Why journalists can't quit Twitter

The media should be building alternatives. Instead, some are doubling down

Why journalists can't quit Twitter
“blue bird biting a man wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora and holding a notebook, cartoon style” / DALL-E

Today, Donald Trump was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with a series of hush-money payments related to the 2016 US presidential campaign. His arraignment was carried live on cable news and National Public radio, but I learned of the day’s events where I still see almost everything first: Twitter, which, despite its perilous decline under Elon Musk, remains home base for the U.S. press corps even as the site itself increasingly orients itself to make fools of them.

In December, I predicted that 2023 would be the year that the media would begin its divorce from Twitter. “Elon Musk’s continued promotion of right-wing causes and personalities will push away more and more high-profile users, who find themselves increasingly put off by his shock-jock antics and whim-based approach to content moderation,” I wrote. “Alternative platforms like Mastodon, while smaller and less intuitive to use, offer a safe haven to more and more people — particularly journalists — looking for off-ramps. By the end of 2023, Twitter no longer sets the daily news agenda by default for the entire US press.”

Almost four months later, this prediction looks more and more wobbly. The first part has more or less come true: journalists are put off by Musk’s antics, and dunk on him daily. But those same journalists — along with a bunch of people Musk arbitrarily suspended, fired, or laid off — continue to tweet just the same, propping up the service with their quips and sports tweets and food photos just as they always have. And while some of the company’s competitors show intermittent signs on life, none has taken on the feeling of a daily must-visit in the way Twitter did and still does.

By some measures, Twitter usage is down from previous highs. But among the 900 or so tech and media professionals I follow, usage is basically steady. The timeline may scroll a little more slowly than it used to, but everyone is still showing up for their daily dose of sparring for retweets. And I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why.

The first and most obvious reason is inertia. Journalists spent more than a decade building up their presences on Twitter, and they were never going to abandon the site collectively overnight. As long as they can still drive traffic to their stories, discuss those stories in public with their peers, and grow their audiences, they have little reason to leave. Some, like Big Technology’s Alex Kantrowitz, even see opportunity amid the decline: if big publishers won’t pay for Twitter Blue and the potentially bigger audience that comes with it, he will — and, he reasons, his own work will stand out more.

The second answer, I think, lies in the power of chaos to command our attention. Just as Trump’s tumultuous White House constantly kept the news cycle off balance, so, too, does Musk’s erratic leadership of reporters’ favorite website. On Monday, everyone logged on to see that the old birdhouse logo on Twitter’s website had been mysteriously replaced with the Shiba Inu from the doge memes. Was it an April Fool’s Day joke that shipped a little late? A wink at a lawsuit Musk faces over charges that he unlawfully promoted the Dogecoin currency? Or just something to make the boss laugh?

Whoever might know the answer isn’t saying. But the mystery has become part of Twitter 2.0’s allure. Will reporters and news outlets lose their verification badges? (Yes, but only at random.) Will the site even work? (Yes, but less than it used to.) What new view counts will be added to each tweet? (Here, for no particular reason, is the bookmark view count.) Where else will Musk’s name be found in the site’s source code? (In the recommendation algorithm, ensuring his tweets are seen more than other people’s.)

Compare this Lost-style alternate reality game with the humdrum boredom of Twitter’s upstart rivals: Mastodon, T2, Post. Each has something to recommend it — I’ve been spending most of my posting time lately on Mastodon, whose low-drama founder and decentralized structure appeal to me — but all lack the animating force of Musk as a main character, rampaging across the timeline each day like a Tesla-driving Green Goblin.

Finally, the alternative apps are all still missing something. Mastodon’s decentralized network can make basic concepts like following another account more difficult than users are used to; its lack of an equivalent of quote-tweeting (for now) makes a lot of basic Twitter-like discourse impossible. Post and T2 lack original content or distinguishing features. Artifact hasn’t shipped its social feed out of beta yet.

I find all of this depressing. In December I began posting to Twitter only as a kind of RSS feed, re-sharing my Mastodon posts about new newsletter editions and podcasts, hoping that others would join me. To date, few have. I miss the conversations I used to have on Twitter, but not enough to contribute free labor there.

It may be that Twitter is immortal after all. But there are still more shoes yet to drop. There will almost certainly be a series of regulatory fines related to hate speech and data privacy, potentially reaching into the billions of dollars. The collapse in advertising and API revenue, mounting debt payments, and the utter flop that has been Twitter Blue could all lead the site into bankruptcy. And should Musk follow through with plans to make the site basically unusable for free accounts, Mastodon and its peers will have a renewed opportunity to attract users.

For the moment, though, Musk has learned the same lesson Jack Dorsey did: Twitter is extremely hard to kill. And for the journalists who have come to rely on it, there is almost no indignity they won’t suffer to get their fix.

The other day, the company’s old press email address started responding to reporters’ queries with an automated 💩 emoji. Musk tweeted about it, and reporters soon gleefully confirmed it with screenshots of their own. The company was symbolically shitting all over them, and journalists couldn’t get enough of it.



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