The literary critic Fredric Jameson once said that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what about Twitter?
Over the past 15 years, the microblogging service has created a remarkably durable digital forum, and within it, a new kind of Internet addict, consuming the world in 280 characters or less, all day long. (Some of them even admit they have a problem.) Now, amid the chaos of Elon Musk’s first run as CEO, some of them have begun to conceive of the once inconceivable: the end of their dependence on Twitter.
“If it were gone, I think we’d all be better off,” said Ben Ritz, director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future, a think tank. He estimates he uses Twitter three to four hours a day.
“I would have a lot more time in my life,” said Molly Jong-Fast, Vanity Fair special correspondent and liberal media star.
“What if it had totally imploded?” said Jesse Singal, a journalist and co-host of “Blocked and Reported,” a podcast about Internet controversies, who himself has been the subject of controversy on Twitter for his writing on transgender issues. “I think I would feel a sense of relief. By default, I would resolve my own tortured relationship with him.”
Founded in 2006, Twitter quickly became a hub and stage for, among others, journalists, students, academics and politicians interested in breaking news and commentary. Many joined out of a sense of professional necessity, as the platform was a place to stay current and build an audience. Soon, Twitter’s particular vernacular, inside jokes, and etiquette prompted users to stay connected, lest they fall behind. Over the years, some of these people started visiting the site more and more, and then even more often.
“I have a constant thought in the back of my mind that I need to check Twitter,” said Matthew Donovan, host of “Neoliberalhell,” a popular podcast about left-wing politics and Internet culture.
During the Trump years, when President Donald J. Trump came to dominate the platform with his unfiltered style and relentless pace (he tweeted more than 25,000 times during his four-year tenure), some Twitter users they found themselves with a shortened, unfinished attention span. -To-do lists and annoying family members.
“I walk my parents’ dog with them,” said Mr. Ritz said. “And when the conversation stops, I check my phone. They’re pretty unhappy about it.”
Ms. Jong-Fast, who has built up a million followers on the platform, said she was so fused with Twitter that she couldn’t escape it, even when she was resting.
“At one point, I closed my eyes and could see the graphics on the site,” said Ms. said Jong-Fast. “It burned me.”
Twitter’s powerful barrage of breaking news, social competition, professional jockeying, sarcasm and personal abuse has always been an acquired taste, even for the most prolific users. That it might not be healthy to spend so much time on Twitter is a frequent topic of conversation on the site itself. Long before Mr. Musk took over as chief executive in October, joking that the platform was a “place from hell” had been one of the telltale signs of a hopelessly addicted user.
For some, the good thing about Twitter – the instant access to the thoughts of millions of other people – is also the bad thing.
Journalism, said Vox senior correspondent Dylan Matthews, “can feel like shouting into the void. What’s specifically addictive about Twitter is that it tells you what the void is thinking.”
But, he added, “I don’t think the man was meant to have hundreds of people yelling at him at once and survive psychologically.”
Even by the masochistic standards of many long-time Twitter users, Mr. Musk’s reign has been testing that: he’s erratically reworked the site’s verification system. He has suspended some journalists, only to reinstate some shortly afterwards, and has opened some of the company’s internal emails to others. And he appears to have left major decisions about Twitter’s direction, including whether to allow previously banned accounts to return to the platform and whether he should remain as chief executive, to simple polls on the platform.
Among the users who were banned before Mr. Musk’s purchase that they have returned to Twitter thanks to the “general amnestyPlebiscite is Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. (Mr. Musk separately reinstated Mr. Trump, though he has not retweeted.) Thousands of Twitter staff have been fired or quit, prompting speculation that the remaining workforce is no longer big enough to hold the site long term. .
Many of the site’s most loyal users are now weighing in on the idea that the platform could lose its status as a digital media powerhouse.
Mr. Matthews, who is concerned about Mr. Musk’s suspension of reporters’ accounts, also considered an intriguing prospect: “Maybe I’m the type of reporter who might as well be banned,” he recalled thinking. “And maybe that would make me happier?”
Many users stay in the app waiting to see what happens. For them, quitting feels terribly final and extreme given how quickly the environment is changing. On Tuesday, Mr. Musk said he would step down as CEO once he finds someone to replace him.
Micah Musser, a research analyst at a think tank in Washington, DC, said that while “it looks like the place has gotten a lot worse,” it’s not gone yet. “But it would be good for me, personally,” he said.
In fact, power users find Twitter notoriously difficult to get off. In July 2021, writer Caitlin Flanagan published an essay, “You Really Need to Quit Twitter” in The Atlantic; as of today, it remains on the platform. And many of the prominent Twitter users who created accounts on alternatives like Mastodon and Post are still active on Twitter. (Mastodon has a reputation for being difficult to use, and both it and Post face the main obstacle of any Twitter challenger: inertia among users.)
Mr. Singal, who has previously quit and returned, deleted the platform app from his phone as a first step.
“If I were more mature or psychologically healthy, I might quit completely,” he said. “But it drags me back into fighting people, which is totally pointless.”
However, for those who think that Mr. Musk has already taken, or will take, the platform beyond a point of no return, and if he still can’t muster the will to leave, there is at least one success story.
Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works,” was for years a fixture on the platform, where he frequently tweeted about what he saw as threats to democracy. Along the way, he said, he became addicted.
“I can’t let an argument go,” he said.
Mr. Stanley said he left Facebook after the 2016 election, which many liberals argued had played a role in Mr. Trump’s victory. When Mr. Musk bought Twitter, Mr. Stanley said he had equally negative feelings.
“I’m on Twitter to talk about democracy, and if it’s not going to be, I have no excuse to be in this kind of sad space,” he said.
Mr. Stanley resigned in early December. He said it was easy. Among the advantages: Your children no longer draw pictures with the phone in their hands.
“Being connected to my family is the first, second and third most important thing,” said Mr. Stanley said. “Even more important than American democracy.”