By Tom Corddry, Art Thiel, Douglas McLennan
Editor’s Note: Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has been a rollercoaster of firings, new features that quickly get rolled back, and very public turmoil as Musk seeks to remake the platform. The site has about 400 million users, and 200 active daily users, and is the preferred social media platform for journalists, so it has an outsized presence. But Musk’s chaotic regime change and capricious pronouncements have many wondering if Twitter will survive the idiosyncratic billionaire. That got us to wondering: what impact would its demise have on science, on sports, and on the arts? Tom Corddry, Art Thiel, and Douglas McLennan speculate.
Tom Corddry: Reading the Smartiverse –COVID Twitter has been Invaluable for Public Health
In early 2020, as COVID cases started exploding around the world, thousands of scientists and others who could help defend against the pandemic found that their normal modes of collective communication were failing to meet the moment, just when the need for them became a matter of life and death. In response, these pandemic first responders went full Ukrainian and erected a new system practically overnight from repurposed platform technologies.
The big three platforms were Twitter, Zoom (and its lookalikes), and MedRX. This last, MedRX, is a preprint server, which lets scientists informally publish their findings long before they have been peer reviewed and published, which cuts the speed of information sharing from years to days. Zoom’s value was equally obvious in a world where nobody was leaving the house.
The most remarkable phenomenon, however, might be how quickly people used Twitter to create a nearly vertical learning curve that spread across academic silos, academic/non-academic boundaries, and barriers of geography, language, and culture. This communications edifice slapped together to deal with a global emergency has not gone away, and, in my view, has huge public benefits. If Elon Musk manages to bring Twitter down, all of this will go with it.
To appreciate what has been built, consider four exemplary citizens of COVID Twitter:
Trevor Bedford (https://twitter.com/trvrb) is a scientist at Fred Hutch who describes his interests as viruses, evolution, and immunity. On Twitter he follows 863 people and is followed by—wait for it—467,300 people. Bedford periodically creates threads of tweets, prized by fellow scientists, which summarize “what we know now” in charts and graphs.
Kizzmekia Corbett (https://twitter.com/KizzyPhD) is one of the inventors of the Moderna vaccine. She has her own lab at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. She cheekily summarizes her interests on Twitter as “Virology. Vaccinology. Vagina-ology. Vino-ology.” On Twitter, she follows 747 and is followed by 161,800. Her tweets are much more social, personal, and inspirational than Bedford’s. Her followers get less data and more views into the science life.
Katelyn Jetelina (https://twitter.com/dr_kkjetelina) describes herself as an “Epidemiologist, educator, professor, world traveler, lover of ice cream and the ocean. Mom of 2 under 2. Founder and author of Your Local Epidemiologist.” She follows 780 and is followed by 52,900. She’s a frequent Tweeter but has also developed an avid following for Your Local Epidemiologist, a Substack publication where she translates current science into useful English.
Carl T. Bergstrom (https://twitter.com/CT_Bergstrom) is a University of Washington biology professor with expertise in infectious disease epidemiology. He has additional professed interests in how the public understands science, and bird photography. On Twitter he follows 2,388 and is followed by 161,900. In a recent New York Times essay, he describes both the essential value of COVID Twitter and the diminution of that value by the rise of a substantial Anti-Science Twitter. He has posted his Mastodon account link, just in case (Mastodon is a potential Twitter alternative).
Twitter has attracted literally millions of people highly interested in infectious diseases, viruses, the immune system, public health, health policy, epidemics, vaccines, ventilation, emergency medicine, biochemistry, the health care system, and so forth. As a writer of COVID stories for PostAlley.org, I follow hundreds of them. COVID Twitter has self-organized into a very rich network of scientists, journalists, politicians, business leaders, public sector administrators and activists. This concentration of attention and influence has also attracted an army of trolls, of course, as Bergstrom sadly observes.
Twitter is both fit for this purpose and vulnerable to abuses because of the ways in which it differs from other social media. On Twitter, the primary way to see what another person is posting is to simply follow them. This is easier than Facebook’s friending process, and there are no limits on followership size, unlike Facebooks limit on number of friends. Unlike Instagram and TikTok, Twitter is a words-first medium.
Twitter also prominently features a list of who each person is following, and a list of who is following that person. It’s very easy to traverse these lists from person to person and quickly build one’s own rich resource. Twitter is also famous for its threads; a thread is simply a way of posting an argument in steps and keeping the original argument and the responses to it closely attached.
These simple ingredients and the rules for using them together are Twitter’s Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen, and big networks such as COVID Twitter are the resulting complex and diverse organic molecules. Even before COVID happened, Twitter was already in wide use by many scientists in ways that other social media were not. There were already links between the different kinds of people that would make up COVID Twitter. It was a lot quieter, but ready to be scaled up.
COVID Twitter is just one of many Twitter networks of smart and powerful people. It appears that Elon Musk doesn’t appreciate—or doesn’t want to appreciate—the value of this “Smartiverse.” He also doesn’t seem to realize that these intellectually-oriented networks have a fair amount of resistance to extreme trolling—it’s hard to troll a post if you don’t understand the chart in it. COVID Twitter has been attacked, especially at the less hard-core edges, but not destroyed.
Perhaps Musk simply doesn’t like the highly credentialed cognitive elites who are thick on the ground in these networks. For all his vaunted intelligence, he’s very much an outsider personality. If he could get over his animus against Twitter’s elite citizens and embrace them as his golden geese, he could probably make Twitter worth more than he paid for it, which would be vastly more than it’s worth now. Sadly, he’s clearly sprinting in the opposite direction as fast as his legs can carry him. If he brings down the Smartiverse, the loss will be immense.
Art Thiel: Twitter is the Coin of the Realm in Sports
Is Elon Musk to Twitter as Russell Wilson is to the Denver Broncos?
Tempting as is the quarterback analogy for self-destructive peril, there’s one large difference for Seattle sports fans: Twitter’s potential failure under Musk won’t get the Seahawks increasingly more valuable picks in the 2023 NFL draft.
In fact, a decay and/or collapse of Twitter would negatively impact sports in Seattle, as well as the rest of the sports nation and the globe. No calamity, of course, but cheering for Musk to fail works against a social media platform that has become a large coin of the sporting realm because it is, well, fun.
You remember fun? No? Well, ask a sports fan. Games are still a primary distraction from the tumult. Hell, we even like soccer now. More than 15 million viewers watched the U.S. draw with England at the World Cup in Qatar, the largest number for an American audience in the sport’s history. And many of them were tweeting to each other, as well as their contemporaries around the world, in real time.
Twitter has (or had) about 400 million users globally, although only an estimated 7.2 percent of internet users are on the app at least once a month. If you are not among them, you are likely skeptical of the kerfuffle that has attended Musk’s recent purchase of the site for $44 billion. You may feel that Twitter is a like a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner: Loud, but unimportant.
Nevertheless, Twitter is a big part of the sports experience for many. Perhaps no other industry produces daily such a rapid, voluminous waterfall of information from pro leagues, colleges, high schools, clubs, cable/broadcast networks and digital newsrooms. The users’ choices of topics and sources shape the flow in a way that permits drinking without drowning. It enables fast, easy, short interaction among teams, players, journalists and consumers, which seems to outweigh the inevitable abusive belligerence found on all social platforms that allow anonymity.
Facebook has been lost to Gramps and Grams posting photos of big skies and big water with a little dot on the horizon that is the port their cruse ship left a half-hour ago. Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, etc., all have many users and some similar functions, but Twitter has become the common tool among teams, leagues, fans, sponsors and advertisers to first entertain, then sell, to consumers.
The gauzy, early vision of Twitter as the “town square” likely has been best realized in sports, partly because no entity in sports owns it. That meant that no franchise, league, network or studio exercised undue influence. Think of it as a sort of non-ESPN, the network tries to dominate the sports world via cozy relationships with their sports-league “partners,” thus compromising the work of journalists who still work there.
Despite its user popularity, Twitter has never made an annual profit, although the dreamy prospect of it caused the company to go public in 2013. That left its shares vulnerable to predation by a megalomaniacal plutocrat such as Musk. Whatever pretense to a greater good vanished when Musk fired half the staff and the entire board of directors, leaving policy, security and hiring decisions to his often whimsical, papal-like fiats that contradict almost weekly.
Musk certainly has his fans, and his success so far with Tesla and SpaceX speaks to his genius and start-up work ethos. But he hasn’t tried to take over a mature business with an established culture that has no tangible inventory of product that can be re-engineered or re-designed meaningfully.
Twitter provides a much-debated curation service for an otherwise unregulated public platform that is $13 billion in debt, yet has alienated, temporarily at least, advertisers such as General Motors, Audi, General Mills, Pfizer, United Airlines and CBS News. That’s because Musk has restored many accounts, famously including the one for President Trump, previously suspended for violations of policies regulating hate speech, among others. Most big advertisers want little to do with controversial platforms.
So far, no sports organization has suspended its Twitter accounts. That could change tomorrow, but the rancor that has polarized national and local politics, where Twitter’s platform is an out-sized player, has not yet metastasized to sports. Controversial takes on war, race, gender, faith and government are plentiful, but secondary to the typical sports users’ pursuits. It’s not either/or; it’s possible that the sports area in the town square, already filled with long-time rage debaters on important stuff like PED users in baseball’s Hall of Fame and kneeling during the anthem, has developed a tolerance for disputation.
So the hope is that Musk learns quickly about two things he knows little about: Content moderation and employee morale. Without both, Twitter teeters, then falls. The sports industrial complex obviously will survive, but is unlikely to ever see anything like Twitter again as long as the nation remains polarized. Every new or re-done platform will feel a gravitational pull to a side, or attempt to develop and impose a content moderation policy that can’t be worked around.
That seems as futile as Wilson living up to his self-styled catch phrase for his Broncos tenure: Let’s Ride!
Douglas McLennan: Twitter Remade the Arts. For Good (and a lot of Bad)
Twitter has been a decidedly mixed bag for the arts. The platform’s rise in the mid-aughts coincided with the decimation of journalism about the arts, previously the primary connector between general public and artists. Artists and arts organizations didn’t moan much about the decline of the undependable arts press as they discovered social media could put them into direct contact with audiences – cut out the middleman, as it were.
Artists could connect directly with fans, even cutting out the arts organizations and giving them power that didn’t have to flow through institutions. This quickly began to change relationships between fans and artists. Many artists, used to being public personalities only when they were on stage or on book tours, now were expected to reveal their inner artistic lives online. Then came the rise of the social-media-created star, those native to the medium who used it to create a new kind of artist/influencer based on their ability to interact online. Five of the top ten most-followed celebrities on Twitter – with tens of millions of followers each – are musicians: Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.
Undeniably, social media has transformed the arts and entertainment landscape. Artists have more control in reaching fans, getting the word out, and even using the medium as an artform itself. For arts and entertainment institutions, the story is more mixed. The early days of Twitter raised hopes that institutions would use it to become more transparent and engage their communities in, well, less institutiony ways. And certainly social media has driven something of an obsession about engaging community in the arts.
But the reality is, 15 or so years in, that for most organizations, social media has become little more than a marketing channel for ‘come see our amazing show.’ The Metropolitan Museum, for example, has 5.4 million Twitter followers, but its feed is little more than advertising, and its posts get little engagement. There are exceptions, of course, and Twitter posts serve a function, but they generally do little to sell tickets. Substituting social media for arts journalism turned out to be an epic Russell Wilson-scale fail. Today, to get traction, sites like Facebook and Twitter expect users to pay for promotion.
But there’s another side of Twitter that has also changed the arts. Musicology Twitter, Early Music Twitter, Art Twitter. For almost every sub-genre in an art form, Twitter has connected up practitioners and changed the ways they communicate. Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic has built a persona around his posts that attempts to define an aesthetic outside of his more traditional reviews and make him a larger-than-life personality. Art Twitter can be a potent and judgmental Mean Girls force that revels in biting observation and articulating the “obvious.” It often feels like a high school clique, pronouncing on who or what’s in and what’s not.
Musicology Twitter, arising from a formerly sober academic culture, has been home these past couple of years to raucous, nasty debates about race, white supremacy and the classical music canon. Academia can be a cold, catty place, but Twitter seems to have taken it to a new level.
So if Twitter goes away, what will it mean for the arts? Actually, not a lot. Since the birth of Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been tracking the virality of social media over more than 150,000 stories about the arts. And I have come to the conclusion that the algorithms that power it are in some important ways, antithetical to what art is. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter power stories that provoke quick, knee-jerk response, and good art tends to operate at many layers, which usually require more effort, which isn’t rewarded by a retweet. Fine. But social media, based on quick-response algorithms, don’t just reward quick-hit stories, they bury the more thoughtful ones.
The other reason for the arts world not to lament a Twitter demise is that the trend for some time has been a fragmenting of social media. Instagram is much more important in the arts than Twitter. TikTok is the hot medium everyone’s clamoring to be on. Snapchat is its own particular flavor of sharing. During COVID, the arts world piled into Clubhouse for live chats. Pinterest and Etsy power crafts. WhatsApp has become big for sharing news. YouTube is still huge, and LinkedIn has become a share site for professionals beyond those looking for jobs.
The arts have migrated across platforms repeatedly. Facebook has been declining for years – now a Boomer medium rather than Millennial or Zoomer. MySpace was huge in the music community. BandCamp and Pitchfork replaced it. New social sites like Mastodon, Post News, Truth Social, and Parler are splitting off users who want a differently-mediated social media experience. I’m particularly excited about something called the fediverse, which takes social media off platforms and returns it to the concept that first animated the web – a distributed network that isn’t controlled by any platform and gives the user much more control of how they want to consume.
Twitter served a purpose – training wheels for the social web – but its flaws are many. We can do better. As a platform it is the past, not the future.