Elon Musk at the 2022 Met Gala. | Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
You’ve never heard of him, but Mike was one of Twitter’s best-case scenarios.
Mike — a high school teacher in Ontario, Canada, who has asked me not to use his last name — signed up for Twitter in 2007, shortly after it launched. He used it as a portal into a world he could never access any other way: It let him communicate with famous people he admired, and sometimes they responded.
“I used it to ask [writer] Neil Gaiman a question, and he answered, and I thought it was amazing,” he told me. He did the same thing with director Ava DuVernay, and ended up getting invited to a screening of her movie Selma, and got to meet her in real life.
And now Mike’s not on Twitter anymore. He left after the 2016 presidential election, after concluding that the service wasn’t good for society — or his own psyche.
“I was spending too much time on it,” he says. “And it was just a constant provocation of anxiety. What is it adding to my life to be getting minute-by-minute updates about all the horrors of the world, and all the stupid things people are saying constantly?”
Except … Mike is still on Twitter, sort of. That’s how he found me when I asked Twitter users to talk about their experience of quitting the service: He doesn’t tweet or log into his account. But he takes lots of peeks, even though it doesn’t make him happy, and even though he uses a productivity app to try to stop himself from looking. “I lurk pretty heavily,” he admits.
All of which is to say that, although we talk about Twitter using shorthand — hellsite, bad business, thing that was supposed to help democracy flourish but didn’t — Twitter isn’t a monolith. It’s used by 217 million people, and each of them has a different, and oftentimes complicated and conflicted, relationship with the service. And we don’t know how they’re going to react if Elon Musk ends up buying Twitter for $44 billion.
What we can do, though, is look backward and see if Twitter’s history has any clues about the future. Which seems possible, since the few clues Musk has dropped about his Twitter plans suggest he wants to revert to an earlier iteration of Twitter — one with fewer rules and more lax enforcement of abuse and misinformation.
That was the Twitter that lots of Twitter users got sick of — and announced so publicly. Maybe you recall comedian Leslie Jones declaring that she was leaving the service in the summer of 2016 after being swamped with racist attacks coordinated by an alt-right troll whose name you may have already forgotten. But weeks later, after Twitter permanently banned her antagonist, she was back,
Or writer Lindy West, who explained in a 2017 essay in the Guardian why she was ditching the platform after five years:
“I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”,” she wrote. “I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”
I checked in with West this week to see how her Twitter-free life was going, four years later. Like Mike, she talked about it as a former addict might: “In retrospect, it absolutely destroyed my mental health. The idea of waking up in the morning and looking at the phone on my bedstand and thinking, “What’s going to be there?” — and sometimes it was the worst thing in the world — I don’t miss that,” she said.
At least as important: The upside that Twitter was supposed to offer her — attention and admiration from an audience she wanted to reach with her writing — turned out to be a mirage. “Nothing happened to my career after I left Twitter,” she said. “There was absolutely no discernible effect, except that my mental health was better.” (And yes, West acknowledges that someone who writes for the Guardian and the New York Times will find it easier to leave Twitter than someone who’s hoping to use Twitter to help them get jobs writing for the Guardian and the New York Times.)
But it’s not as though West doesn’t want attention or doesn’t like social media. She’s got a substantial following on Instagram, where she says people are much nicer than they were on Twitter. Plus a substack, of course.
You almost always find that ambivalence — sometimes about Twitter, sometimes about all of the internet — when you talk to Twitter quitters. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman announced that he was bailing in 2016, citing continued, coordinated anti-Semitic abuse.
But two years later, he was back. The main reason, Weisman said, was Twitter had spent time and effort figuring out how to remove some of its most awfully behaved users: “It’s not the cesspool that it once was,” he says. “The steps that Twitter made were in good faith and they should be rewarded for that.”
But Weisman also feels he should be on Twitter — partly so he can mainline news, and partly so he can promote his and his colleagues’ work. And then, in his next breath, he casts doubt on that motivation: Twitter, he argues, may be a good place to promote yourself. But to get people to read your work? Not so much.
“I can see a tweet with enormous numbers of mentions and retweets or whatever — and then I click on the statistics about how many people actually read the story and its infinitesimal. It’s nothing,” he says. “People delude themselves about the power of Twitter to promote your story. It’s delusional.”
And yes, Twitter is also used by people who aren’t in media and don’t have big public profiles. Those people can be conflicted about it, too.
Derek Powazek is a former web designer who used to live in California’s Bay Area. He was an early Twitter fan — he thinks he may have been user number 4,000. Now he’s a hemp farmer in rural Oregon, and values the connections Twitter has allowed him to make and sustain. It has been particularly helpful to find like-minded people online, he says, when there aren’t that many living near him in the real world.
“On its best day, Twitter is like a form of telepathy,” he says. “You know what your friends and people you admire are thinking about that day, as if by magic.”
But Powazek talks about Twitter as an addictive product, too — one he’s tried to get off multiple times, including right now: “It’s like quitting a drug. I’m going through it now — I literally have withdrawals.”
The question for Powazek and everyone else who has used and even loved Twitter, gotten sick of it, and then quit (at least temporarily): If Elon Musk owns Twitter, will he bring it backward and make it even harder to love?
We don’t know, obviously, and it’s likely that Musk doesn’t, either: His well-documented shoot-first decision-making style means that anything is on the table. And his initial commentary and tweets about his intentions suggest that he hasn’t given his $44 billion purchase-to-be terribly deep thought beyond a general sense that there should be less moderation on the service.
It’s possible we’ll learn more in the near future: Musk has had to outline at least a gesture of his vision to banks who’ve agreed to lend him money for his purchase, and I’ve been told he has been doing the same recently to prospective investors. Some of this will become public via reporting, and Musk may choose to share some of it himself.
But we won’t know how any of this pans out until Musk actually owns the thing and then starts operating it. And then we’ll have to ask a couple hundred million people how they think things are going before we can really draw any conclusions.