We Need To Talk About Platform Collapse
Evan Kleekamp writes that we were in social media hell before Twitter’s sale, and that’s reassuring news.
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Did Elon Musk kill Twitter? It’s too early to tell, but his accomplishments since taking the helm of the social media company aren’t exactly inspiring. To date, he’s scared away advertisers, pushed out nearly half of Twitter’s formerly 7,500 employees, undermined the site’s infrastructure, stopped paying vendors, welcomed a seemingly disinterested Donald Trump back to the platform (as well as some known neo-Nazis), and is no longer the richest person in the world. In response, media workers — especially freelance journalists who use the site to network, find gigs, and promote their work — are rightfully questioning how long the site will remain usable. Many have made the leap to alternative platforms like Mastodon, Post.News, and Hive, or are contemplating careers without social media altogether. But what comes next for the savvy freelancer should probably not be limited to rejuvenating Twitter or recreating it elsewhere.
As my media OOMFs have been posting through the site’s unraveling, my thoughts drifted to “platform collapse” — specifically what will happen to independent media projects and freelance media workers when the third-party platforms they use to distribute and monetize their content inevitably fail, become too expensive, or outright shutter. (NB: I wrote this dispatch a week or so before Bookforum fell, so there’s your example.) I decided to hit up some of the most media-informed and imaginative people I know through Twitter: Daisy Alioto, cofounder of Dirt, an online publication and DAO; Deborah Carver of The Content Technologist, a consultancy and newsletter that addresses the sticky issue of platform management that many of us like to avoid; and Shamira Ibrahim, whose since-deleted tweets about the Tudum layoffs earlier this year zeroed in on labor practices at media companies masquerading as tech and venture capital outfits — think Netflix and Twitter but also MEL and Input. I wanted to hear their thoughts about what comes next for media workers. (Full disclosure: my boss, Kyle Chayka, is also Dirt’s co-founder. I’ve also hosted Study Hall events with Carver and Ibrahim as featured guests.)
All three agreed that there would be no New Twitter, at least not any time soon. They also believe established media workers will have to turn to time-tested, less expedient, but ultimately deeper and more intimate forms of conducting their business online. As each separately pointed out, platform collapse has one advantage in that it’s predictable, allowing us to plan accordingly — so here’s a place to start.
Media workers have been fighting for attention on Twitter for over a decade, with many neglecting to build personal websites or portfolios. So while its demise may feel like the loss of a megaphone for both finding and disseminating your work, over-relying on the site in the first place may have put many media workers at a disadvantage. “There is no replacement for organic search,” Carver told Study Hall. “More people use websites and Google Search than have ever used Twitter. Showing up on an organic search has huge staying power. It means you have authority in that space.” (Ibrahim offered her own version of Carver’s advice: “You should be Googleable and have things come up aside from your Twitter handle.”)
Having a routinely updated website might seem arduous in the immediate, but its long-term benefits are clear. Not only is your content more likely to reach audiences who are actively searching for it, it will also be archived in a manner that makes it more accessible than Twitter’s algorithmic feed, according to Carver. “I cannot hammer home enough that most businesses get most of their traffic, about 30-60 percent, from organic, unpaid search. The rub is that you need a way to reach audiences after they find your site, but an email newsletter opt-in does that job nicely.”
The current moment is less about finding new platforms and more about activating purposeful communities on existing ones, according to Alioto. “This is an opportunity to bring more community engagement to live side by side with content and be smart about how those offerings are monetized,” she told Study Hall. “That could look like The New York Times comments section becoming more of its own offering. It could look like a gated GoodReads attached to a lit mag subscription. It could look like Discord creating server subs.”
An experienced freelancer and founding member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, Alioto predicts that media workers who currently depend on Twitter for assignments and networking will have a tough time finding work in the same way moving forward. But she added that savvy commissioning editors are already looking for writers in spaces beyond Twitter, which is smart if they want to cultivate a distinctive rolodex.
“Every editor should have a curated list of potential contributors, including young talented writers,” Alioto said. “If you need to read college newspapers to find young talented writers, you are not being victimized. There are plenty of resources, including Study Hall, where you can find people.” She added that Dirt runs pitch calls at the bottom of their newsletter, openly sourcing writers from readership, and has even commissioned editorial submissions from the people who hang out on their Discord channel.
Whether the writers and editors leaving Twitter will find each other on platforms like Mastodon remains unclear because they would have to find each other across decentralized channels, Alioto said. She pointed to Mastodon’s server-based user handles as a seemingly harmless feature that may make it difficult for freelancers and small media projects to build consistent followings across communities and platforms, especially if someone has already claimed your brand or alias. (Or, in the case of Post.News, the platform itself may have already squatted on your brand.)
LIFESTYLE IS STILL CURRENCY
As much as social media critics want to believe that Twitter’s advertising and data arms are unnecessary evils, the decision to capitalize on them is what allowed the site to be as functional as it was until Musk’s takeover. Alioto is skeptical of social media platforms like Mastodon that promise to not sell ads or data. “Widely adopted but non-monetized space is a pipe dream,” she said. The problem is that moderation is not free, even if you aren’t personally paying for it.
“I would rather start from the standpoint that things will be monetized, than work back into what is the least offensive, most fun, and most innovative way to build community,” she said. (NB: Alioto also manages Dirt’s forums). But for self-employed media workers who operate small, community-based publications (looking at you, newsletter peeps), Twitter’s decline has a significant silver lining. “Ultimately, this is an opportunity for media outlets to claw attention and engagement back from social media platforms. If you can get someone to spend the 1-2 hours a day they spend on Twitter on your site instead, that’s a win.”
But, as Alioto pointed out, there is no way to separate publishing in any of its forms from the aspirational lifestyle content — also known as ad revenue — that it uses to sell itself. “I’m sorry but lifestyle is going to exist even if you subvert it into something else,” she said. “The reason why fascination with magazines hasn’t died is that they’re power lifestyle signifiers. And advertisers are really interested in the other stuff that people use to signify their lifestyle,” she said.
SAME OLD EXTRACTION
Ibrahim issued a reminder that Twitter’s legacy among users remains far from positive. Pointing to BuzzFeed’s original listicle era, which drew heavily from Twitter posts, she told Study Hall, “Let’s be frank, a lot of people in the early 2010s made their entire careers off of being on the periphery of Black Twitter.” Using the example of Patti Labelle’s sweet potato pies going viral, she said watching content move from a primarily Black audience to unaware readers on BuzzFeed and other media platforms provided a blueprint for how cultural appropriation functions online.
Except the phenomenon that Ibrahim identified is actually more nefarious than just appropriation. She called it “extraction,” and noted that a lot of the extraction visible online actually happens between media workers — and that’s what separates it from run-of-the-mill appropriation. “Extraction is tricky to define,” she said. “But I guess the easiest way to determine whether or not a relationship is extractive is to ask yourself if that information is going to provide [the extracting party] value somewhere else.” Especially, she added, if the original poster is not in a position to capitalize on their post, at least at the same scale.
According to Ibrahim, the important thing to recognize about extraction is that where you post and who can see your post matters. Pointing to how media workers frequently use Twitter to request information or reach sources, she said, “That’s not necessarily information seeking.” She said media workers should be asking themselves if such posts are actually hidden demands for unacknowledged labor. “Are they demanding people to actually translate for them so they can serve as the translator for someone else? Are they actually contributing to the space in which they’re inquiring?”
Ibrahim also believes that the searchable archive that makes Twitter useful to journalists and other culture workers may be the first of its offerings to go up in smoke. “That archival stuff, that’s going to be the part that is easily lost when Twitter collapses,” she said, adding that Twitter’s backend dysfunction may also make it more difficult to discern how and where such appropriations and extractions are taking place. “Interpolation of Black cultural thought or just general quotidian interaction is not going to be as viable anymore, because [without Twitter] it’s not going to be as easily indexed. But I don’t know if that necessarily is a complete net loss.”
THE ANXIETY OF OWNERSHIP
In my own reflections about these conversations and question of a potential mass migration from Twitter, I’m honestly a bit nonplussed. Media workers of all stripes can declare their intentions to go to one platform or another, but their destination is ultimately dependent on where future readers and subscribers lead them. But watching several less-than-graceful attempts to foment an organized migration have left me pondering a separate existential crisis: is journalism a skill or a network?
I’m not surprised that Twitter’s downfall has led some to begin their own networks: if you control the community, you control the discourse. But for whatever reason, I was hoping for a little more tact, discretion, and self-awareness from those with large enough followings to strike out on their own. There are pre-existing private communities for journalists online. Some like Journalists of Color and Trans Journalists Association, are even free. It’s been amazing to watch seasoned journalists, who have never had to foment an online community of their own, borrow moves from Musk and act like they are in a unique position to do it differently somehow. But this also seems to follow another long-term pattern in media spaces.
“The fetish object of Mastodon is going to be professional credibility,” Alioto said. She predicts that the social media platform will become something akin to LinkedIn. That fetish for professional credibility has undoubtedly shaped how and why media workers use Twitter, but the site also serves a wide array of users who have less career-driven motives. Having an entire server or instance dedicated to the topic of journalism without a larger platform like Twitter from which to source discourse will likely make things insular in the classic, navel-gazing way that only professional networks can provide.
There is also the emotional aspect of watching Twitter burn. “As a writer and content producer, I don’t want my stuff to disappear,” Carver said. “I care about my audience. I want to save my stuff so people can find it.”
Ibrahim added that she plans to stay on Twitter until “the wheels fall off,” mostly to watch how functions change. As for me, the hypocrite who has yet to delete their account, I don’t think I’ll be joining the next wave. Twitter has landed me some worthwhile gigs throughout the years, but it is no different than the other echo chambers. I’m going to stick to email, update my website, and try to start writing for myself again, but this time for fun and not for money. Shoot, without the distraction, maybe I’ll even finish my novel.
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