Los Angeles Times
Journalism’s Twitter pickle
Arts writers often depend on the site. Its new owner imperils that relationship.
Twitter is more than a cesspool of racist rantings, political infighting, cute cat memes and uncensored opinions that you wish you hadn’t seen — it’s also a news platform, made so by some of its most dedicated users: journalists.
According to a recent Pew Research study, Twitter is the most-used social media platform among journalists, with 69% of us saying that we use it the most, or second most, in the course of our jobs. (Guilty!)
We didn’t become addicts out of the blue: Twitter’s rise in the mid-aughts directly coincided with the devastating fall of print media.
The platform’s ability to drive traffic online was seen as a life raft for publications struggling to monetize the web. Twitter encouraged our ardor, and in those early days, entire newsrooms were given the coveted blue check marks denoting official accounts. We repaid the volatile social media site with our near-constant attention. I was once pulled into an editor’s office and reprimanded for not tweeting enough. He had been keeping track, it turned out — a practice not uncommon in newsrooms at the time.
When I ponder the role Twitter plays in society, I invariably think of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” The chilling tale depicts a small town’s practice of picking a citizen at random and stoning that person to death in the town square. As a parable about the dangers of mob mentality, “The Lottery” is without rival.
As a modern digital town square, Twitter is ruled by crowd psychology and prone to online stonings of all kinds. Twitter pile-ons can target relatively benign offenders like “Bean Dad,” whose thread about his 9-year-old daughter’s trouble opening a can of beans led to condemnation so severe that he was forced to deactivate his account and issue a public apology. In its most extreme form, it can spill out of the digital realm into real life, as the world saw in terrifying detail on Jan. 6 after President Trump tweeted, “Be there, will be wild!” to participants in the Capitol attack.
The site’s greatest failing is now being exacerbated by the platform’s new overlord: rock-thrower-in-chief and billionaire apostate Elon Musk, who seems intent on offending almost everyone, recently tweeting, “Being attacked by both right & left simultaneously is a good sign,” and pinning to his profile a poll that asks what advertisers should value more, freedom of speech or political correctness.
Musk has also caused a furor by threatening to charge $8 per month for Twitter Blue, which verifies celebrity accounts, as well as those of most mainstream journalists. A revolt is in the making — with all kinds of well-known people, including master of horror Stephen King, declaring they will never pay for their blue check mark. Should identity verification vanish, the trolls will be empowered in formerly unimaginable ways.
This is all coming from a man who sees no problem reinstating Trump’s hatemongering Twitter feed and could soon do so, and who recently posted, then deleted, a tweet linking to conspiracy theories about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi.
Musk’s ownership has pushed journalists who promote their work on the site to a moral crossroads: to tweet or not to tweet. For arts and culture writers, whose stories often don’t garner the broad readership enjoyed by big-tent entertainment news about Hollywood and pop music, Twitter has been an especially useful tool of dissemination. It’s a forum for meeting kindred spirits and fellow arts practitioners and for staying up to date on cultural conversations before they begin to trend.
Leaving is hard, although some journalists are already doing it. I applaud their resolve and ability to place principle above the convenient expediency of the fastmoving, ever-churning social media site. I remain a Twitter user. One of my biggest concerns about society today is its extreme fracture, which I believe stems from our ability to silo ourselves off from ideas and people we find offensive and uncomfortable. For that reason I have never blocked someone on social media — no matter how angry or indignant they make me. And that’s how I’m justifying my continued presence on the site. It’s a window into the soul of America, and like America, it is exceedingly dark right now.
Below are where other members of Team Arts fall when it comes to that question. Answers are lightly edited and condensed for clarity and brevity:
Carolina A. Miranda: I’ve historically loved Twitter as a platform since, of all the social media spaces, it’s the one that I think best plays to writers — the tight confines of space making for a certain pithiness. And when I was a freelancer, it was my journalism water cooler. But it was getting increasingly toxic (well before Elon Musk), and I have deleted the app from my phone. (Do I need to wake up on Sunday to find some mansplainer with 10 followers informing me I’m an idiot? No gracias.) I’m hoping we can all act like it’s the late aughts and reunite on Tumblr. I still have an active account.
Mark Swed: Between 1965 and 1982, John Cage kept an irregular diary composed of elliptical observations that read like proto-tweets. “Asked the Spanish doctor what she thought about the human mind in a world of computers,” began one. “She said computers are always right, but life isn’t about being right.” When he published the collection, he titled it: “How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).”
Charles McNulty: Professional obligation brought me to Twitter and professional duty kept me there. Until, that is, Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, promulgated a link to a vicious conspiracy theory about the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi. My exit wasn’t dramatic. I changed my password to something I’d never be able to remember, signed out of my account, and the rest has been blessed silence.
Disgust with Musk’s irresponsibility aside, I’d been looking for a reason to say goodbye. Twitter was the first thing I would check when I opened my laptop in the morning. Under the illusion of keeping up, I found myself in a continual state of political outrage, wondering what fresh hell was in store for us this hour.
Attention is a limited resource, and as a writer I felt I was being prodigal with mine. There’s a world elsewhere — books, newspapers, websites and the replenishing art of human conversation. I feel no need to proselytize. My decision was personal. I wanted a longer view than a treadmill of 140 characters could provide.
Deborah Vankin: I loathe Twitter. There, I said it. I begrudgingly check it daily, several times a day (an hour?), to keep up on “the conversations”; but I consume it as a news feed rather than a platform for personal expression. Or as a space to promote recent stories. As a journalist, as an observer of our culture, the world, I feel an obligation to stay and monitor the site, what’s said, the good, the bad and the increasingly ugly. Leaving Twitter, taking a stand, is admirable; I understand the perspective. But as an objective journalist, I feel a greater obligation to stand in the midst of the chaos, to continue to observe and interpret, wherever that may lead. Especially because of where it may lead.
Steven Vargas: I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. The app keeps me informed on what conversations are happening globally and locally. Although I’m able to keep up with the trends and memes, it’s also a source of anxiety. At some point, the information gets overwhelming, and the voices become repetitive. It’s particularly harmful when I witness injustices on my timeline, especially ones that hit close to home. It’s hard to look away, much less speak on the matter, yet there are many who have the ability to post without experiencing the pain of typing each character — whether it be from bravery or privilege. For this reason, I use the app in spurts, ensuring I don’t get caught up in the storm while still staying informed. The space can be toxic, but it can also be communal. It’s a balance I’m still navigating.