So Elon Musk bought Twitter…

For a while it seemed like the deal wasn’t going to go through. After his initial offer, Elon Musk tried everything he could to back out of it, short of sitting for a deposition in the resulting law suit. But, at the end of the day, it went through, and Elon Musk now owns Twitter.

Lots of folks are worried about what a Musk-controlled Twitter will become. His conditional commitment to press freedom depends entirely on how much praise is heaped upon him. His record as an employer is a mess. And now he controls one of the most potent, though slowly waning, outlets for public engagement, and certainly the preferred medium of journalists and politicians.

I’ve taught Social Media for Environmental Communications at Duke University for the last 11 years. Every year there’s been some big social media shakeup, and every year we look at how that shakeup will impact professionals using social media primary as an outreach and engagement tool. This has the potential to big the biggest shift in how folks approach social media that we’ve seen in a long time. But it also could be a whole heap of nothing. It all depends on the whims of a single, inconsistent owner who may not really know what he has or what his vision for it is.

So what will this new Twitter look like? I suspect that we won’t see tectonic shifts in how Twitter operates immediately. It will take months for any of Musk’s vision to trickle into the user experience. I don’t get the impression that there are many people left for whom an ownership change is going to push them to finally get a Twitter account. The platform seems largely out of its growth phase. So there will likely be a slow and steady attrition of users as they get less and less out of using Twitter. They won’t be replaced.

Long-term, I expect to see a hard push towards monetization of an increasingly small active user base. Which, in itself, will make that user base even smaller.

What about Journalists? Probably the biggest loser in all this is Journalists. For the last decade, Journalism as a discipline has leaned heavily on Twitter, both for finding sources and for understanding the collective zeitgeist. Twitter will almost certainly become less valuable to journalism if its user engagement fades, but I think there will be a very long off-ramp to that inevitability. You’ve got time to find the next thing, don’t waste it.

Will he allow previously banned users back on the site? It seems likely, but remains to be seen.

What about harassment? Twitter never had a handle on the harassment that many users experienced, and I doubt that will change. What I think will change is that users who generally don’t receive much harassment will begin seeing more, leading to significant frustrations as they discover, for the first time, a problem folks have been talking about for a decade. Going from 0 to 10 is a much more jarring experience than going from 90 to 100.

I think where things will get really messy is non-English-speaking Twitter, where Musk, who famously goes lean on public relations and customer support, simply won’t have the resources to monitor.

Ok, but what if you’re wrong and Elon Musk’s Twitter is great, actually? That would be cool. I wish him all the luck. I’m not all that committed to Being Always Right as an identity, which is why Twitter has been less and less appealing to me.

We always knew Twitter had a shelf life. Even without Elon, it has been clear for a long time that the service is struggling to find itself. Despite the idiom, nothing on the internet is forever, social media platforms grow and change and evolve. Services keep trying to reinvent themselves. I’ve been around since UseNet. People will move on to new platforms, but the thing that matters is the people.

That Twitter has remained as relevant for as long as it has is a testament to the need for short, broad communications and easy discoverability on the internet. Twitter always shined brightest as a global chatroom. But that’s not a unique feature of the platform. I suspect any number of new, experimental social networks will crop up to fulfill that fundamental need. Maybe one of them will stick.

So where else can we find you? I’m on most platforms as DrAndrewThaler but I plan to ride the Twitter roller coaster for a while longer. I might finally get a Ham radio license.

Southern Fried Science and the OpenCTD project are supported by funding from our Patreon Subscribers. If you value these resources, please consider contributing a few dollars to help keep the servers running and the coffee flowing.

Featured Image: A musk rat swimming. Photo by Author.