A brief personal history of Twitter, plus where to find me now
Should I stay or should I go?
A lot of people I follow on Twitter have been asking that question since Elon Musk, nobody’s favorite techbro billionaire, took over. Some people, for very good reasons, don’t have the luxury of leaving. But I don’t blame those who have decided they need to jump SpaceXship; Musk appears to be doing a bang-up job of breaking his new toy. More bugs, fewer engineers left to zap them; more trolls, fewer monitors to shut them down. It could get ugly, and fast, in ways sociological and technological.
When I joined Twitter in August 2008, I had no idea what I was doing or whether the site would be more than a diversion. Last week I downloaded my Twitter archive (here’s how to download yours) and, for fun, pulled up my first tweets:
Great stuff, right? Worth archiving for the ages. :)
At first I just had fun with Twitter. Before long, though, I began to use it professionally—to share links to stories I’d written, to live-tweet conferences, to make observations and ask questions about publishing and libraries and scholarship and even about my own profession. I learned a lot there, and shared a lot of what I learned.
Best of all, my presence on Twitter led me to people who had fascinating conversations and insights about all of those topics and more. Many of those folks became (and remain) generous and reliable sources for me as a journalist and writer; some became friends IRL.
Twitter brought and still brings opportunities. I got my first book deal in large part because of connections I first made on Twitter. Once that book came out, I used Twitter to help promote it and spread the word—especially helpful in the midst of a pandemic that made in-person events tricky if not impossible.
Speaking of that book, you can pick up a copy for cheap during Belt’s Black Friday sale:
Twitter could be a ton of fun, too—especially for word jockeys, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out the other day:
I’ll miss all that, the fun as well as the conversations and the opportunities, if the platform crumbles or becomes too toxic to bear—though I’m not ready to write its epitaph yet. We’ll see.
Twitter has been often useful and frequently entertaining, but it has never been a paradise. As a female journalist and writer who maintains an active online presence, I’ve been treated to occasional mansplaining and gratuitous argumentation. But I’ve been lucky to be mostly spared the worst of Twitter—harassment, abuse, threats, doxxing. Many journalists and creators and activists and others have not been so lucky. Often they’re targeted not for their work but just for being who they are.
DJT and his use of Twitter as an all-caps megaphone for disinformation and hatefulness amplified all that and made the platform feel less safe and useful as a public forum. All the shouting made meaningful conversations harder to find and to sustain, even as Twitter remained a lifeline for real-time news and information and activism.
Post-Trump Twitter has felt a little calmer, and it still serves up useful info and meaningful connections. But since I’m no longer a beat reporter trawling for stories, I’ve become uncomfortably aware of how often I turn to Twitter for the wrong reasons—because I’m bored or I don’t want to dive into a piece of writing quite yet. I have gotten a lot out of Twitter; I’ve also wasted a lot of time on it.
Musk’s takeover hasn’t driven me off the platform yet. But it has made me think harder about how I use it, and why—questions I’m carrying with me as I line up some possible alternatives.
So many alternatives, so little time, not to mention attention span.
Over the past week, browsing among the options, I’ve started to suffer from platform fatigue. Should I try Mastodon and join the fediverse? (Yes, as it turns out.) If so, which server (or “instance,” in Mastospeak)? (Details below.) What about Hive, where a lot of book Twitter seems to have fled? Post.news looks promising, but there’s a waitlist. (I just got off it today—I’m @jenhoward if you happen to be there too.) Do I have to dust off my Tumblr account? (Maybe?) Should I set up a Discord server? (Not yet, though I’m on a few.) How many Substack newsletters can I keep up with? Should I just go offline for a while? (No, though I need to be more intentional about the time I do spend online.) It’s not much good being on social media if you don’t bring something to the conversation.
Non-Twitter places to find me:
Mastodon/the fediverse: @JenHoward@mstdn.social
And here, of course.
I hope your social media platforms of choice are treating you well and that you find much to be thankful for this holiday season, online and off.
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I recently downloaded the Substack app and just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading your content in this platform. For the last few months I'd been reading more email newsletters than Twitter, because I like the longer thought arcs on a more concentrated set of topics. And now it's more fun to read newsletters in the Substack app than in my crowded email inbox 😂
Thanks for that sensible reflection, Jen, and all my best to you and yours for the holidays! Brian S.