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Social Media Platforms Hate the Written Word
Learn the golden rule
Over the last few days, users of X, the social media platform formally known as Twitter, have noticed that articles shared in the news feed no longer have headlines. Instead of a New York Times story or this Substack piece displaying text in a post, there is now merely an image and a website URL. There is no way to know, at first glance, what information is contained in any shared story. Users are confronted with images and nothing more.
This is intentional. Elon Musk, X’s mercurial owner, does not want a person clicking a link and leaving his platform. He wants the many writers, journalists, and pundits who use X to start publishing, directly, on X. If you pay for a blue checkmark and become a subscriber, you have the ability to write whole articles, at many hundreds of words, in a single post. When the Twitter files dropped last year, it became obvious to me, early on, Musk demanded that Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and the other writers involved in the project break the news in a series of tweets instead of writing conventionally reported articles on their Substacks. This seemed like a foolhardy trade; the Twitter files, despite the complaints of left-liberals, contained plenty of noteworthy revelations, but they were bound to be marginalized once Taibbi and his allies began reporting on them in such an alienating manner. Ultimately, it was easy to dismiss much of it as a PR venture for Musk and his new Twitter.
But directly writing on X is not the same thing as publishing with a reputable news outlet or even deciding to write on Substack, which is at least a blogging platform that is organized around the written word. Substack will not save the media or literary culture—no single intervention will—but it is, on balance, ameliorative for people who want to write. Substack gets richer when more people write on it—not when they share videos, GIFs, or photographs. Musk believes any writing published elsewhere is a threat to his platform. He has throttled traffic to the Times and Substack. He is open about his disdain for anyone using X to find news and click elsewhere.
Musk, of course, never understood the fundamental power of Twitter and this is why he’s doomed to fail. Not fail in the sense that Twitter/X will collapse—the histrionics of liberals from last year have, predictably, not aged well—but that it will never, ever matter like it once did. The 2010s aren’t coming back. Twitter once created its own meta-narratives and discourses; it defined, for a time, entire news cycles. News organizations relied heavily on it, often to their detriment. Twitter did understand, before Musk, its value as a place where people who worked in the written word industries—newspapers, magazines, books—could chat and network. The old Twitter regime wouldn’t dream of limiting traffic to certain websites or making it harder to read linked material. Going to Twitter to find links was the point. Advertisers could respond accordingly.
A certain liberal suffering from Musk derangement syndrome will race into the arms of Mark Zuckerberg. If X has no use for written language, Musk could plausibly claim he was only copying the boy wonder of Facebook. Facebook’s algorithms long ago suppressed news and opinion pieces. Any link to outside material goes nowhere on Facebook. Only statuses tinged with emotion ricochet across an otherwise moribund landscape. Zuckerberg’s goal, like Musk’s now, is to keep you in his walled garden. Instagram, the jewel of his social media empire, is entirely dedicated to the image. And Threads, which is failing, was intentionally designed to not be a place where written stories consistently appeared. News organizations that, in the last decade, tried to build business models around Zuckerberg’s products either pivoted away from them or collapsed altogether. The New York Times is successful today because it has a very large base of online subscribers. It can exist independent of social media. Following the Times’ example is easier said than done—prestige organizations have an enormous advantage when it comes to cultivating subscribers—but it can be instructive for other news outlets as they contemplate how to approach X or any of Zuckerberg’s products.
It’s better, at this point, to ignore them all.
Nate Silver’s Twitter dilemma is different than my own, but I understood where he was coming from when he wrote about his ambivalence with the platform. Twitter gave Silver a following in the millions and boosted his career tremendously. Walking away from that is difficult. My own modest following, clocking in between 30 and 40,000, is far easier to shirk, but I haven’t yet. In part, it’s because Twitter aided my own career. Editors have found me there and recruited me to write for them. I’ve used it as an effective networking tool. I still talk to friends there. It’s also proven counterproductive; Twitter rewards your worst impulses, and I’ve fought with people over the years and tweeted, far too often, in anger. I try to be much more restrained these days and, quite frankly, tweet less. Twitter can waste your time and skew your perception of reality.
Musk’s suppression of news links only incentivizes me to use Twitter/X less. I’m not alone. I don’t know what the future of the platform is, but I do know Musk, who paid $44 billion for it, will never recoup on his investment. No social media platform, even TikTok, is worth that much, and Twitter passed its peak years ago. At some point, Musk may tire of it and sell it at a loss. I am certain, at least, there will always be a Twitter. It’s too large to disappear, too baked into the digital landscape. Twitter will not be replaced, either. Every Twitter clone—Mastadon, Bluesky, Threads—eventually scuffles and shrinks. My hope is, in time, we are all liberated from the algorithms and strictures of social media. Usage of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter amounts, on some level, to digital feudalism. We, the users, generate the value while its operators passively become rich. Musk and Zuckerberg don’t dream up the images, the articles, the videos, and the jokes. They are not creative people. They defined much of the last 20 years. I don’t believe they will define the next 20.