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Twitter’s Day of Spite

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Patrick Pleul - Pool/AFP via Getty Images

A pet theory: At the core of every successful social network is a glowing nugget of shame, a little radioactive power source mined from the depths of human weakness. Nobody particularly likes to talk about it, but it quietly helps keep the whole thing going. Instagram, for example, is a place to share and keep up with friends. It’s also a place to compare yourself ruthlessly and fruitlessly to others — a machine for reproducing status anxiety. It certainly makes you feel something, and that something doesn’t always feel so good.

There’s a misunderstanding among people who don’t use Twitter much, I think, that it is a fundamentally combative space, where people fight, hash things out, win or lose, and then carry on. As someone who has been posting my little articles on the site for more than a decade, attempting to engage in various discourses for fun and profit, and occasionally getting yelled at by large groups of people, please trust me when I tell you Twitter isn’t a deliberative tool at all, and hasn’t been for years.

The standard modes of conversation and conflict on Twitter aren’t direct engagement, but rather take the forms of broadcast, promotion, dogpiling, mutual surveillance, and eavesdropping. It’s a place that is able to create the sense of having enemies, and of being someone’s enemy, without the need for any sort of actual interaction, which can obviously be personally unhealthy and collectively corrosive; in the words of a certain former president who benefited enormously from such dynamics, though, “I’ll still keep drinking that garbage.

Twitter is a pretty good tool for discovering people you’d like to keep up with. It’s an even better tool for discovering people you’ll despise, but otherwise wouldn’t know, and making sure you never forget about them. Twitter’s house rhetorical style is: Look at this fucking asshole. By the way, he thinks you’re a piece of shit. As much as this sounds like a reason Twitter should be destroyed, this little rod of behavioral plutonium probably helped keep it alive, or at least relevant.

Regularly interacting with others this way has a tendency to harden people in obvious ways; it’s not exactly like arguing with straw men all day, but it’s spiritually close (and of course, plenty of people on Twitter do that, too).

Such a heightened awareness of and proximity to people who are, to you, the worst in the world — for reasons that are either extremely serious and deeply held or, you know, the opposite of that, it can become hard to tell — can be invigorating, in a very broad sense of the word, which is to say eventually exhausting and depleting. For the right/wrong sort of personality, it can be galvanizing and provide a sense of purpose. Mutual surveillance breeds mutual performance. It doesn’t resolve over time.

The payoff for this constant state of vexation arrives, occasionally, not as anything constructive or healthy, but in the form of watching your tweeting enemies, who you don’t quite know, and who don’t quite know you, suffer defeat. In the terms people would actually use on the platform, you get to watch them cope. Sometimes, they get to watch you do the same. (The internet didn’t invent taking joy in your opponents’ failures, and “cope” terminology and imagery — including “copium” memes — was popularized on 4chan before flourishing on Twitter, which, in structural terms, one might understand as a whole bunch of chans trapped together in one feed.)

I bring this up in the spirit of reflection that’s wafting across various parts of Twitter, as people wonder what’s coming next for the platform now that Elon Musk has taken control. I don’t know. I place stock in predictions from knowledgeable people about how hard it has been to keep the internet’s de facto comment section from descending into utter misery, and I’m sympathetic with what some users, who have found community and platforms and professional success on the service, stand to lose. I also believe that, as internal documents have suggested, a lot of energy has already drained out of the platform, and that such things are hard to reverse. (On Tiktok, tearing off definitively dismissive videos about dumb videos you found has been elevated into an artform and a profession.)

I also bring this up because I think that this dynamic —  the desire to watch your enemies cope and seethe — helped produce the deal itself.

The most visible expressions of Twitter’s cope economy have been explicitly partisan: four years of Trump supporters tweeting about liberal tears; the meticulous documentation of MAGA meltdowns after the 2020 election; the collaborative nut-picking that has come to characterize political discussion across the vast platform. I won’t pretend that this is a neutral condition, of course — taking joy in the disappointment and suffering of your opponents is plainly compatible with the Trumpian political style, and MAGA folks always got the most out of it, on Twitter and elsewhere.
Some of the loudest voices cheering Musk’s bid to buy Twitter — including co-investors and new partisan allies — have been excited about the prospect of staff purges and mass ownership, both literal and figurative, of the Blue Checks. Controlling Twitter, in theory, would trigger the ultimate cope-fest — progressives and liberal professionals and assorted other antagonists forced to sustain their addictions on a platform operated by one of their mutual arms-length villains, whose misfortunes and missteps they had relished mere months before. The dream!

It’s been months since Musk revealed his plan to take over Twitter. Worried users had plenty of time to cope, and their counterparts have had just as much time to mock their apocalyptic predictions and genuine distress. Now that the deal has closed, some users are threatening to quit, and, regardless of their reasons for doing so — say, a personal dislike of Musk, or maybe credible fears of harassment — they’re being turned into objects of mockery. But most people have had months to prepare for this, and the material is more resigned than rich. Musk instantly purged some top execs, including the CEO and, notably, the company’s head of Trust and Safety, an internally beloved leader and one of Musk’s previous targets on the platform.

It’s all been noticeably muted, and one can assume not terribly gratifying for spite-driven supporters of the deal, some of whom are tweeting “masks don’t work” and “men can’t have babies” in celebration, as if the platform ever wasn’t full of people saying such things as loudly as possible. What now? Maybe Musk turns Twitter into something unrecognizable, in which case none of this matters much. Or perhaps Musk just brings back Trump, and a bunch of notorious trolls, and Twitter becomes worse or weirder or more hostile to groups of users who, with no remaining expectation of recourse, simply post less or leave, followed by their bored antagonists, and eventually advertisers. Maybe Twitter has mined this little flaw in human nature for all it was worth to the platform. The rod is depleted, and I’m not sure anybody knows how to dispose of it.

On Wednesday, following reports that Musk planned to cut 75 percent of Twitter’s staff, Twitter’s new owner walked into its San Francisco headquarters, a human anticlimax carrying a sink, as in Elon Musk owns Twitter now, let that sink in. (He also updated his bio on the platform to “chief twit” and met with employees about his staffing plans.) It was a gentle own, as these things go, and about as epic as the circumstances of the deal could allow: a guy who committed to buying Twitter at a very high price was evidently forced by a bunch of functionaries, and his counterparty, to follow through. Musk reverted to a conciliatory mode.

On Thursday he also disowned, in a tweet, Twitter’s characteristic style — one that, in the past, seemed to endear him to the site. “In the relentless pursuit of clicks, much of traditional media has fueled and catered to these polarized extremes,” he wrote. “The opportunity for dialog has been lost.” He reiterated that his motivation for buying the company is to help humanity and that he isn’t in it for the money.

Then, acknowledging the imminent prospect of running a second-tier social advertising company in a nightmarish economic environment, he made an appeal to advertisers, conceding that of course content moderation is necessary to create a safe advertising environment, and that, actually, advertising can “delight, entertain and inform you,” and that, “fundamentally, Twitter aspires to the most respected advertising platform in the world.”

The first thing Musk did after closing the deal that should have made a million Twitter trolls’ dreams come true, in other words, wasn’t owning the Blue Checks or unleashing the platform with the power of free speech. It was posting cope.

Twitter’s Day of Spite