The Twitter dumpster fire, explained
This interview with Joan Donovan, Research Director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
LEGUM: Many readers of Popular Information are Twitter users. How should intelligent news consumers think about the chaos on Twitter since Musk took over?
DONOVAN: In a Twitter Spaces a few weeks ago, when asked why he purchased Twitter, [Musk] said first that he was tired of seeing Jack Dorsey have all the power. In a follow-up question, he said simply that he wanted that power. So, as an average news consumer, I think it's important to remember that the context in which you get your news — the ownership model, the business model — matters.
The quality is going to either increase or decrease based on the leadership at Twitter or another social media corporation. It's going to affect their decisions about what news is and it is going to affect distribution of that content. And so for everyday folks that are using platforms and are trying to make assessments about what news is reputable, it's going to become more and more difficult on Twitter to discern that.
If Musk is at the helm and is deciding on content moderation personally, what does that mean for the news consumer? They are now going to have to sort through lots of rumor and gossip and misinformation in order to find accurate accounts. And so it's gonna be a really difficult thing going forward.
LEGUM: As a producer of news, I'm struggling with my own relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, I don't want my continued presence on Twitter to be seen as validation or minimization of Musk's actions. On the other hand, it's hard to abandon my largest platform to publicize our work, which I've been building since 2008. How would you balance these issues?
DONOVAN: It's difficult. Twitter is an important communication infrastructure because of exactly what you describe — the legacy networks that are built into Twitter. I got on Twitter in 2010. It was fascinating to me how quickly Twitter was adopted by activists. I watched as Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements learned how to use this technology.
Journalists were late to the party. They were one of the next set of users, after techies and activists. They joined not just to share their articles, but to talk to one another and to do news gathering. And so if we think about the last decade of Twitter, it took a lot of years to build camaraderie and affiliation. And so the idea that you would just walk away, I think, for many of us, just doesn't feel right.
One of the things that I've learned studying the media ecosystem of new media startups or media organizations that primarily run newsletters or have smaller audiences, is that Twitter is integral for driving traffic for the recruitment of new audiences. The older, more legacy news organizations, their traffic is mostly driven by Facebook. So certain news organizations are going to be able to abandon Twitter at their leisure, without suffering the same kind of repercussions as smaller or newer media organizations.
People don't just go on Twitter and are uncritical news consumers, they're thinking quite a bit about what it is that they value about news organizations and who they're going to follow and who they're going to share. Twitter is integral for new media organizations that are looking to reach new audiences.
LEGUM: Given the current level of chaos, can Twitter survive over the long term?
DONOVAN: I think one of the things that brings people back to platforms, particularly YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, is their stability — they're going to work the same way every time. We see this anytime there's a [user interface] update, and people revile the fact that the buttons aren't where they used to be, and that the font has changed. So, people don't like change, users don't like change. They like things to work the way they work.
Integrating changes into a platform is usually a very, very thoughtful, and deeply deliberated process. One of the unintended consequences of doing so much disruption at once essentially leaves room open for competitors to give into the mix and offer up a different product that people may adopt. So, you see a lot of people not leaving Twitter, but trying out other platforms like Post or Mastodon, or going back to Reddit or Tumblr.
People leave platforms because they don't feel as if they can trust the management of the platform. And by and large, people leave platforms because some other technology comes along that just does the work better. And so that's why over years people left MySpace for Friendster [and] left Friendster for Facebook.
People want less bullshit when it comes to talking about political issues. I think there could be a successful rival to Twitter, which wouldn't necessarily replace Twitter, but would be a place where people could get their news and journalism in a way that feels much more satisfying and effective.
LEGUM: Another thing Musk has done since taking over Twitter is selectively release some of the company's internal communications. He says this is an effort to bring transparency and calls this information the "Twitter Files." What do you make of that?
DONOVAN: I don't think Musk really understands the full extent of the unintended consequences of what he's doing. Everyday users now realize that anything that is said across the platform is potentially fodder for some kind of leak. Now, most people aren't DMing trade secrets or newsworthy information, but some people are.
It's hard to tell what's going on here, other than Musk has picked a couple of ideologically friendly content creators to selectively leak internal communications and shape the media narrative around them in such a way as to make it seem like former Twitter executives were ignoring child exploitation material in an effort to root out political speech that they didn't like.
And that kind of pedo-baiting behavior that we've seen in the past be so successful with QAnon as well as Musk’s allegations against the man who was trying to save those children in the cave. This kind of pedo-baiting is really, really dangerous because it does lead to swarming behavior online as well as face-to-face confrontations.
LEGUM: I think people are understanding there are a lot of problems with the current structure of social media. You've talked about "data portability" and "interoperability" as potential solutions. Can you explain what those terms mean and how they might make social media better.
DONOVAN: There is a simple way to understand these very jargonistic words like interoperability and data portability. If you are old enough, you remember what it was like to switch your phone company. It used to be that if you switched your phone company, you lost your phone number. That was so onerous and so confusing and required so much effort, that many people didn't switch companies. They experienced this kind of lock, because of the failure of our phone numbers to be interoperable. And so there was legislation passed that said your phone number can move from one company to another. That really opened things up, created a lot of new businesses, and fostered innovation.
And so there are bills by Senator Mark Warner [D-VA] and others that would try to bring the same principles to social media. What would you need to be able to take your network from one platform to another platform? And how should that be structured so that it's very easy to move your data from one place to another, to move your posts from one place to another? And what is it going to take in terms of regulation, so that we can innovate on these platforms, and that you can have many different apps that connect you to the same people in different places?
These are not new ideas at all. These are really fundamental ideas from the heyday before social media. Internet activists were obsessed with this other really jargony word called decentralization, which is to say that the idea of the early web was that anyone, anywhere at anytime, as long as they had a web connection, could start up a website. They could have a little place online where they put their ideas, their e-commerce, or their blog.
Social media really centralized a lot of the ways in which we discover and connect with one another. And in the same instant social media centralized advertising, which makes it so that 90% of the rest of the web doesn't get advertising revenue, because most advertisers are focused on the conduit through which people discover content, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
Legislation is going to be required to change this so that we can have more innovation. We haven't really innovated in the social media space in quite a while. There hasn't really been a lot of new things out there. And so part of this has to do with the fact that people can't move their network. One of the things that we need to do is to incentivize more innovation. The way to do that, though, is to give people more control over their data.