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Reviews | If Twitter dies, democracy will not go with it

Yes, Twitter is useful, but it’s really not that essential and irreplaceable. The panic mongers, who claim to speak for the masses, actually speak for a small minority (including the press, which tends to exaggerate the usefulness of the service) who have become too dependent on the service. Twitter is great even in its current erratic and inconsistently subdued form, but if Musk smothers the life out of it, you’ll be fine.

The problems suffered by all the $44 billion companies should be in the news. But it’s an easy argument to make that the Twitter drama has dominated coverage since last spring in part because reporters remain so devoted to it. Nieman Lab made this obvious several days ago in an article listing 11 (and more) ways journalism would suffer if Musk stifled Twitter. Gone are the real-time comments, reviews, and insights on stories. Gone would be a universal place for breaking news. No more screenshots of the best bits of stories. No more easy access to sources, experts and interviews conducted by DM. Gone is the real-time coverage of trials, events and crime scenes made possible by tweet streams.

All true! But where is the disaster? Could journalists be forced to use their phones again? God forgive! Or read the morning paper for themselves and subscribe to magazines and read them? The saturation coverage of Twitter’s troubles has less to do with how his passing would upset the world and more with the convenience he offers journalists. Somehow we meet deadlines in the pre-Twitter world. We could definitely do it again if the bluebird blew his brains out.

People like to present Twitter as a tool for democracy. You can argue that point of view, but in practice it’s a very elite institution. According to a Pew Research Center study, only 1 in 5 American adults say they use Twitter, a number that hasn’t changed much since 2018. Compare that to numbers from YouTube (81%) and Facebook (69%). Democrats are overrepresented on the site (32% of users) compared to Republicans (17%). Predictably, 47% of those who identify with or lean towards Democrats say Twitter is good for democracy and only 17% of Republicans or Republican supporters share this view. Twitter is also geared towards young people, with 42% of its users in the 18-29 age bracket. Grandpa and grandma don’t care much about Twitter: only 7% of users are over 65.

Perhaps the most striking fact collected by Pew covers not age or political orientation, but the lopsided numbers on who tweets the most: the top 25% of users by volume write 97% of tweets. Far from being the voice of the people, Twitter is the voice of the self-proclaimed. (It should be noted here that Twitter appears to be losing its most active users, according to a Reuters article based on internal documents, but this is a trend that predates the Musk regime.)

Let’s say Twitter expires. So what? In times of calamity, people can be remarkably adaptive, finding substitutes or going without, especially when the good or service contains more convenience than necessity. Recent migrations to Mastodon and Post have proven this in spades. As some have noted, the death of Twitter will, at least in the short term, fertilize the soil for smaller, less centralized services to thrive.

But that’s not likely to happen. Even the fact that key advertisers have suspended their Twitter accounts is not as bad as the news reports suggest. Advertisers can be nervous, abandoning their Fox News channel when a host transgresses, but they often return after a decent interval. Even if Musk does a Twitter sloppy, someone who acquires him in bankruptcy court could revive him. There’s a lot of value in having 238 million monetizable users, value that even a supervillain like Musk can’t easily vaporize.

Go ahead and dig Twitter’s grave, but don’t plan on filling it with the bird.


Tweet your thoughts to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are honored at this time. My Twitter feed doesn’t like to be written like that. My Mastodon account does the best he can. My RSS the food wants the bird dead.

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