of my poetics elsewhere. In fact, I know that to be a falsehood—a flattery of Twitter that it does not deserve, as the gravest mistake one can make in the study and execution of a poetics is to presume that a single component of anyone’s poetics is defining. The way we communicate in the world is a network of influences and capacities; it is not restricted to a single space in the way that, for instance, the geopolitics of the nation of Zimbabwe is.
All that said, Twitter is, indeed, in the midst of dying a horrible death. And it should be very clear to all of us that that death was a homicide—a deliberate betrayal of hundreds of millions of users by an arrogant, ignorant, antisemitic billionaire who should spend the rest of his life as one of the most scorned men alive—his Mars ambitions be damned.
Yet the idea that anyone must die with Twitter is obscene.
The idea that we cannot pick up our own digital ashes and reconstitute ourselves elsewhere is likewise obscene, as it literalizes digital discourse in a way that betrays what makes the internet magical.
What makes the internet magical is that it is ultimately us, not itself. We decide when and where and how the “magic” of the internet will happen. We do it slowly, over time, and collectively. Often haltingly, yes, with diversions and backward leaps interspersed with forward momentum, but we do do it. And just as Vine was vibrant up until it ended; just as Facebook was a universe unto itself until Trumpism increased its toxicity to the breaking point; digital communities rise and fall with a frequency quite distinct from Rome—a city whose fate is another point of focus and emphasis in the article below.
But Twitter was not Rome. Twitter is merely a digital encampment.
The internet is definitionally nomadic, not imperial.
Once dispersed, the energies that centered on Twitter will never reappear in the same place or with the same constitution. But the energies Twitter harnessed are indeed portable, and will therefore inevitably be reconstituted in a satellite network of new digital encampments across the internet. Yes, Twitter had a centrality and heft those individual encampments may never attain, but as the article below indicates, the centrality of Twitter was always as much problematic as invigorating. It may well have been time for us to disband, for all that we can still damn Elon Musk for forcing us to do so at his whim.
I say this as someone who approached a million followers on Twitter and whose life was changed by Twitter—but who does not want his life to be defined by Twitter.
And that, ultimately, is what I think the article below misses. For as much as we struggle to deal with one another as fully realized humans in digital spaces, it does not change the fact that the internet is ultimately just people. Twitter can inflect how we congregate, but that simply means that when we move on from Twitter, as we invariably must (because every digital denizen is fundamentally a nomad), we bring with us everything good and ill about Twitter and must learn to separate the good from the ill in the same way we do when leaving a relationship, or suffering a trauma, or mourning a loved one. We carry on. We rebuild. We recreate. We adapt. We invent and reinvent. Not just digital spaces, but our own relationship to the world.
So: Elon Musk must never be forgiven.
And: Twitter must never again be trusted in the way it was.
But to anyone hanging on to Twitter as some irreplaceable locus of power and influence and meaning that exists independent of the wills of the hundreds of millions who occupied it, I would say, let it go.
Take what Twitter helped you compile or realize and reimagine it elsewhere. Do not forget what you left behind, but do not be defined or weighed down by it. Be a constellation of everything you know and have experienced, of which Twitter is merely one now burned-out star. Do not forget or forgive those who willfully destroyed it; do not fetishize any future digital encampment or grant it your slavish devotion; but also do not falsely believe there is only one digital Rome. Online, there are innumerable Romes; and while the next ones, much like the first one, will not be created (nor eventually and inevitably, permanently destroyed) in a day, if you commit yourself to a new, freshly zeroed-out follower count elsewhere—cognizant that it is your poetics, rather than your handle, that defines you—you will find yourself back in a “shining city on a hill” eventually.<!/e0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-8-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-2-0-0-5-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-3-0-1-2-0-0-0-0-0-1-3-0-0-0-4-0-0>