Since joining Twitter in 2008, I have always had an uneasy relationship with it.
As a writer, the original 140-character limit was frustrating. As an editor, having to write using truncated words and abbreviations (and not being able to correct mistakes) was galling.
Every year since 2008, I set a personal goal to tweet more so I could stay current as a journalist and each year I failed. After 14 years, I am still a reluctant tweeter and have only tweeted about 4,000 times, which might sound like a lot, but in comparison, our 45th president tweeted 57,000 times, including 25,000 while in office.
Later, as the toxicity on the site grew, engaging on it meant bracing for identity-based attacks of all kinds, bad faith arguments, hate speech and other online abuse.
And when Elon Musk took over the company not even a month ago, the racism on the site exploded, with one racial slur tripling in usage in just his first week.
Given all this, you would think I would view the implosion of Twitter with a mix of schadenfreude and glee, but I don’t — not at all.
I definitely get the temptation; watching the noxious Musk flounder feels in a lot of ways like a bully getting his comeuppance. I can see why many people are saying good riddance.
But the platform is way more than Musk and the hordes of his fanboys he has unleashed on the rest of us.
For many people, Twitter has been a lifeline. For some, literally so. Among the numerous farewells on Twitter the past few days — many sounding like people saying goodbye to old friends they would never see again — have been heartfelt ones from people in the disability community.
Imani Barbarin, known for her account Crutches and Spice, writes from her perspective as a Black woman with cerebral palsy. She wrote a piece last week on her website titled “With Twitter Crumbling, It Feels Like The World Is Collapsing On Disabled People.”
Through hashtags like #CripTheVote and others, Barbarin said she was able to find, for the first time, “the representation I had always wanted.” She wrote, “Through the disability community on Twitter, it is no exaggeration to say that the disability community saved my life, and it is through knowing them that I have found my purpose. I found answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask and support from people who only know me through their phones.”
Through Twitter, people could find not only others with shared experiences but also support through mutual aid, and could push collectively for greater accessibility. On Friday, some were using the hashtag — notably in past tense — #DisabledTwitterSavedLives.
Even if the platform survives, it will be a much less inclusive and accessible place than it was before. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the accessibility team at Twitter was reportedly one of the first to be dismantled under Musk’s leadership along with the human rights team.
People with disabilities are not the only marginalized people who lose without Twitter. In recent years, social justice movements have seen their reach and power amplified and accelerated by the platform.
Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo in many ways changed the culture or at least the conversation. For a time, movie and TV studios and men with power had to grapple with a world that no longer accepted the inevitability of white supremacy or sexual harassment.
And the rise of Black Twitter and the Black Lives Matter movement laid the groundwork for the summer of 2020, where a staggering 390 million tweets were about #BlackLivesMatter, or 17% of all conversations at the time.
As Jason Parham wrote in Wired in a story titled “There Is No Replacement for Black Twitter,” “Black folks wielded Twitter to circumvent mainstream channels and get their voices heard, creating hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and powering protest movements around racial justice, gender, and sexual equality.”
Parham wrote that alternative platforms have various limitations that make it unlikely they will replace the role of Twitter. Either they are too audio or video focused, or they are too siloed, making it difficult for marginalized people to find each other.
As agencies and individuals share their “where to find us off Twitter” posts, there are many hypotheses about what might be next for the platform. Will it collapse overnight? Will it just fade away? Or will this just be a temporary blip and it will somehow come back better and stronger?
Whatever the outcome, this past month has shown that putting a lifeline for marginalized people in the hands of a chaotic billionaire is foolhardy at best. Strong content moderation, accessibility and checks on hate speech should be the bare minimum of what we expect.