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Twitter, failure modes, and your favorite bar

So I’ve been seeing arguments for why, no, you should really stay on Twitter, because of the problems with anything vying to replace it. Most circle around what tech people might dub failure modes in terms of both engineering and policy.

Make no mistake, many of these are solid arguments. Twitter has, as much as we like to pretend otherwise, gotten many things right. They’ve got fast onboarding. They provide a good experience on both mobile and desktop. (Please don’t @ me with your objections to ads and algorithms and whatever; I’m not saying the UX design on Twitter is perfect or free of dark patterns, I’m saying that it’s been developed by UX professionals over a 15-year period and it shows.) They understand the importance of making a service like theirs accessible. They understand the importance of well-designed terms of service that limit their legal liability without taking draconian stances toward users and their content. These are all failure modes that other, newer, smaller services have done little or nothing to address.

But for many people, the real issue isn’t what’s wrong with the other places. It’s that they love this place. Twitter, for all its faults, for all the love/hate relationship you have with it—it’s your favorite bar. This is what most indie creators are feeling, I think. None of the other services have the audience reach; it’s unrealistic to expect us to be on a half-dozen new sites when we could just stay put; and, hey, the likelihood of Twitter really exploding is pretty low. All of those are true, too.

The problem, though, is that just because Twitter’s failure mode isn’t likely to be “closing up shop” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other failure modes. You might have noticed I didn’t mention harassment and toxic behavior as a failure mode—the things a Trust and Safety Team handles—but it is. As Nilay Patel observed, the product of a social network is content moderation.

To be clear, this is something all the Not-Twitters are going to have to come to grips with in ways they haven’t yet. Cohost, Hive, and OoobyBloobly (which I just made up, or did I, you’re not sure, are you) look good by comparison because they are a fraction of a fraction of Twitter’s scale. Your favorite Mastodon instance this week is even smaller. With Twitter’s two hundred million users, trying to regulate bad behavior is a 24/7 rearguard action.

Well, guess what? Twitter’s Trust and Safety Team is now gone. By deliberate design. It’s not coming back, at least not in any recognizable form, not any time soon.

You think I’m going to mention Musk restoring Trump’s Twitter account. I am. But the canary in the coal mine isn’t the who as much as it’s the how. Musk claimed in October that he’d set up a new “council” for moderation, and that “no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before the council convenes.” That was a blatant lie. He polled his followers—hardly a statistically unbiased group—about restoring Trump’s account, and has restored others just on his own. Tech journalist Casey Newton:

At the risk of stating the obvious, this sort of ad hoc approach to content moderation and community standards is completely unsustainable. It does not scale beyond a handful of the most prominent accounts on the service. And, most worryingly, it is not based on any clear principles: Musk is leading trust and safety at Twitter the same way he is leading product and hiring—by whim.

And this is Twitter’s failure mode. All those tweets you’ve seen bitching about how a big problem with Mastodon is that you might choose an “instance” that ends up being run by an anti-woke edgelord tinpot dictator? That’s Twitter now.

Oh, you say the need for advertisers will help reign in their worst impulses, because no sensible advertiser wants to have their “promoted tweets” running in line with alt-right propaganda? Good luck with that: a Twitter that’s only ten or fifteen percent of its original size requires a lot less money to run, and Musk’s been clear he aims to reduce the company’s dependency on advertising income.

And those remaining thousand employees or so aren’t going to push back the way we saw happen in some tech companies a year or two ago. The shakeout isn’t just in progress, it’s almost over. The ones left either can’t afford to leave or subscribe to Musk’s worldview. Anyone who joins Twitter under his leadership will have done so knowing what that worldview is.

The “liberal bias of big tech” has always been a phantasm. Silicon Valley has always had a strong libertarian bent to it, from the right-of-center Hoover think tank at Stanford University to the military/aerospace roots that long predate the 1990s dotcom boom. While many SV libertarians are socially liberal, not all are, and a few of the most prominent conservatives came out of the “PayPal Mafia”: Musk, the openly anti-democratic Peter Thiel, and VC David Sacks, who co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth with Thiel a couple of decades ago. Along with professional idiot Jason Calacanis, Sacks now advises Musk on how to run Twitter, and the circumstantial evidence suggests they’ve encouraged the performative cruelty Musk’s exhibited in how he’s run things so far.

So here’s the thing. What conservative culture warriors always say they want is the absence of political bias, but time and time again what they mean is bias that explicitly favors them. Everything else, you see, has an innate liberal bias—it’s them against the world, fighting the good fight. They want fairness and balance the way Fox News does. They don’t want an unbiased social media site; what they want is a site with Gab and Parler’s slant, but Twitter’s reach. Now they have it. The product of a social network is content moderation, and Twitter’s new content moderators will be hand-picked by Musk. It’s going to be full of people who won’t object to racism, homophobia, and transphobia as much as object to fighting it, because “free speech”.

If you do believe in the Fox News kind of balance, that I’m wrong about Silicon Valley’s political biases and especially wrong about Twitter’s, this isn’t a failure mode. It’s what you want, or at least what you think you want. It’s clearly what Elon Musk thinks he wants. But for Twitter as we knew it, this is a catastrophic failure. It’s a terminal condition, an unrecoverable crash.

New Twitter will be hostile to anyone queer, or non-white, or slightly to the left of Ronald Reagan. You may be a creator who wants to stay on Twitter to reach your audience, but the audience there will inevitably tilt toward the anti-woke, All Lives Matter, gender critical, Just Asking Questions crowd. If they’re your audience, congratulations, I guess. If they’re not, you have a problem.

I get that, right now, it’s still easy to rationalize staying on Twitter. The alternatives are too confusing, or have questionable terms of service, or don’t have a registered DMCA agent, or have a crappy official app, or have a crappy web interface, or just seem like they’re run out of a college dorm room. We can go down the list and acknowledge most or all of those are great points.

But your favorite bar is under new management, and whether you want to admit it or not, you know damn well what kind of bar they’re making it into. You need to think long and hard about whether you’re okay with that.