As we go on, we remember
All the times we had together
And as our lives change, come whatever
We will still be friends forever
For a long time, Twitter was a pretty good place. I joined in 2008, when I was still in college and feeling aimless. It was the same year my father died, which I don’t think was a coincidence.
Around that time I started throwing myself into what would eventually become my work for the past dozen or so years – marrying journalism with computer programming and data analysis to publish a new kind of news. It was significantly easier to write scrapers and build crime maps than it was to process my feelings, so that’s where I put my energy.
I published an interactive map that got the attention of the managing editor of my student newspaper, who brought me on board and I believe clued me into the fact that there was a thriving news nerd community on Twitter (it could have also been Mindy McAdams, to whom I owe much).
And like many people have said in the past few weeks, the early connections I made on the site helped me build my career.
I was blogging and building news apps on my personal site, but on Twitter I was connecting directly with the people who would eventually be my colleagues. We traded stupid jokes and tips of the trade, and complained about news organizations’ slow adoption of the technologies and attitudes we saw they needed to survive (some of us still do this).
At just 21 I was talking regularly to folks who were at the Washington Post, the Palm Beach Post, the LA Times, the Tampa Bay Times and more. It was a real community, and I’m certain that it was helpful in getting my first (and only) internship, at the LA Times, about a year later.
In the 5 years I worked at the Times, the community of news nerds exploded as more and more people were graduating from universities with new skills and a hunger to help build the future – and those people were all talking and sharing their work on Twitter.
The news nerd Twitter community itself was a more public and younger version of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s email list for data-savvy reporters in newsrooms. For years, journalists who crunched SQL for data stories traded tips and socialized on NICAR-L in the same way my generation of internet-savvy journalists were doing on Twitter. At the annual NICAR conference people would put their Twitter handles on their conference badges, because more people knew you as “@schwanksta” than Ken. And attendance went up every year.
The number of people I followed on Twitter ballooned too: not just news nerds, but sources and people on beats I was interested in, as well as more traditional reporters, who frequently broke news on the site first.
Eventually I was getting contacted by high-profile east-coast news organizations – in part of course because I’d done good work, but in part I’m sure because that work was shared and visible among my professional network on Twitter. Soon after I moved to New York for one of those jobs I met my now-fiancé. And when I was hired at ProPublica, it was by Scott Klein, a long-time Twitter-using news nerd.
I can’t quite pinpoint when I recognized the site was less fun, but at some point it obviously was. As Twitter became not just a watering hole for journalists but a calling card and an extension of our jobs, we all were suddenly on a public high wire, balancing professional and personal personas. Media companies tightened social media policies, making much more obvious what was always true: tweets were a liability.
At the same time, the temperature of the site had been climbing. Twitter pile-ons became more common and the results of them more disastrous. Harassment of women and people of color were (and still are) a pernicious problem. All someone with a large following had to do was quote tweet you and your mentions would be flooded with vitriol. Defending yourself could easily make it worse, which forced people off the platform either temporarily or permanently.
To its credit, the site made progress on some of these issues. They banned some bad actors and gave people more tools to control how and on what terms people could interact with their tweets. They tried to fight misinformation, an extremely complicated problem in a country as divided as the U.S. (and harder in other countries, where tech companies tend to focus less energy). The right tore them to shreds for labeling falsehoods and suppressing links to their stories. In their content moderation spree, they also frequently shadow-banned LGBT people and their content.
As someone who has been on the internet for far too long I know that all forums have drama, and Twitter is a forum that theoretically anyone on the planet can drop into, and in firing off a tweet you’re posting to a place where half of the site appears to be in a neverending brawl with the other half.
I’ve tried a number of things to make my experience better, including burning down my whole follow list and creating a lurker account to follow entirely different groups of people. It’s certainly better, but nothing will ever bring it back to how it was.
And that’s fine.
The era of Twitter as a place where communities can thrive in a healthy way passed long before Elon Musk bid against himself to overpay for it. People post differently now, and communities are hard to keep and manage on the platform. You see it every time some inscrutable tweet from a small subcommunity gets passed around and collectively ridiculed in the more mainstream feeds.
Lots of folks, including much of the younger cohort in my field, have moved to private slacks, Discord and other spaces like it as a response. These platforms allow communites to moderate themselves – a time loop to the days of bulletin boards, where deputized mods could enforce norms – but they also have a higher bar to entry. Unlike Twitter, you can’t just sign up on a public site and begin engaging with a group. This has many benefits, but some of the magic of early Twitter was simply signing up and building your corner of the site.
Like Katie Notopolous of BuzzFeed I’m probably not outright quitting – I’ve always rubber-necked at a car crash. But I’m eager to see what people build next.
Will the past be a shadow that will follow us 'round?
Will these memories fade when I leave this town?
I keep, keep thinking that it's not goodbye (It's not goodbye)
Keep on thinking it's a time to fly