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On the Matter of the New Twitter Boss and Other Things

Elon Musk is buying Twitter, apparently mostly just because he can, and people are — strangely! — worried about whether a thin-skinned ego monster of a billionaire who has problems relating to humans and appears to equate “free speech” with trolling is going to make a service already rife with trolls and and bots any better.

I have thoughts about this! And I will share them with you now.

So, is Elon Musk going to make Twitter better?

Probably not! Part of this can be understood by who appears to be genuinely excited by the fact that Musk is buying the service, namely the trolls and/or the bad actors who have been punted off the service because they were real dicknozzles to others, and are now deeply excited that they might be allowed to return and get right back on their bullshit again. Most everyone else is, at best, ambivalent about it, and a not trivial number of people are taking this as their cue to head for the exit; my follower count is down a solid 1,000+ since yesterday. Some of that may be bots being cleared away, but I suspect it may be folks going, “whelp, I’m out.”

Also, aside from the common trolls, everyone fully expects Seditionist-in-Chief Donald Trump to return to Twitter the moment he can; he’s out there saying he’s not going to, and that he’s going to be on his own service, but we all know that’s a lie. He’s another thin-skinned ego monster, purporting to be a billionaire, who has problems relating to humans, etc, and he will go to where the most people will find him, which is Twitter, and he’ll bring the shit brigade back with him. We all know how that worked out for the country last time.

Elon Musk buying Twitter will be resetting the service back to 2015, basically. Which is not great for anyone but Trump and the trolls.

Okay, yeah, maybe, but Elon Musk could make Twitter better!

I mean, it’s a quantum physics universe; anything could happen. But very little that Musk has said or done seems to suggest that he’s actually going to make Twitter better for anyone but trolls. His definition of “Free Speech” appears to be of the “I get to say entirely shitty things and face no consequences for it” variant which has made being on social media such a delight these latter years, so it seems likely that the new regime will just make Twitter swampier, not less so. Under this “free speech” rubric, reporting trolls and bots and fake accounts to the service seems even less likely to get a useful response than it does now, and it seems more likely than not that harassment and threats and general assholic activity will go way up, because the dude at the top thinks that’s just fine.

Now, Musk could do things to counteract the malignant shittery that by all indications he intends to let flourish on his site: As just one example, he could have Twitter offer finer-grained user-facing filtering and blocking tools that allow users better control of what and who shows up on their feed. He could also make them easier to find and use — put them up front, so people are aware right from the start that they exist and how to use them. Twitter does have filtering tools, but has done such a poor job communicating about them that really only the power users know they exist, much less use them, and even then they’re not entirely adequate. So if Musk gets the service to overhaul and improve user-side control, I’ll be happy to give him a thumbs up there.

But I’m not counting on that! Because, again, Musk doesn’t much seem to care whether people are shitty on Twitter, in no small part because he enjoys being shitty on Twitter. It also seems likely that he doesn’t care that the “free speech” dynamic he appears to tout emboldens the worst sort of people to attack, harass and threaten others, safe in the knowledge that there are no service-side consequences for doing so.

Maybe give a him a chance to prove himself before you criticize him!

Well, one, Musk doesn’t need for me to give him a chance: save a last-minute intervention from shareholders and/or the US government, neither of which I find likely, he’s gonna own the joint no matter what I think. Two: Why? Elon Musk is not exactly shrouded in mystery. He’s a very public individual and has clearly stated his opinions on many subjects, and has a verifiable history in terms of how he acts and what his positions are. It’s perfectly fine to make suppositions about him from existing evidence.

Could I be proven wrong? Absolutely! It may turn out that Elon Musk was the best thing ever to happen to Twitter, and that he will lead us into a new era of social media utopianism. But I’m not exactly counting on it. To the extent that Musk knows who I am (he doesn’t) or cares what I think (he doesn’t), he’s welcome to prove me wrong. And I would be delighted to be wrong! I just don’t suspect I will be.

You just hate him because he’s an outspoken billionaire, you socialist liberal snowflake!

I don’t hate him (I don’t know him, personally), and I don’t even think he’s been unfailingly awful, in terms of the products and services he’s had a hand in. PayPal has been useful to me for decades. Tesla has been a net good, I think, in helping us wean away from oil and fossil fuels. SpaceX seems to me mostly an affectation, but it’s an affectation that I have a personal and professional inclination toward, so, you know, fine. Starlink? Messing up the night sky for Internet, I don’t love it. Twitter? I suspect he’s going to fuck that one up, based on his public behavior over the years and stated plans for the service.

As for Musk being a billionaire: look, this might be surprising, coming from a rich straight white cis dude as this does, but I don’t really have prima facie antagonism of billionaires, and even if I did, that doesn’t stop me from doing business with them and/or their products when it suits me to do so, or when honestly there’s no choice if one wishes to interact with the modern world. I have taken money from Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch and Stefan von Holtzbrinck, to name just three billionaires who have tossed proverbial coins at me, and I will very likely do so again, from them and other billionaires. I use Facebook and Instagram, whose billionaire leader Mark Zuckerberg is probably as delighted as it’s possible for him to be that Elon Musk has usurped him as the Tech Dude Most People Seem To Think Is Evil Today, and I used Twitter when Jack Dorsey was its eccentric billionaire leader. I use Apple and Google and Microsoft products on the regular.

But just because I take money from billionaires and/or use their products and services, it doesn’t follow that I have to be unfailingly fawning of them, or believe that they are peerless examples of humanity, whose glowing example we should all follow. They’re not! By their public actions, a lot of them are real dickheads. I understand there are oligarch fluffers out there, weirdly highly correlative to the sort of dude who thinks he’s a free-thinking libertarian but actually just doesn’t want to pay taxes or be obliged to care about anyone else. I’m just not sure why I am obliged to be one of them, even if I do continue to use Twitter, or buy a Pixel phone, or get something off of Amazon, etc.

You just don’t like free speech!

I like free speech just fine. I don’t think it has much to do with Twitter, however. Twitter is, and will remain, a private company, and what speech is there, is what whoever runs it decides is going to be acceptable. Musk’s iteration of it seems likely to encourage bad actors and decrease the signal-to-noise ratio; either Musk knows this and wants this, or thinks that this one time things will be different — in which case, bless his heart. But it will be his show; he can do what he wants, and everyone who continues to use Twitter will have to deal with it.

So are you going to continue to use Twitter?

Probably. It’s been extremely useful to me professionally, and a lot of my friends are there (still, at least for now), so it’s an important way for me to socialize with others during the day.

But you said Twitter is likely to get worse!

And it likely will! But the awfulness is also unlikely to be evenly distributed, and in my case I expect the awfulness to be manageable. Some of this is based on my own personality, which is generally reasonably well-insulated from the sort of bullshit trolls get up to on Twitter and elsewhere (having three decades of experience dealing with trolls going back to the USENET days helps). Some of this is based on being a rich straight white cis male and thereby getting rather less bullshit sent my way, and when I do it’s mostly losers punching up at me and hoping I engage so they can benefit from the exchange, and I’m happy to disappoint them. Some of it is based on being a Twitter power user, so I actually do know how use the service’s tools to shape my timeline, and for the places where that’s not sufficient I use Block Party, which, because Twitter is a legit marketing tool for me, is a tax-deductible expense. So in all I assume my Twitter experience will be only marginally more sucky than it is right now — again, more like it was in 2015.

That said, not everyone can afford $120 a year for a third-party filtering system for Twitter, or has familiarized themselves with the service’s tools, or, critically, is a straight white cis male who doesn’t mind that much when losers try to punch up at him, hoping that senpai will notice them. It’s lots of people not in that demographic for whom Twitter is likely to become a more degraded and difficult experience. Don’t worry about me. Worry about other, more vulnerable people.

Well, I am leaving Twitter.

As you should if it’s not something you believe you can or should participate in.

But I will miss you.

Awww, thanks. You don’t have to miss me. I’m also at Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and Reddit and Mastodon and CounterSocial and Flickr and Tumblr and even at Ello. And, of course, I will be here, at Whatever, where I have been for 23+ years now, having seen off AOL and Friendster and LiveJournal and MySpace and all other manner of social media entities that existed in the before times and are now huddled in the “We Were Beautiful Once Too” bin of the Internet.

Do you think Twitter will be in that bin too?

One day, sure. Whether Elon Musk purchasing the site hastens that moment remains to be seen.

Is this where you rant about having the importance of your own space on the Internet?

It’s not a rant, and also yes. Look, scalzi.com has existed for 24 years now, and Whatever for almost as long, and I never had to worry about whether some damn fool other than me was going to come in and wreck it. And as noted I’ve seen several generations of social media come and go from the privacy of my own web site. No matter what happens, people will be able to find me here.

But you don’t own your own ISP or web host! You’re just as vulnerable!

You are technically correct, which as we all know is the best kind of correct, and also, in the real world my web host for scalzi.com has been unchanged for 20 years at least and if it suddenly went out of business I feel pretty confident someone else would host my site, I’m not doing a terrorism or a porn here. And if it really came down to it, I could just roll my own, although if it did come to that a) I would be miserable, since plugging directly into the Internet backbone is not my skill set, b) things are probably a lot worse than they are now in so many other ways that this site is not going to be high on my list of problems. So while you’re not wrong, also, you’re mostly wrong, and also, I’m not going to sweat it.

Nor should anyone else. Have your own site, people! Run a blog! Get an RSS feeder! Relive 2008!

Of all your various social media iterations aside from Twitter, which ones are you most likely to be on?

Well, here on Whatever, obviously; I update nearly every day, and I have comments open so there can be conversations here (and I moderate pretty seriously). After this, probably Instagram and Facebook. Depending on how things go and my technical acumen, I may mirror some or all of my tweets on Mastodon and CounterSocial. Tumblr runs a feed from Whatever, so there’s that. But again, I’m planning to stay on Twitter for now and I suspect that will remain my primary non-Whatever outlet.

What about doing a Substack or a Medium or a Patreon or a newsletter?

Substack and Medium and Patreon are basically blogs, are they not? I have a blog. You’re reading it. And (again!) unlike Substack and Medium and Patreon, this site is not dependent on anyone else’s business plan, nor unlikely to go away if those sites disappear and/or merge with something else and/or change their user agreement or whatever. I don’t worry about making money directly from the site, and it seems unlikely this will change any time soon, so I don’t need those various monetization options (and if I did, I believe WordPress, which hosts this blog, has options for that).

As for a newsletter: Hey, you can get the blog posts from this site sent to you via mail! If you don’t know how, look down at the very bottom of the site’s sidebar, you can put your email address there. Once you fill it in, presumably you’ll get an email confirming that indeed, you wish to subscribe. There, you have the Whatever newsletter!

Twitch? Discord? TikTok? Other site which has previously gone unmentioned?

I have accounts on quite a lot of social media sites but I also have only so much time in the day for being on social media and/or moderating and maintaining sites. At a certain point, the choice becomes: maintain a social media presence or get actual work done. I do have to prioritize work. It’s what keeps the cats from trying to eat me whilst I sleep.

Would you ever leave Twitter?

Sure, if being on it became more trouble to me than it was worth, or if it devolved into such a state that I didn’t believe I could reasonably be associated with the site. And also if it just stops being fun. I don’t own the site and I don’t owe the site loyalty. Or alternately I’ll just post career-related updates and leave it at that. Will it get to that point? We’ll see. I hope not!

But if it does, well, Twitter had a run, and that’s fine, too. Nothing is forever. And I’ll still have this site, probably. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here.

— JS

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alma Katsu

Do we learn from the past? And how does the past inform today, and the art that is created in it? These are questions Alma Katsu is confronting in this Big Idea for The Fervor, and is inviting you to confront them as well.

ALMA KATSU:

The Fervor is a novel about the Japanese internment. It’s about the lives of four characters during the waning days of WWII: Meiko, the Japanese wife of a U.S. fighter pilot, sent to one of the Japanese internment camps; Archie Mitchell, whose wife is killed at the opening of the book when a fu-go, or fire balloon, explodes near Bly, Oregon; Fran Gurstwold, a reporter intent on writing up the dangerous and mysterious fire balloon incidents; and Aiko, Meiko’s daughter, who escapes from camp and makes a dangerous solo journey back to Seattle when she’s told her mother has died. It’s all tied together by a forgotten episode in Meiko’s past: a trip taken with her researcher father to a remote island reportedly linked to the Japanese underworld.

On another level, though, it’s an exploration of racism in America.

I write historical novels with a horror twist. The question I’m invariably asked is why now? Why should we care about the Donner Party (The Hunger) or the Titanic (The Deep) or the Japanese internment (The Fervor)? Don’t we have enough to worry about today without dredging up the troubles of the past?

What I’ve learned is that the troubles of the past are still with us because we failed to learn our lesson the first time.

Nowhere is this more true than with The Fervor. While the novel centers on the internment, that event couldn’t have happened if prejudice against Chinese and Japanese on the West Coast hadn’t been allowed to ferment in the open for decades. And now here we are 80 years later, and violent attacks on Asians in America have jumped over 300 percent, directly attributable to politization of the origins of COVID. The attacks by these American nativists are disproportionately against elderly Asian women.

I know a fair amount about civil unrest. It was part of my beat as an analyst at CIA and NSA. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Sierra Leon—name a civil war in the 1990s, I was part of the team analyzing it. A campaign of demonization of “the other” is an important part of the game plan.

As aware as I was, I was shocked to learn during my research for The Fervor just how widespread white nativist groups were in the American Midwest and West in the decades leading up to WWII. Their hatred of Asians was sickeningly open. Except for the white hoods of the KKK, they didn’t bother to hide it. The white nationalist group I created for The Fervor is based on one of the most virulent of the time—and one that exists to this day. (I don’t know if they ever apologized for their antagonistic behavior toward Asians.)

I realize this post is a bit of a downer. I hope you’ll give The Fervor a chance, as it was written to entertain and I think it does, but it’s also meant to impart a lesson, one that is (depressingly) still relevant today.


The Fervor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|One More Page Books (signed & personalized)

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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