Home Tech The demise of Twitter: how a ‘utopian vision’ of social media became a ‘toxic disaster’

The demise of Twitter: how a ‘utopian vision’ of social media became a ‘toxic disaster’

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The demise of Twitter: how a 'utopian vision' of social media became a 'toxic disaster'

If anything is emblematic of the demise of Twitter, it is the rise and stagnation of Oprah Winfrey’s account.

Oprah joined the platform in 2009, tweeting for the first time live from his popular television show: “HI TWITTERS. THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. REALLY FEELING OF THE 21ST CENTURY.”

It was “a watershed moment” for the platform, says Axel Bruns, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology’s digital media research centre.

“That was really the moment when the numbers completely took off.”

Today, Oprah still has an account on the now renamed X, with 41.7 million followers. But since November 2022, a month after Elon Musk’s acquisition of the site was finalized, he has posted just once – in January 2023, when he told Chelsea Clinton that he was “still really laughing out loud 😂” because Clinton accidentally wore two different black shoes at an event.

Discussions about

Mr. of Australia for the images to be published. be knocked down. X has been contacted for comment.

But as the debate over what responsibility social media platforms have in stopping the spread of violent or extremist content intensifies, another question has arisen: What is Twitter/X anymore?

What has become of a site that was once absolutely indispensable to the news cycle and political debate and is now increasingly abandoned by those who once visited it religiously?

The beginning: ‘a utopian vision’

In Twitter’s early years, it had lofty goals, says a former Twitter Australia employee, who does not wish to be identified.

“I think back then it was definitely a utopian vision. Like many of these founders, they really saw themselves as disruptors, as creators of a space for genuine public discourse,” he says. “I think people really enjoyed it back then – it was a fast-moving, innovative platform, you could get breaking news, you could follow and connect with people you really admired. “It always had aspects of being a toxic swamp, even at the beginning, but it wasn’t entirely like that.”

“It had social prestige,” he says. “Remember when everyone was obsessed with having a blue tick… and people who didn’t had one pretended they didn’t care?”

Exact monthly active user numbers aren’t available, but while Twitter/X has never had the mainstream appeal of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or TikTok, it had a huge impact on the world of news and politics for years.

“It’s a very specific and limited audience,” Bruns says. “But the type of audience you could reach on Twitter were journalists, politicians, activists, experts of various forms… often influencers in other communities, both online and offline.”

Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says: “It became a company that really became absolutely central to the news cycle. In essence, it became a tool that journalists in particular couldn’t do without.”

This was partly because Twitter’s functionality (specifically @mentions and hashtags) made it so good for breaking news.

In Japan, for example, Twitter became big in part because in 2011, when the country was hit by the devastating tsunami, people used it as a way to communicate and organize, the former Twitter employee says.

“It became a real lifesaver for people, it’s the way people were rescued,” he said.

Pew research from 2021 found that 69% of US Twitter users said they received news from the site, 46% said the site had increased their understanding of current events, and 30% said the had made them feel more politically committed.

The breaking news functionality was not without its problems. While the platform’s immediacy gave voice to dissidents and citizen journalists, making it crucial for uprisings like those of the Arab Spring, it also allowed politicians to bypass traditional mediation by journalists, Bruns says.

“There are quite a few politicians who essentially stopped giving interviews to journalists, because then they also have to expose themselves to critical questions, and basically just posted their ads on Twitter.”

There have always been issues around misinformation and trolling, Barnet says, but the company has taken steps to try to combat some of the worst effects, implementing what she calls the “three pillars”: user blue-check verification, policies moderation and a team of trust and security.

“All of these things worked together to make it reasonably reliable during a breaking news story, which is why people went there. Misinformation went viral on the old Twitter, but often they just killed the trend before it got anywhere,” he said.

The present: Musk’s wild west

These three pillars were quickly dismantled after Musk acquired the platform in late 2022, Barnet says.

Trust and security teams were among those laid off by Musk in the wild weeks after he acquired the company for $44 billion and walked into headquarters on his first day holding a ceramic sink. A video of Musk’s entry was posted on the site with the caption: “Let that sink in.”

Many of those who had been blocked from the site for violating its online rules, including Donald Trump, had their accounts reinstated (although Trump’s account was later blocked again).

The verification process changed dramatically. Instead of people receiving blue ticks because they were public figures or worked for a well-known news site, ticks could now be purchased.

The moderation approach also changed. Musk’s dispute with the Australian government reveals something about X’s view of him, which he sees as a bastion of free speech.

“They are very reluctant to any kind of moderation,” says Bruns. “To some extent, that represents a broader sense in America about free speech that it is an absolute good above all else. Whereas elsewhere in Australia, Europe and many other places it’s much more about the need to balance free speech rights and the right to be free from harmful speech. And to a lot of fairly liberal people in America, that essentially sounds like censorship.”

Ironically, banned an account track the whereabouts of your own personal aircraft using publicly available data.

“Elon wants it both ways,” says Barnet. “He wants it to be the original Twitter, which in fact was absolutely crucial to the news cycle,” but also “removing the pillars, the processes that Twitter had put together for years and years are what leads to a community that I can find facts.” .

“I think it’s becoming a toxic mess,” Barnet says.

The future: an uncontrollable place

Pew research found that in the first months after Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, 60% of US Twitter users took a break of a few weeks or more from the platform. A quarter of respondents said they didn’t see themselves using the site at all in a year.

Even the most prolific tweeters used the platform less, with a 25% drop in the number of tweets they posted per month.

Whether the trend has continued is a harder question to answer, in part because under Musk, it has become prohibitively expensive for researchers who study social media to maintain their work.

For many years, Twitter made application programming interfaces (APIs) available to academic researchers and private sector organizations for a price. About a year ago, the cost of accessing these APIs skyrocketed.

Aaron Smith, director of Pew’s data labs, says his center has developed a “pretty rich body of work” on Twitter for many years, but since prices to access tweets increased, he says the annual fee for access to the API is now “larger than our team’s entire research budget for a couple of years”: they have not been able to conduct further research on the platform.

Bruns says academics are in the same boat. “You simply can’t do any particularly exploratory research, looking for hate bots or misinformation on the platform. Essentially, [X] “They were practically left out of the market due to their price.”

He says this is a shame, as academic research on Twitter used to allow the platform to identify and clean up pockets of hate speech and misinformation, which will now be even less controlled.

“It’s certainly already starting to morph into something more similar to…platforms like Gab or Parler, or even [Trump’s] Truth Social, where you have far-right people who furiously agree with each other and furiously hate everyone else.”

Even the former employee has since deactivated her account. “I think what we have now is a really dangerous, uncontrollable space,” she says.

“Sometimes I miss him. I always thought it was an amazing news wire for journalists and citizen journalists… I don’t know, I find myself sitting there reading breaking news and wondering where to go. There is a hole left behind. I hope someone tries to fill that void.”

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