I have almost 30,000 followers on Twitter. I worked my ass off for each and every one of them.
And so the idea of leaving the newly sold social-media site isn’t so easy, even as I understand the desire to abandon a platform suddenly run by an egotistical white man who’s seemingly devoid of values, chasing profits over purpose, and losing sight of the mission that made the company successful in the first place. (Wait, how is this day different from any other?)
There’s no shortage of people tweeting their outrage over the chaotic early days of Elon Musk’s takeover, from petty fights with comedians and US senators to a disastrous rollout and subsequent suspension of paid verification, in which users paid the $7.99 monthly fee to impersonate (and wreak havoc as) companies and public figures. Plenty of users are loudly announcing that they’re leaving the platform. Some already have; some won’t follow through. But I’m not convinced that stay or go is the right question.
As a journalist, I’m both a follower and a redeemer of the idea that information is power. To be sure, there are countless stories, scandals, wrongful deaths, entire movements such as #BlackLivesMatter that may never have come to light or gained traction were it not for the power of Twitter. And yet awareness feels a baby step, and a reminder of just how far we have to go. How I feel about Twitter right now is complicated and nuanced—ironically, the very sentiment that’s all but impossible on social media.
We need to be more clear-eyed on the promise of spaces (from workplaces to social-media platforms) to be fair and democratic, to provide opportunities to convene and discover new ideas. Even when that promise doesn’t play out, that doesn’t undermine the relationships built and the self-expression fostered in these spaces. Meredith D. Clark, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of a book on Black Twitter, recently wrote in The Grio: “Our digital records are evidence of our existence and our connections to each other, of the things we built and the way we constructed community.”
“So many work spaces silence folks or don’t provide them that same opportunity,” notes Gabe Schneider, co-founder of The Objective, a nonprofit newsroom holding media accountable for past and current systemic biases. “It’s depressing to watch for-profit whims create an even worse and more unsafe platform. But it afforded a lot of opportunity that’s sad to give up—I’m not sure where that same opportunity, discussion, and community exists elsewhere or could be created.”
People of color on Twitter have been dealing with harassment on Twitter (and other platforms) long before Elon Musk came around. In 2020, three Black players on England’s soccer tournament were the targets of an avalanche of racist tweets. It’s worth noting that sporting bodies and the UK government called for the end of online anonymity and asked the platforms to make submission of ID a requirement of signing up for a new social-media account. That’s the type of stricter verification that’s needed.
Nevertheless, over the weekend, Clark told NPR, “Among Black Twitter, I see people saying, nope, we're staying. We're digging in our heels. We've been on this platform. We've contributed so much to it that we've made it valuable in the way that it is today…I'll be the last one to turn the lights off if that's what I need to be, because I'm certainly not going.”
There are questions over whether Musk himself understands the value of the company he bought for $44 billion. It’s never actually been clear why he wanted to buy the company in the first place. Does Musk see social media as complicit in the crumbling of democracy? Does he see it as essential in the rebuilding of democracy and institutions? As he executes layoffs seemingly devoid of compassion and bickers with users, what values (if any) is he guiding Twitter with now? What Black Twitter and experts like Clark seem to understand is the need to separate the platform and its ownership’s values from user’s values, a distinction that’s highly relatable to many alienated communities in the US.
But even as Twitter backed off its paid verification product, it would be wrong to advocate for a return to the way things used to be. Remember, verification does not mean what you say is true. It just means Twitter has confirmed you are who you say you are. There are a number of people with blue checks on Twitter who are racists and liars, former journalists and politicians with agendas, people who just knew someone who knew someone at Twitter and are now all too happy to spread misinformation.
So with the future of Twitter in flux, just what is the action one can take now to at least protect their personal brand and their data, and ensure their news and information diet is diversified and not subject to the whims of a feed? Here’s what I am doing, presented in checklist form:
- Join Mastodon. This decentralized open-source platform, which offers microblogging similar to tweets, requires users to be part of a community of servers to participate. I just filled out my request to be a part of the journalist community.
- Focus more on substance and community over brand in your social-media activity. I think a lot of us are guilty of using Twitter to advance ourselves versus listening to others. There’s also a particular type of lurking that has been a one-way exchange on Twitter; people who extract a ton from the platform but give nothing. Rethink this silence.
- Download your Twitter data and, as Clark advises, take screenshots. There are concerns over the disappearance of the service, of blackouts or strikes due to staffing shortages or revolts. Many how-tos are online; I found this one straightforward. (For what it’s worth, I regret not downloading my data from Friendster; my then-boyfriend-now husband and I both switched our relationship status on the same day!)
- Diversify your media consumption. Even within Twitter, I followed left-wing, right-wing and in-between accounts. That led me to subscribe to multiple email newsletters, eventually launching my own. Subscribe to news outlets in your area. Think about forming daily habits and direct relationships with news providers beyond your social feeds.
- Look beyond the U.S. There are valid concerns over what Twitter’s new policies and layoffs mean for free speech and watchdog groups overseas.
And finally, despite all these steps, I plan to stay on Twitter, uncertain how long it will be around but certain of the reason I am still there—clinging to the belief that information is a powerful force indeed.