The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Twitter Has Been Marvelous

I try not to write about topics about which a lot of other people have said what I’d say, or, indeed, written it better than I would. Musk’s takeover of Twitter is one of those topics. There have been plenty of excellent articles about what it means and about how Musk could really screw up Twitter by destroying the feeling of safety which advertisers require and by misunderstanding that the users are the product, not the customers.

I’ve been on Twitter since August of 2008 (@iwelsh). I visit it almost every day, and for many years, I spent a lot of time there. Nowadays, it probably takes up 30 to 45 minutes of my day. My account isn’t huge; I have something like over four thousand followers, and I follow about thirteen-hundred. (Following too many people is a sign of disrespect and twitter-gaming, because it means you don’t actually read them.)

For me, Twitter takes the place of the email lists I was on in the 2000s and which collapsed near the end of the decade. “Townhouse,” which some people may have heard of, was one, but only one of them. Emails on these lists would often include links to articles of interest and discussion of important topics of the day.

Each list would have a primary topic; I was on lists that focused on domestic US politics, foreign affairs, the tech industry, and so on. The lists acted as both a filter and a way to read people discussing topics in which I was interested — often, very well-informed and smart people. Because the lists were semi-private, there was some additional value: People could be frank.

These lists collapsed near the end of the decade, in part because of a series of leaks. A lot of the value was that it was “off the record.”

Twitter, frankly, isn’t quite as good for quality of discussion about controversial topics, simply because it is public. You can’t “let your hair down” and everything you say can and probably will be used against you. But it is still a venue where everyone talks about everything, and if you curate who you follow, you can still connect with people interested in specific topics discuss them and share article links and so on.

I don’t just follow political types; I follow book-twitter, archeology-twitter, a bunch of artists, a fair chunk of the crypto-crowd, some pagans and hermeticists, classicists, and so on.

A lot of what passes in my Twitter-stream is chuff, especially from the political junkies, but a lot is smart and interesting and seeing what the people I have chosen to follow think is worth talking about is useful in itself.

Twitter is a curated experience, and if Musk doesn’t fuck it up (his idea of not showing non-blue checks content would destroy its value — most of the best accounts I follow don’t have a blue check), it will remain useful because you choose who  you follow. It’s just that simple. Turn the timeline to chronological so the algo doesn’t go all Facebook on you, and it’s much like early Facebook was before Zuckerberg screwed it up by trying to over-monetize it.

A timeline on Twitter is just people you chose to follow talking or re-tweeting something they like someone else wrote.

And frankly, at it’s base, that’s marvelous. If you don’t like your Twitter feed, well, you chose it, and you can change it.

This can easily be fucked up, of course. Facebook screwed this up with algos instead of just giving you a chronological timeline of people you chose to follow; Twitter has gone some way down that road, but it can still be made to work. Musk may screw that up, and if he does, I’ll leave. If he doesn’t, I’ll stay.



Politics Series: International Government and Relations


Happy Thanksgiving


  1. Eric Anderson

    No reference to the corporate question? The squillionaire question? Ok, then.
    Taking these questions into consideration, I agree, Twitter is the best of the worst. But. Big, big, but.
    There are alternatives.
    And an opportunity has recently been presented where masses of people are willing to take on the switching costs because they agree … corporate social media is the antithesis of community because, duh, product or consumer, users are commodities to be “managed.” The managing is always and every time occurring.

    Everything that’s been said here applies to Mastodon as well. And my experience there is that anyone who says “oh, I’m so confused by it” is really just lazy. Take the time. Absorb the switching cost. If enough people come over we can destroy corporate social media. And that, is good. That, is ethical. That, is moral.

    Or, we can just keeeeeeeep on coming back to twitter because power users aren’t willing to absorb the switching costs.

    Oh, and lest I forget, that timeline that’s supposed to be serving you content in real time?Bee. Ess. It is gamed. The term “shadow banned” didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. Post subversive content and you get throttled.

    I’m so confused by the lethargy.

  2. Trinity

    With no offense intended for anyone, I’ll take a local newspaper with the AP or UPI wire, paid for by local and national advertising. I miss the opinion pages, and well edited, well written news, local announcements, and I really, really miss Molly Ivins’ syndicated column.

    There are other problems as well: the massive server farms required to run massive platforms like Twitter consume massive amounts of energy, consume massive amounts of water for cooling, and consume massive amounts of electronic parts because mechanical servers die on a regular basis from the overuse. “We” can no longer afford to “pay” for these consumables for what amounts to an ongoing electronic conversation, a lot of which (but not all) is based on vanity and self promotion. And we definitely are paying these costs, directly and indirectly, whether you realize it or not. The bazillionaires aren’t paying these costs.

    We can’t talk about the need for change without also acknowledging the limits we are constrained by. And it’s pretty easy to see how these constraints are increasing every passing day due to ongoing mismanagement by a significantly powerful group of insane people.

    Every single day we are borrowing from the future. Every single day. If we could even approach that target and reduce that borrowing, we might have a snowballs chance in hell of giving our children a better future than the one we are currently gifting them.

    Right now, the good guys are more likely to die, and the insane ones are more likely to live. This also needs to change. Jeff Bozo is attempting to whitewash his persona, but the reality is he deserves death by a thousand cuts (such as redistributing his ill-gotten gains in a way not of his own choosing). His behemoth empire also needs a death by a thousand cuts (as in breaking it up into tiny pieces and then turning ownership over to his ill-used employees).

  3. Willy

    Most of the people I’ve determined to be sane say pretty much the same thing: that social media is what you make of it.

    I agree, but with quibbles. One quibble with Twitter is that there’s a lot of people who don’t know what to make of Twitter, so much so that they’ll allow themselves to be easily led by their emotions by a nefarious few who do know full well what they can make of Twitter. And that this could have mob ramifications. And that this thought depresses me.

    It’s turning out that far too few have the mental wherewithal to be able to discipline themselves to follow ideas for the sake of exploring ideas. Instead, most prefer to manage lists of manipulative friends and enemies in some vain effort to become relevant or cool.

    I remember the critic who noted that this one TikTok showing a girl putting on her makeup got millions of likes, while this talented wizard who can hand draw amazing pictures of faces using only colored dots got a couple dozen likes.

    I also remember the time I got challenged to a duel. I once explained to a commenter how their ideas made no cogent sense to me and they took it personally. And of course me being me, I just kept pushing buttons until they desperately wanted to confront me mano a mano. I finally tried to calmly explain to them that everybody just projects whatever it is that works for them out onto the world at large. But he just reiterated yet again that he really wanted to project his fist into my face.

  4. different clue


    Somebody should write up a little guide for how to use Twitter for knowledge-getting and knowledge-spreading. And then the knowledge getter-spreaders could get and spread knowledge over Twitter and remain unaffected by the Twitter Sewage Mississippi flowing all around them.

  5. Eric Anderson

    Caitlin Johnstone did so quite some time ago. It’s called using the “List” function. It’s been my default info stream for years now.
    Here you go:

    Just in case you are considering making the move to Mastodon, this is a great app to connect with your followers who already have Mastodon instances — and seriously decrease switching costs:

  6. different clue

    @Eric Anderson,

    Thanks for this. Hopefully people who are on Twitter and don’t know all this yet will learn it and apply it.

    And if Elon Stench manages to burn Twitter all the way down to the ground, one hope a critical massload of the Twitter engineers and other actual mechanical maintainers do indeed rebuild another such global town communications spiderweb maximizing the good features and making them easy to use and hard to game. And leave game-able gather-a-mob features up and running as velcro decoy tarbabies for all the bad people to keep themselves busy with.

    Once again, if any ex and future-ex Twitter engineers are reading this, you could call your new ” son of Twitter” service by the name of Cricket and call each entry on it a Chirp. That would preserve the twitter tweety spirit for exiles from the Den of Stench to find and maintain easily.

    Unless Elon Stench becomes Elon Perfume and makes Twitter nice and then nicer. In which case none of this comment need apply.

  7. Trinity

    “knowledge-getting and knowledge-spreading”

    These have a name. They are called “libraries” and are curated by knowledgeable knowledge spreaders of the human kind, usually of the non-insane subtype (not a lot of money involved, very little fame).

    One thing to think about is: why do they keep trying to shut down libraries, usually by starving them of funding? And why are they insisting that all books be only digital?

    SillyCon Valley has been remaking the world in their own image, and many (or most) of them are now of the insane subtype. There is bound to be a “Chirp” already built, just waiting for its chance to be run just like all the other SillyCon money and power accumulating apps. Just because some of their stuff is useful doesn’t mean it isn’t also harmful, given it’s not run by humans but is instead run by algorithms developed by (mostly) flawed humans with an agenda (make lots of money, accumulate power).

    Libraries, on the other hand, are usually run by actual people who care about other people and other living things. This is the model we need the most.

    Full disclosure: I studied library science for a short period, and can attest that my classmates and professors were 100% of the caring human subtype. I switched to a different major because I was more likely to get a job. If jobs had been more plentiful (and they weren’t just after 2008), I would not have switched.–what-happens-now/

  8. StewartM

    I’ve never been on Twitter, the 140 character-limited service never appealed to me. It seemed to me to be more a venue for eye-catching trolling and one-liners than for serious discussions.

    Worse, that reminds me too much of what my management usually demands of us in our reports to higher-ups (“cut to the chase, man, and spare us the details”. Excuse me? Aren’t you PAID to know and understand the details?).

    I have no sympathy for conservatives crying out about “censorship!” on Twitter or any other forum. Why? I remember usenet, a free distributed service containing messaging boards where no one could be silenced and no forum could be shut down. And it was largely conservatives and their backers who were instrumental in trolling it and spamming it, with the goal of destroying the free internet and driving users to paid “wall-gardens” web-based and app-based services that–being localized by instead of distributed–COULD be censored and COULD be shut down by powerful actors.

    Well, they got what they wanted, a privatized for-profit internet where any actor that engages in speech that either a powerful monied interest or a government (or both) doesn’t like can and will likely silence. And now they’re crying about it.

  9. StewartM

    For a XKCD perspective on the Twitter alternatives:

  10. Ché Pasa

    I have a lot of sympathy for Ian’s recognition of what’s been lost from the intertubes and the blogosphere as it used to be. For many of us it was both a revelation and a delight to plow the fields of “the blogs” and learn so much, to be involved with people and interests you’d never had a chance to previously, and to — perhaps — easily become a content creator yourself.

    Part of the failure of those heady early days was the proliferation of backchannels and shadow banning — oh yes, these are nothing new. They were and are forms of control both of content and participation. Neither is demonetization anything new.

    In the early days of Twitter, I found it to be almost useless because it was overloaded with crap. Sorting through it took so much time that what you were trying to use it for became almost impossible. And of course, as always, YOU were the product, not the ads you were being inundated with. The 140 character limit on twits was absurd of course, but that was part of the charm, no? For me, no.

    Facebook was wildly worse, but family and friends are still there and depend on it for constant contact with one another. I won’t. No. It was a constant horror show and still is.

    Yet people I know and respect have found ways to curate content on both and are managing to produce sometimes excellent reportage. Others, I know, are addicts and can’t imagine anything “true” being found anywhere but Twitter or Facebook. They spend much time “finding” the “truth” and crow their triumph when they think they’ve succeeded. Yet an opinion or planted propaganda isn’t “truth” — but repeated often enough it becomes “truth,” right?

    So the only times I pay attention to Twits or Facebook posts is when someone else posts them. Even then, I usually skip them unless there is a reason to pay attention — like an embedded video of interest.

    It’s nothing like what the blogosphere used to be, but for many, and for many uses, it can be a close substitute. There ought to be something better, but sadly there isn’t.

  11. capelin

    I like the dynamic of Twitter. Don’t have an account (which since 4months till two days ago, meant being blocked reading after a couple minutes – so thanks elon, anyone should be able to listen in at the town square). Not a fan of billionaires, or big-brother social media, but there is something really useful about the speed and breadth of multiple succinct information sources. It’s sort of like an Index – expandable into the weeds as one chooses.

    It’s be great if it wasn’t (still) owned and tracked by the elites, but it is, and that’s a fundamental flaw. If I ever got a social media account it would probably be with one of the alternative sites, ie TruthSocial. Meh. Meanwhile, especially the last couple of years, Twitter has been an excellent source of news and accounting.

    In the big picture, civil society’s gotta get it’s core com infrastructure, behaviour, and control wrested from the hands off the elites, though, by golly, it’s kinda important.

  12. Eric Anderson

    Right. Mastodon & Discord. See supra.
    Spot on.

  13. Astrid

    You can keep reading Twitter by agreeing to login, then “x” out. You will have to repeat every twenty posts or so.

    I only follow bands and cute animals on Twitter. The trash to cuteness ratio is too high on everything else. Don’t have a Facebook account for somewhat similar reasons. I do have semi-access because some Brazilian guy squatted on my phone number, so the one time I was tempted to sign up, I decided just to use his access instead.

  14. Donald

    I follow a lot of people on Twitter just so I remember their existence and can refer back to them. When a topic comes up, I can scroll down the list and find people whose opinions I respect on a given issue. I don’t read them all on a regular basis.

  15. js

    I think people don’t switch because they are “lazy” but also social media is basically a guilty pleasure anyway. It’s not reading great literature. It’s not working out at the gym. It’s more like eating cake. So one buys a slice of cake every day let’s say, and they could save money and have better cake by learning to bake cake instead. But in the back of their mind they are thinking “I really should just give up cake”. That’s kind of how it is with Twitter.

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