On Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot about social media this past week. It’s been hard not to, since for many of us “internet people” the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk has become some sort of political watershed moment on par with the election of Donald Trump. I don’t think I am exaggerating how emotionally affecting this has been for people, because the coverage of it on the internet has been hysterical, exhaustive, and exhausting. I know, because I have been feeling it in my bones, and I’m tired, I’m so, so tired.

It doesn’t even really make sense, because Twitter was this joke of a website, prior to Elon Musk buying it. Like, ha ha, want to go get insulted by a bigot who is probably a pimple-covered fourteen year old boy (or at least that is what you tell yourself to help maintain your sanity because considering that the person on the other side of the screen is a fully developed adult person threatens to fracture the foundation that every hope and dream you have for humanity rests on), then go on Twitter, right? Twitter’s only real use was for people to take screenshots of others being funny or awful on it and post them on Reddit. So, wait, why do I now feel like this billionaire is taking a hot steaming dump all over one of the most important cultural repositories since the Library of Alexandria?

When Elon Musk first started talking about buying Twitter, he started calling it the “world’s digital public square” and I couldn’t help but snicker inwardly about how pompous and pretentious it was to act like Twitter–the website that acts as scientific proof that humans have really done nothing with the miraculous gift that is our ability to engage in sustained intellectual thought except to bludgeon each other with it–was an important service to humanity as a whole.

Like, yes, I get that all sorts of great political stuff allegedly happened only thanks to Twitter and all that, but for the most part, to me, Twitter was the place that gave a bully pulpit to Donald Trump, among other sorts of equally or more egregious things.

But then Elon Musk bought it, and we started reflecting on what we were at risk of losing, and Twitter took on this sort of mythical quality, like it was truly the last unicorn of social media–our Facebook and Instagrams already sullied, our Snapchats and BeReals making us feel old–and Elon Musk was about to capture it and fuck it to death right in front of us and there was nothing we could do about it! Or was there?

So a lot of us decided we’d try out Mastodon. I even started up an instance myself! And you know what, that felt good. It felt like I was doing something. I was taking a stand! When Donald Trump got elected, I went to a march or two, I went to a gathering that very night. But there was nothing I could do about that situation. I was completely powerless. What could I do? Write a stern letter? Throw a bunch of money at other politicians who, let’s be honest, didn’t seem that great either, up until that moment (much like Twitter now)? Wait four years and vote again? Oh god, the impotence, the rage. I’m a nerdy looking white male living in the USA, I was not brought up to feel powerless and simply be okay with it. Luckily, when it came to this Twitter situation, I, we could do something: we could leave.

And so we did, I did, many of us did, in bigly numbers, or so I hear. (But, really, not very many. Especially when you factor in the people who are still using both, the cowards.) We went to the dino site, and many of us promptly began complaining about all the ways it wasn’t Twitter. Not just because that is how Twitter taught us to behave in a new public place, which it did, but because we didn’t want to leave Twitter, or at least we didn’t want to leave Twitter in a way that felt involuntary.

We used to brag, “Hah! We haven’t used Twitter in months. That old thing?” But it was always there, and that was a comfort, because when we were taking a shit and had scrolled far enough through Reddit porn that we got to the ugly people no one wants to upvote, we could load up Twitter, and get angry at someone saying something we think is very stupid, which is just another kind of pornography when you think about it. But now our desire to use Twitter came right up against an even more unstoppable force in the universe: our desire to publicly broadcast that we care so much about a perceived injustice or unfairness that we’re willing to just barely inconvenience ourselves to make ourselves feel better about it, but without making any sort of a difference to the actual problem. You know, like a plastic straw ban. But this time, for Twitter.

So we left Twitter, but we did so begrudgingly, except for those of us especially well equipped to huff our own farts, and hats off to you people, may you always have the strength of your convictions. But for the rest of us, Mastodon is basically methadone and we’re still sitting around jonesing for a hit the real stuff, the good stuff. My heart goes out to the truly pathetic cases, the people with a foot in both worlds: those using crossposting services. Shame on you. You disgust me.

But, wait a second, hold on, back up… How did we get here? Why did “Elon Musk Buys Twitter” become such an important cultural moment? Who is this guy, and why do we hate him?

For a while, Elon Musk was just the rich car and rocket guy who clearly wanted to be seen as cool. Then all of a sudden he’s taking pictures next to Donald Trump and smoking weed with Joe Rogan and it was like, wait a second, is this guy evil? And by evil I mean, obviously, that when it comes to the things that I think are really important, he does not think they are important at all. Plus, he’s like super smug, and my sense of justice really depends on people who are arrogant and wrong having bad things happen to them. This is what movies and television has taught me to expect and it’s really upsetting when reality doesn’t match up. Something has to happen! Twitter is going to crash, right, it’s going to literally explode, it has to! Excuse me, manager–wait, no–God, can something be done about this guy whom I do not care for?????! HELLO???

Shit, hold on a second, I’m angry again. I wanted to be objective. I wanted to tackle this topic as nihilistically as I possibly can, because that seems to be the only way I can have any sort of healthy relationship with it. But when I think about all the stuff I know about Elon Musk, and that I know about what he’s done at Twitter, and to all those poor innocent Twitter employees, the little powerless little tykes, god bless their souls, I get overwhelmed and I think–damn, I need to load up Twitter, or the News app, or Reddit, or, gasp, Mastodon and see what latest bullshit Elon Musk is up to now!

Our lizard brains aren’t conditioned to think critically all day long, especially about topics that overwhelm our senses. If you go anywhere on the Internet, you are inundated with opinions about Elon Musk and his Twitter takeover, and most of them are very negative (and gleefully so; maniacally so, to be less charitable), and when we see a lot of people with whom we already share opinions, sharing a new opinion with us, we think: wow, this must be Important. We don’t think: wait, should I actually care about this topic? Sometimes we do, like when I see an article about how mentally and physically unwell Selena Gomez is (answer: I do not), but most of the time we’re tricked by all kinds of little unconscious signals into letting stuff like this leak into our own thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, before I know it, I’m spending several hours setting up a personal Mastadon instance that’s going to cost me at least $20/mo on AWS, essentially giving money to one billionaire to assuage my discontent about another.

This is the way Twitter has conditioned us to behave, like every event is either the best or worst thing that has ever happened in the entirety of human history. Elon Musk might not be that wrong when he says Twitter is essentially the world’s public square, because it is where we all get our marching orders when it comes to the direction of the mass hysteria of the present moment. And that’s the only way I can describe the feeling that can sweep social media at this point, it is a shared moment of pure hysteria, where our rational minds shut off and things that were silly moments ago now seem so dire that our flight or fight instinct kicks in.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live like this. I don’t want to even know who Elon Musk is. I don’t want to care about what happens to Twitter. Do we even want to live in a world where Twitter is this important? Twitter? Remember when we cared a lot about Hong Kong and Ukraine, certainly those were more worthy topics (though all we did about them was, ohpost on Twitter, well, we can virtue signal just as well on Mastodon–but who will see it, I hear your cries in my own head, in my own voice).

Surely there must be something else for us to care about, anything to get us out of this endless cycle of ragebait news stories, precision engineered and algorithmically boosted to force us to care about things we really shouldn’t. How about ourselves? Is that even possible? Can I care about myself as much as I care about Elon Musk?