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Finishing With Twitter/X
Enough wrestling with the pig. Time to go.
Last week’s edition of The Connector, “Is it Finally Time to Quit Twitter/X?” struck a nerve. It got dozens of comments here on Substack, plus more than 50 (and counting) on my Facebook page. I suppose this is one of the questions on which just about everyone not only has an opinion, but people feel strongly enough about those opinions to share them. Plus a lot of us are fellow travelers--we have been on the social media rollercoaster since its earliest days, when the ways we shared what we were up to were called “blogs” and “RSS” rather than tweets or posts or what-have-you. For that group, and especially for those of us who managed to build up some degree of social capital on Twitter/X, dealing with its decline is harder, I suspect, than just giving up your iPhone for an Android. Hell, some of us were even evangelists for Twitter in its early days, when politicians were wary of the platform and the Sunlight Foundation (which I helped start) ran a campaign called “Let Congress Tweet.” Abandoning something you’ve been using for a long time isn’t easy.
As I wrote in last week’s post, I could see pros and cons for quitting, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I had landed. Being undecided about participating on a platform that is actively welcoming racists, conspiracists and January 6ers as a matter of policy, not happenstance, isn’t tenable. So I’ve been thinking about the question for the past week, looking for clarity.
One thing I did was take a look at what a lot of our peers are doing. Years ago, while I was running Personal Democracy Forum, I built a Twitter list called “TechPolitics” that was made of people I knew from the fields of electoral politics, organizing, media, philanthropy, and tech, just to have a quick way to see what an interesting subset of my larger attention universe was talking about. The list has 289 accounts on it, and probably hasn’t been updated in at least five years if not longer. You might call it an “OG” tech-politics list, since there are lots of people newer to the scene not included on it.
What I found surprised me. I went through the list quickly, so these numbers are rough. After you subtract about 65 accounts from the total, either because they’re for organizations, or defunct entities, or they belong to people who have died, that leaves about 224. More than half of those, at least 127, are still active or relatively active on Twitter/X. That is, they’ve tweeted at least once in the last few weeks. Many are still tweeting or retweeting multiple times a day. I’m sharing my raw tally below, but just to give you a sense of my surprise, here are just some of the people from the world of tech-politics who are still active on Twitter:
Adam Conner, Alex Howard, Allyson Kapin, Andy Carvin, Arianna Huffington, Baratunde Thurston, Beth Simone Noveck, Cory Doctorow, Craig Newmark, danah boyd, David Weinberger, Douglas Rushkoff, Eric Schmidt, Esther Dyson, Ethan Zuckerman, Howard Rheingold, Ilyse Hogue, Jared Cohen, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Jen Pahlka, Jerry Michalski, Joan Donovan, Joe Trippi, Jonathan Zittrain, Katie Harbath, Lawrence Lessig, Liz Mair, Marietje Schaake, Mark Pesce, Markos Moulitsas, Nancy Scola, Naomi Klein, Rebecca MacKinnon, Sasha Issenberg, Scott Heiferman, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Steven Johnson, Tim O’Reilly, Tom Steinberg, and Zeynep Tufekci.
If I had more time, I could write a precis about every one of these people, but these are some of the most innovative and influential thinkers and doers at the intersection of tech and politics. Among them are the people who brought Facebook to Washington DC, who popularizing live-tweeting at NPR, who have written many of the most seminal books about tech and society, who founded and/or ran pivotal organizations like Google, Data & Society, Code for America, DailyKos, mySociety, Global Voices, BoingBoing, MIT’s Center for Civic Media, and Harvard’s Berkman Center. Arguably nearly all of them are well established enough in their fields to give up their Twitter accounts, and yet here they are.
There’s a smaller group, roughly about 25, who are still on Twitter but basically inactive in that they haven’t posted anything in more than three months. That includes people like Alec Ross, Joe Rospars, Clay Shirky, Andrew McLaughlin, Beth Kanter, Jonah Peretti and Wendy Seltzer. (Again, fuller list below.)
Only nine people from my original “TechPolitics” list have explicitly quit the site. They are Dave Karpf, Jessica Clark, Ana Marie Cox, David Colarusso, Matthew Burton, Dan Gillmor, Cheryl Contee, Ruby Sinreich, and Chris Messina.
The people who have quit have all offered their reasons. Dave Karpf, who teaches at George Washington University, wrote an eloquent Substack post responding to mine, which in short says that he’s just not getting meaningful network effects from being there any more, partly because of how Elon Musk is re-engineering the site and partly because a lot of people he cares about reaching seem to have left. He admits that his decision to go dormant isn’t “because of some grand principled stance” but rather because he just doesn’t see any pros to staying: “You can’t reach an audience on X. You can’t organize on X. You can’t follow breaking news on X. The people who made Twitter fun have all given up. There’s nothing worth sticking around for anymore.”
Others were more explicitly political. Cheryl Contee, who joined in April 2007 (back she was half of Jack and Jill Politics, one of the first Black political blogs), went dormant in June, writing “This is going to be my last tweet for awhile. It makes me sad to walk away from a community I care about. Those who follow me will understand, I know, why I cannot support a platform led by someone like @elonmusk, who is creating a toxic, broken platform. Feels good to hit pause.” Ruby Sinreich, a progressive web developer and strategist from Durham, NC, who joined in October 2006, and amazingly still maintains her Lotusmedia blog going back all the way to June 2002, walked away last December, writing, “I've been on Twitter for SIXTEEN years and it pains me to walk away from this history, but I just can't ethically participate in this anymore.”
Dan Gillmor, one of the best and most ethical tech journalists I know, wrote me to say that journalists had a particular responsibility to leave the platform and to do so in a way that helps re-create the value we get from Twitter somewhere else. Participating in the site now, even fighting back against Musk on the platform, just helps keep the place afloat, he argued.
“I can't do it. I can't lend support, even indirectly, to someone who has consistently and loudly demonstrated his contempt for journalism, at least honest journalism, and for freedom of speech that he doesn't like. The threats to ADL and others are only the latest evidence.
I can't bear to help him in his active, visible, and proud backing of extremists have made it clear, again and again in all kinds of forums, not just Twitter, that they want to establish authoritarian-verging-on-fascist rule that gives them power over the vast majority that does not share their ideology.
I'm with the advertisers who've cut ties, even if they've done it for purely financial reasons. I don't want to be associated in any way with a business that is owned and operated in such malign ways by one of the most dangerous people in our society. (I've kept my account solely to prevent the username from being co-opted, and to prevent cancellation of the account for non-use I periodically post a plea to journalists to leave, and to remind people that there are real alternatives.)”
Not everyone has such a clear stance. Indeed, it’s striking to note how many people who are involved professionally in communicating or organizing online who said that they were on the fence, or still evaluating their options, or that the thing to do now was to invest more energy on some other platform and slowly titrate down off of Twitter/X.
Having heard a lot from the “leave” side, I was also curious to learn more about why some people are staying put and actively participating.
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig was the only person I contacted with a “Twitter Blue” account, meaning that he was paying the platform for prioritization. In his Twitter/X handle, he says, “Law professor, activist. The ‘activist’ part requires I go Twitter Blue. Happy to help support the platform. Insane it's been rendered so political.” Asked why he was doing this, he wrote me, “If I didn’t have obligations to the causes I’m working for, I wouldn’t be there. But when we push things, we need every venue we can have.” On Twitter, @Lessig has 332,000 followers, which is no small shakes. But while defending his usage of it, he admitted some ambivalence too. “I don’t know what’s right here, Micah. I subscribe to subreddits, and read them without quandary, even though I know there are hateful subreddits as well. Should I be doing that?” And he argued that quitting would have no positive effect. “How is the world a better place if I throw away any resource in that fight, just to give the finger to a guy who doesn’t give a shit? I’ve already wasted too many cycles criticizing him. Why must he cost me more?
Markos Moulitsas, the founder and proprietor of the giant DailyKos.com political community, told me that he wasn’t sticking around for long. “I’m just waiting on that Threads web client,” he wrote me, referring to Meta’s new social platform. “I can’t use it for work when it’s phone-only.” Regarding his current Twitter account, where he has more than 170,000 followers, he said, “I think I’ve just retweeted some things from my staff when asked to do so, and some anti-Elon shit because it’s funny. But once the Threads web client has wide release, that’ll mostly be the end of it. Such a shame to lose that big of a following, but fuck Elon Musk. What a rancid piece of shit he is. Situation truly does suck.”
Moulitsas added, “I’m really rooting for ActivityPub [the still-developing protocol binding the ‘fediverse’ together], and really counting on Threads to follow through on their promise to connect to that protocol. I’m also finalizing a social media hire, so we might even experiment a little with Mastodon and Bluesky. But I suspect Threads, with the built in audience for many of the key media figures, has the best chance of succeeding.”
Douglas Rushkoff, another friend of mine with big followings in many places, said that he had really cut his Twitter participation down from being there every day to “maybe once or twice a month,” and that the only thing that still caused him to use it was when a friend needed help or a favor. He also said he was “very happy it’s becoming less central and relevant” and that he was leaning more on LinkedIn, Instagram and Mastodon of late. But he, like many others, wasn’t taking an absolutist stance. “I'm not an orthodox Jew worried about a bit of bacon on my salad. But I try to stay away from pork as a rule,” he said.
Tim Karr, the longtime director of strategy and communications for Free Press, admitted that he was struggling to resolve his personal and professional views of Twitter/X. On his Twitter page, he says to find him on Mastodon and Bluesky, but he is still tweeting often. Why? Initially, going back to last fall, he felt it was worth staying to critique Musk as well as to push the #StopToxicTwitter coalition. Plus it was still a gathering place for most of the journalists he works with. “As the lead comms guy for Free Press, there are professional reasons for staying including frequent DMs with reporters seeking comments on stories.” Finally, he was hopeful that Musk wasn’t going to stay CEO and that his replacement would revitialize the platform.
That said, he told me that now, “I'm increasingly disgusted by what I find on Twitter and sense that the blue-check regime is structured in a way that allows Musk to silence or de-prioritize his critics on the platform, most of whom refuse to buy into the amplification scheme. Engagement with my posts has been on a steady decline since Musk took over and implemented changes to Twitter's amplification algorithms.” He also added that he was seeing more reporters moving to Bluesky and Mastodon and that he was getting more engagement from his posts there.
His conclusion was bracing. “At this point, I'd say I'm still in an abusive and unhealthy relationship with Twitter. But one that I'm determined to end. Musk is a monstrous bigot and enemy of free speech. If Tim Wu and others are right, that we live in an attention economy, I don't plan to give much more of my currency to Twitter.”
After all of this, the strongest public argument I’ve yet heard for leaving was just articulated by David French, a conservative columnist who recently started writing for The New York Times. After recounting Musk’s recent attacks on the Anti-Defamation League, which he has called the biggest generator of anti-semitism on the platform, French zeroed in on Musk’s claim to be protecting free speech (gift link). He wrote, “Instead of creating a platform for free speech, Musk created a platform for Musk’s speech — or, more precisely, Musk’s power.” Moreso, he argued that Musk had turned Twitter not into a free speech paradise but a “generalissimo’s playpen” where Musk’s values was shaping the entire discourse. Allowing neo-Nazis on the site, French argued, was not the same thing as allowing actual Nazis to march in the heavily Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, something the Supreme Court said was protected speech. Why? It’s worth quote French at length.
“Is that what’s happening on X? No. A closer parallel would be if the mayor of Skokie didn’t just let the Nazis march but also leased them powerful loudspeakers for a nominal fee so that Jewish citizens found it hard to ignore the Nazis’ speech, banned the speech of local citizens who angrily objected to the mayor’s rules and then occasionally grabbed a white supremacist from the crowd for a supportive interview on the mayor’s radio show. When the Jewish citizens complained, the mayor threatened their most vocal civic organization with a ruinous lawsuit. And after critics rightfully attacked this bias, the mayor claimed that he really, truly hates the Nazis; it was just that he loved free speech so very much. No one would take such a claim at face value.”
That sums it up well for me. I’m not going to keep paying any kind of taxes to neo-Mayor Musk or even dignify his toxic town by choosing to spend time in it. But I’m not leaving my virtual home unattended so vandals can steal it; I’ll keep my account to protect my username and periodically I’ll use it to remind people where I’ve gone (https://mastodon.social/@msifry and https://bsky.app/profile/msifry.bsky.social) . And I hope other people do the same thing.
—Related: Dan Gillmor’s post on TechDirt from January on why and how journalists in particular should leave Twitter remains as timely as ever. Sadly, he tells me that no foundations have stepped forward to fund Mastodon instances that could hasten the departure of journalists. Maybe now they’ll rethink that—the presence of journalists on Twitter seems to be one of the key things keeping lots of other good folks there.
Odds and Ends
—Speaking of Lawrence Lessig, his organization Equal Citizens has just launched a $50,000 prize campaign for the best three-minute video explaining the legal mistake that gave rise to SuperPACs. Details here.
—Define American has just published an in-depth report on how anti-immigration videos on YouTube, which collectively have garnered over 100 million views, prominently push variations of the white nationalist “Great Replacement” theory, profoundly twisting American attitudes on the issue. The report also found that with similar packaging, pro-immigration content can be significantly more effective.
—Don’t miss Sasha Issenberg’s report in Politico on how Never Back Down, the Ron DeSantis SuperPAC, has been using micro-targeted text messaging along with ChatGPT to reach potential voters in early primary states. He notes, “Instead of having volunteers on hand to manage text message correspondence, Never Back Down uses a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence software OpenAI to handle replies. Only if the conversation goes on too long does it get handed over to a human being. (A South Carolina computer programmer who received a message and suspected he was not interacting with a human being managed to get his electronic interlocutor to ‘write a poem for me about Barack Obama from the perspective of Ron DeSantis.’) The campaign is still finessing when exactly — somewhere between eight to 12 exchanges between a voter and the chatbot — a human being ought to step in and take charge of the conversation.” All I can say about this is it figures that the first major use of an AI-powered chatbot in presidential campaigning is for a candidate who has obvious trouble having a human conversation.
—Speaking of AI and campaigning, way hello to Chat2024, where AI-based chatbots mimic the styles of each of 17 presidential candidates.
—Apply! Marietje Schaake, the international policy director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, is looking to hire a tech policy researcher.
Raw tallies (with the handles I used to find them):
Still on Twitter and active: @PatrickRuffini, Shireen Mitchell (@digitalsista), @JoeTrippi, Nicolas VanBremeersch (@versac), @TomWatson, @PeterDaou, @ErickErickson, @BenSmith, @CoryDoctorow, @RobBluey, @NoelHidalgo, @ZeynepTufekci, @AlanRosenblatt, @BrianStelter, @KombizLavasany, @AdamBonin, @SunilAbraham, @InternetArchive, @GovLoop, @MattStoller, Ethan Zuckerman (@ethanz), @MattOrtega, @JesseBrown, @JohnAravosis, @AriannaHuffington, @NancyScola, @SashaIssenberg, @RobertGreenwald, Alex Howard (@digiphile), @CraigNewmark, @SorenDayton, @MattBrownerHamlin, Susan Crawford (@scrawford), @NaomiKlein, @MatthewHindman, @NormEisen, @HowardRheingold, @SameerPadania, @TimTagaris, @davidCohn, @MaryKatherineHam, @StevenJohnson, @Jeffjarvis, @BethSimoneNoveck, @EricSchmidt, @BenBerkowitz, @SimonRosenberg, @JaredCohen, Markos Moulitsas (@markos), @ArchonFung, Siva Vaidhyanathan (@Siva), @MarciaStepanek, @JeremyBird, @SeanDakin, Conor White-Sullivan (@conaw), @MattkLewis, @LeeRainie, Jose Antonio Vargas (@JoseisWriting), Joan Donovan (@BostonJoan), @katieharbath, Esther Dyson (@edyson), @TimKarr, @MarcLaitin, @KariChisholm, @AriMelber, @JordanRaynor, @AdamBonin, Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff), @PeterLeyden, Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu), Colin Delany (@epolitics), @DerekWillis, Michel Bauwens (@mbauwens), Tiago Peixoto (@participatory), @JedMiller, Don Tapscott (@dtapscott), @MarcAmbinder, Ory Okolloh-Mwangi (@kenyanpundit), Lawrence Lessig (@Lessig), Allyson Kapin (@womenwhotech), @SeanHackbarth, Chris Dorobek (@cdorobek), Shava Nerad (@shava23), @NatalieFoster, Ilyse Hogue (@ilyseh), Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance), @MattOrtega, Sameer Padania (@smr), @LizMair, Scott Klein (@kleinmatic), Mark Glaser (@mediatwit), John Della Volpe (@dellavolpe), Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold), Scott Goodstein (@goodstein), @DaveTroy, Doc Searls (@dsearls), @JanetHaven, @RobertBluey, Mark Pesce (@mpesce), @TimOreilly, Jennifer Pahlka (@pahlkadot), Kaliya Hamlin (@identitywoman), Matt Browner Hamlin (@mattkbh), @AdamConner, @MichaelTurk, David Weinberger (@dweinberger), Luigi Ray-Montanez (@1uigi), @DanAncona, Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain), Kashmir Hill (@kashhill), @MarietjeSchaake, Eric Gunderson (@erics), Tom Steinberg (@steiny), Baratunde Thurston (@baratunde), Liza Sabater (@blogdiva), @GabeRivera, Rebecca MacKinnon (@rmack), Andy Carvin (@acarvin), David Sasaki (@oso), Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), Eszter Hargittai (@eszter), Chris DiBona (@cdibona), Steven Clift (@democracy), Scott Heiferman (@heif), danah boyd (@zephoria), @JerryMichalski
Still on Twitter but basically inactive: @AlecJRoss, @JeremieZimmerman, @TeddyGoff, @EricBoehlert, @JoeRospars, @AdamGreen, @DavidIsenberg, Andrew Keen (@ajkeen), Amanda Michel (@amichel), Amy Sample Ward (@amyrsward), Dave Parry (@academicdave), @JoshHendler, Michael Silberman (@silbatron), Clay Shirky (@cshirky), Wendy Seltzer (@wseltzer), David Almacy (@almacy), @MindyFinn, Gilad Lotan (@gilgul), Tracy Van Slyke (@tracyvs), Andrew McLaughlin (@mcandrew), Scott Rosenberg (@scottros), Nicholas Reville (@nreville), Jonah Peretti (@peretti), Kevin Werbach (@kwerb), and Beth Kanter (@kanter).
Still on Twitter but account is private: @SarahGranger, @JoaquinhGuerra, Judith Meskill (@researching), @LeslieBradshaw, and Pierre Omidhar (@pierre).
Explicitly Gone: @DaveKarpf, Jessica Clark (@beyondbroadcast), @AnaMarieCox, David Colarusso (@colarusso), @MatthewBurton , @DanGillmor, Cheryl Contee (@ch3ryl), Ruby Sinreich (@ruby), and @ChrisMessina.