Requiem for a Hellsite

I write this post knowing it could, at any moment, be rendered outdated in one way or another.

Twitter could crash entirely. Predictions are that it will sometime over the weekend, since there are apparently all of 3 engineers left.

Or, it could somehow survive. I’ve retained a hope that we’ll somehow manage to Roadrunner ourselves right off the cliff and onto a different plateau on the other side.

Either way, it’s all… concerning. And if you’re someone who spends most of your online time on Twitter, as I am, it’s been a very strange and weirdly painful few weeks.

We called it the hellsite, but it was our hellsite.

For all my complaints about it over the years — and my continued insistence that the internet peaked in 2007 — Twitter has been my home base for online community for a very long time. Many of its larger problems (ads, sponsored posts, the firehose of randos) were avoided by using Tweetdeck.

I say without exaggeration that my writing life would not be what it is without Twitter. I learned so much from following authors I admire and the craft threads they posted. I got windows into the publishing industry that just didn’t exist before — from agents reviewing queries and editors talking about the process. From other authors sharing their progress and pitfalls. I found my agent on Twitter. I found new conferences and conventions on Twitter. I found so many friends on Twitter.

If the site really does crash entirely, or loses so much functionality that there really is an exodus, I will mourn.

The big conversation the past few weeks has been: Where do we go?

People who are on Twitter — which, for all its outsized influence on media & communications on a global scale, is still a smaller platform than many of the other options — are there because we like words. We like text.

Twitter has always been easy to use. There’s a very low barrier. You don’t have to have graphic design skills. You don’t have to learn video editing. You don’t have to put on makeup and do your hair and have good lighting and figure out how to use a ringlight and set up a decent backdrop.

TikTok exhausted me. I gave it a good eight months, during which I was posting pretty much every day. Then, during camp season, I went cold turkey. And I discovered that I did not miss it. I think I’ve posted four times since the summer ended, and not at all since September. The idea of going back just makes me want to collapse in defeat.

Instagram? Well, it already has a bookish community, but it’s owned by another contemptible billionaire, and it’s also become functionally unusable in the last couple of years. I used to use IG a lot. But then they changed the feed so that literally every third thing you see is an ad or a sponsored post, and there’s no way around it like using Tweetdeck for Twitter. It’s also become impossible to get your posts seen without forking over cash — just like on Facebook.

Newsletters? Good for major updates, yes, but not good for conversation. No one wants their email inbox spammed with the little nuggets that Twitter was so great for.

I’ve seen some folks who are loving Mastodon, and I’m happy for them, truly. Some of them seem to really value having a smaller forum — especially those who had much larger followings on Twitter, because one of the definite downsides to that platform was that one you had a large following, you also attracted more trolls. So I can entirely understand the appeal of a cozy little common room where not just anyone can come yell at you.

The thing is… I don’t need Mastodon for that. If I want that, I already have it on a few small Discord servers, where I know and generally trust the people. Mastodon still has randos, and each instance is its own little fiefdom, and while they may seem cozy now… I’ve been around this here internet long enough to know what happens when those fiefdoms start to develop their own problems.

But it’s also just… too small.

I want the town square. I want the piazza, the plaza, the public green. I want the Forum Romanum.

This isn’t just about promotion — though that is an important component. Social media really doesn’t drive sales in any kind of direct way (publishers do that, when they choose to), but I think its indirect impact is larger than many people assume. One of the biggest advantages of Twitter has been getting to know other authors — and when my friends have books, I shout about them, and when I have a book, they shout about it. I’m more likely to buy a book my author-friends have shouted about. Twitter was a great place for us all to hype each other up and perhaps extend our reach a bit.

But the town square isn’t just about shouting. It’s about finding. It’s about wandering around and overhearing an interesting conversation. It’s watching the juggler, then meandering off to hear an activist standing on a soapbox, then joining a group all huddled around the same scandalous pamphlet.

That’s much harder when the conversations are silo’d off, as they are on Discord servers or Mastodon instances.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are in some way related to the publishing world, but I don’t think it’s a terribly large majority. I also follow academics — many historians, of a variety of eras and cultures; some economists; some poli-sci folks; even a stray volcanologist. I follow activists and community organizers. I follow experts in fashion and lingerie. I follow wildlife conservation organizations and researchers. I follow people who just really love dogs.

And these people lead me to other interesting people. At the moment I’m writing this, I’ve just been introduced to a fascinating thread on Viking golems, because a writer I follow RT’d it.

I gather that this sort of thing can happen on Mastodon, but it seems rarer. Discoverability is so low that you sort of have to already know what you want to see.

I didn’t know that I wanted to know about Viking golems!

I write this on Friday, November 18th, and I am, for what it’s worth, dug in on Twitter. Nothing else yet has sufficient appeal to pull me away.

At the same time, I am a little excited for what comes next. I just wish it had had a chance to build up before this too-rapid collapse. But the internet has calcified over the past decade, and I don’t think that’s been to its good, or ours.

My hope is that something new will rise from Twitter’s ashes: a site that, perhaps, combines short-form and long-form; that relies less on data mining and algorithms; that protects its users from hate speech and abuse; that shows zero tolerance for bigotry; that allows the piazza to flourish. Something that corrects Twitter’s flaws — because they were many, despite the good use many of us made of the platform. Something that recognizes (as Elon Musk is currently learning, or would be, if he had the capacity to acknowledge his own errors) that the humanities are crucial to the survival of tech companies, because people are not, in fact, machines. Something that allows us to be people rather than content.

Something new will come. I hope it will represent change in a positive direction, and that the next phase of the internet will be better than its current shape.

Yes; I’m an optimist.

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