Hey there! I see you. Through the page, as you cast your eyes — deep, soulful, intelligent eyes — downward at this column. And I want to say, how very special you are, for all your delightful qualities and how flattered I am that you would add your delightful presence to the Sun-Times family of readers today in your unique, quite extraordinary way.
Feel better? Of course you do. Attention is addictive. That’s the shortest possible explanation for social media. Facebook lets us set up these little shrines to ourselves and then join in a mutual admiration society with assorted strangers. Instagram lets us direct fabulous little movies about our fabulous little lives.
And Twitter. The cynosure of the moment. Since I’m sure some readers will only vaguely perceive Twitter as the gadget that car/space tycoon Elon Musk bought for $44 billion, twice what it’s supposedly worth, I should explain: It’s an online platform where you spitball brief opinions at your followers, while others in turn knuckleball their views at you, to either swing at or let fly by. It’s like writing your thoughts down, folding them into paper airplanes, then launching them into a hurricane.
I joined a dozen years ago because not joining seemed journalistic malpractice and I find it a useful tool in my job, both writing stuff — you can track people down on Twitter — and then disseminating what I’ve written. Occasionally, I get lucky and a Neil Gaiman will retweet my column to his 3 million-plus followers, the arc light of significance sweeping over me for a moment before all is darkness again.
Though mainly I’m a part of an audience, like everybody else. The truism, that if you aren’t paying for something online, then the product being sold is you, applies double for Twitter.
This past week, we’ve all been supernumeraries in the Elon Musk Show, watching the richest man in the world whine and gripe and beg people on Twitter to start paying $8 a month for the blue check marks that go beside their name, originally issued to show tweeters are indeed who they claim to be.
Considering he just bought the thing, Musk is spectacularly bad at Twitter, violating Rule No. 1: Don’t engage with people who hate you. Musk can’t help standing in the center of the glare, baring his teeth, damning advertisers for fleeing Twitter because mainstream corporations don’t want to underwrite a train wreck.
His demand for eight bucks for that blue check approaches futile groveling, like charging for the tag on a pillow. I’ve got one because they gave it to me and would give it up just as easily. Now if Twitter charged $7.99 a month to use the service, I might pony that up or, rather, ask the paper to pay it as a cost of doing business.
But then, if Musk charges $7.99 for Twitter, 90% of the users would drop out. Some are anyway. Andrew Stroehlein, media director of Human Rights Watch, led the charge over to Mastodon, a multiserver Twitter clone (You “toot” instead of “tweet.” I wonder if the benign fart imagery has occurred to them yet).
I duly joined Mastodon, squeezed out a few messages, gained a dozen followers, and my account promptly vanished. My theory is the particular server I randomly joined blew a tube.
In the brief time it worked, Mastodon wasn’t exactly ideal. I plugged “Chicago” into the search bar, trying to find local, ah, Mastodoneers, and up popped a mob of ... ummm ... enthusiastic masseuses who were not emphasizing the therapeutic aspects of their profession. Unsurprising, when platforms aren’t moderated, but the supposed point is to be better than Twitter, not worse.
I signed up again, figuring if Twitter is going to morph into a 24-hour-a-day floating Nuremberg Rally for Donald Trump, I might want to duck out the back.
Or not. Why not stick around and watch the fun? It’s win-win. Either Twitter will remain useful for its purposes despite Musk jamming his fingers into the gears. Or he’ll wreck it and be out $44 billion (well, along with others. Like his idol, Trump, Musk likes to risk other people’s money).
Won’t that be fun to witness? If it does nothing except punch a hole in the enormous, expanding gasbag of toxic ego that is Elon Musk, then the death of Twitter will not have been in vain.