#194: Exit Flagger
I recently published a short essay in the Dirt newsletter about how using the internet is becoming more like watching TV, with TikTok as the main vector of that transition. Implicit in the piece was the possibility that the social media era as we know it—Web 2.0, if you will—has entered its twilight years (and not because “Web3” is replacing it). One of that era’s definitive narratives was the dichotomy of Facebook and Twitter, which launched in 2004 and 2006 respectively, survived the transition to mobile, and remain relevant today. Unlike social networks that came later, both are deeply associated with the millennial generation. Both have also been consistently reviled by user bases that felt trapped within them and subject to unwanted changes. In their own distinct ways, Facebook and Twitter are both notorious for narrowing their users’ perspectives and exaggerating the apparent urgency of everything—so interpret the following accordingly—but the past few days have felt like the commencement of each company’s final act: Facebook (ok, Meta) announced massive losses on its metaverse initiative, intensifying skepticism that the metaverse will ever work or that anyone wants it. Twitter, meanwhile, was finally seized by Elon Musk, who may just be doing it for laffs but might also drastically change it or somehow destroy it completely. Both situations have been brewing for a while but culminated this week, affirming the two companies’ eternal entanglement.
Even in the worst case scenarios, Facebook and Twitter will probably stagger onward in zombie form, although it’s fascinating to see how many active Twitter users hope it vanishes altogether. When things collapse they rarely disappear, they mostly just become dysfunctional as we continue living amid their wreckage. I have always enjoyed the city metaphor for social networks: In early 2016, I compared Twitter to a declining Rust Belt city, “once booming and vigorous but now in a cycle of population loss or at least non-growth that modern society doesn’t know how to handle.” That was a different time—Trump hadn’t yet been elected president, the 2010s tech bull market was at full tilt, and a multi-year pandemic was still unimaginable. Twitter had just introduced the algorithmic feed, something Facebook had long since embraced, and the move seemed to highlight the essential difference between the two companies: Facebook was decisively crushing Twitter by being a better product and a better business. Twitter was more like an anti-product, the failson that refused to move out of mom and dad’s basement but nonetheless seemed to be having more fun than its upwardly mobile sibling. Now, after six years of sustained societal trauma, the main concern about Twitter is no longer whether it’s a good business, but whether it will help bring about the apocalypse (again, excessive exposure to Twitter itself is part of why we think this way). In 2022, Twitter is no longer a shrinking industrial city but one revitalized by developers and gentrifiers, more economically viable but always less cool than it used to be.
Today, following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, many users are threatening to quit, the same way Americans threatened to move to Canada in November 2016. But it seems unlikely that anyone who hasn’t managed to bail already will finally do it now. This got me thinking about the digital city metaphor again. In 2022, for many internet users, it’s more difficult to relocate in digital space than in physical space. The pandemic’s remote work revolution severed the final cord tethering much of the professional class to a single domicile, inducting millions of knowledge workers into the kind of digital nomadism that once required a bit of cunning to attain. But a place like Twitter is harder to leave. Cities may have become more interchangeable under neoliberal globalization but their online equivalents still aren’t, despite facilitating that transformation in meatspace. If you depend on a massive, influential text-based social network for satisfying any professional or personal need, there is no real replacement for it, although logging off and going outside remains a compelling alternative. In his 2000 book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman describes how labor remains tied to physical geography while “capital travels light with no more than cabin luggage,” having “shed the ballast of bulky machinery and massive factory crews.” This, of course, has been the literal plight of the post-industrial Rust Belt. If it’s also true of the internet, that’s yet another reminder that posting is its own kind of toil.
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RIP to the great urban theorist Mike Davis, who passed away at 76 this week after a battle with cancer. Among countless worthwhile tributes, Max Read published an excellent guide to his work and its highlights.
Post-Cryptomania by Sean Monahan. “As the internet dissolves our cultural myths like a Brancusi dropped in battery acid, those just so stories about there being a right way and a wrong way to do things feel like transmissions from a bygone era—like car commercials on network television…”
Malcolm Harris on technofeudalism. “Facebook is not a public utility…Facebook is a once-ubiquitous entertainment business financed by advertising, much like the television show Friends.”