In the Hothouse | Ben Tarnoff
Mark Zuckerberg once called Twitter a clown car that fell into a gold mine. Now there is a new clown behind the wheel, and the gold’s all gone. Twitter has long been bad at making money, clownishly bad. But it continued to attract investment, thanks to the low interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve to ease the pain of the 2008 global financial crisis and its long aftermath. Gorged with capital, investors spent many years pouring money into tech firms that don’t make money in the belief that someday they would.
In today’s macroeconomic environment, the appetite for such risks has subsided. The worst inflation since the early 1980s has got the Fed rapidly cranking up rates. The financial floodplains of Silicon Valley are drying up; it is a time of layoffs, hiring freezes, down rounds, and cratering stock prices. It is therefore the worst possible moment in recent memory to acquire an unprofitable tech company, especially if you paid a high price for it and took on a lot of debt to do so.
A mine with nothing left to mine is just a hole in the ground. And this is where Elon Musk now finds himself: deep in a hole. The precise depth of the hole was determined by a gag. Back in April, when he made his first bid, he proposed to take Twitter private at $54.20 a share, a weed reference, and that is ultimately what he paid. This stupid number is more meaningful than it may seem. It reveals a wider truth, one that does not displace so much as subsume the various interpretations about why Musk is behaving the way he is: it’s all a joke.
A joke is a terribly serious thing. It makes matters more complicated rather than less. Freud said that jokes are like dreams: they come from the unconscious, he believed, and are thus glutted with meanings in excess of those intended by the teller. Musk’s relationship to Twitter is, to use a Freudian word, overdetermined. It is a bundle of psychic attachments so densely knotted that it would take a century on the couch to unravel.
For Musk, Twitter means too much. It is an outlet for his immeasurable ressentiment, an incubator for his reactionary politics, an arena for irony-poisoned meme combat, a stage from which to cultivate a fanbase, a megaphone for marketing his various ventures, a place to get his feelings hurt, a high school cafeteria full of cool kids against whom to take revenge. And this is what makes him such a lousy chief executive. The cool discipline of capital requires restraint. Musk, by contrast, has spent his short tenure as Twitter’s owner in a fever of desublimation—antagonizing the advertisers on whom the vast majority of Twitter’s revenue depends, haggling with Stephen King over the price of a blue check, circulating a right-wing conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, laying off half of Twitter’s employees only to ask some of them to take their jobs back the next day.
One gets the sense that Musk, despite having turned Twitter into a personal dictatorship, is not exactly in control. Oedipus was king of Thebes and also, famously, not exactly in control. There is something poignantly Greek about the likelihood that Twitter may die, or at least be mangled beyond recognition, at the hands of someone who can’t seem to live without it. It would be a fitting end for the most neurotic website on the Internet.
What is Twitter? What is it for? These have always been difficult questions. Its creators never had good answers. A major inspiration for the original service was an SMS application called TXTmob, which had been developed to coordinate the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. TXTmob grew out of the hacker-anarchist milieu that supplied technical personnel to the antiglobalization and antiwar movements of that era. Twitter turned the basic idea into a business. But what they had was a form—the mobile status update—rather than a content. Why tweet? Jack Dorsey seemed to think the site would be used to tell people you were having fun at a particularly good nightclub. My first memory of someone using Twitter, in 2007, was a tweet telling people about eating a particularly good sandwich.
Twitter’s lack of definition turned out to be a blessing. The fact that nobody knew what it was for meant that users got to come up with their own answers together. The company mostly stayed out of the way: aside from the character limit, Twitter traditionally had relatively few features or distinguishing characteristics, and remained mercifully free of “product innovation.” It was this indeterminateness that made Twitter so malleable to its users. It was a blank screen on which to project, a room in which to talk to ourselves in the hope that someone would hear.
The Jamaican theorist Sylvia Wynter says that we are a storytelling species: homo narrans. We use storytelling to define what it means to be human and which particular humans we are. One can then speak of different “genres” of the human: different kinds of stories that make different kinds of people. What Twitter became, as it evolved from a startup into a fixture of the Internet in the 2010s, was nothing less than a machine for the production of new genres of being human. “A new type of guy just dropped,” the meme goes. Over the years, a bewildering variety of types have been produced. A very partial list would have to include Weird Twitter, Black Twitter, Left Twitter, and Trump Twitter, each with their own elaborate genre conventions and extensive internal differentiation.
The critic George W. S. Trow, writing in the early 1980s, observed that television had established a “context of no-context.” That is, it had annihilated the ideas and practices that traditionally gave meaning and coherence to human life, passed down from one generation to the next, and replaced them with a depthless world of spectacle. A few years later, the educator Neil Postman made a similar argument. Television, he wrote, had created “a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events.”
On Twitter, the situation is the opposite. Twitter has too much context; it is a stitchwork of contexts so baroque that it takes real work to get inside them. For Trow and Postman, the televisualization of culture had eliminated the obligation to become cultured: information had to be shorn of complexity to be spoon-fed into the melting mind of the couch potato. Twitter, by contrast, requires some fluency in its dialects to be of any interest. A poster is not a couch potato. A poster is an initiate, a practitioner with specialized knowledge.
This is why the website can be so intimidating to the casual user, and why, in turn, it has had so much trouble growing. A small percentage of users account for nearly all of its activity: according to a recent internal report obtained by Reuters, heavy tweeters account for fewer than 10 percent of monthly overall users but generate 90 percent of the tweets. Which makes sense, because it takes a certain kind of person, and a decent amount of free time, to internalize enough of the protocols and learn enough of the lore to properly inhabit a context. Pity the future historians poring over petabytes of subtweets, trying to make sense of it all.
And yet if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses. The effect on our politics is particularly pronounced. It is impossible to imagine the political career of Donald Trump, much less the Trumpification of the Republican Party, without his hall-of-fame Twitter account. Also, journalists are notoriously zealous Twitter users, and so the website does much to affect which stories the media covers, and how. Everyone lives in the world that Twitter has made, regardless of whether they’ve ever tweeted.
This is one way to think about what Twitter is, and what might be lost if it disappears: a network of influence. But such a definition doesn’t explain why Twitter is such fertile soil for the proliferation of contexts and complexes—why its users, including and especially Musk, have made it mean so much. Maybe a better way to think of Twitter is as a hothouse of human culture, with climatic conditions engineered to promote especially rapid and chaotic forms of growth. All those different genres of being human that germinate inside it are also, in a word, cultures.
The term “culture” generally carries a note of nobility. Cultures are to be celebrated. UNESCO goes around the world determining which things belong to humanity’s cultural heritage—so far the list includes Thai massage, Machu Picchu, and Ukrainian borscht—and therefore deserve humanity’s respect and protection. But cultures do not always deserve respect and protection. Cultures, like people, can be pathological. They can authorize cruelty and mass death. The Crusaders had culture; so do the executives at ExxonMobil.
To say that Twitter is a breeding zone of cultures, then, is not necessarily to make a moral claim on its behalf, to suggest that it is some sort of World Heritage Site that must be defended from Musk’s bulldozers. Twitter is a richer cultural field than the midcentury television wasteland deplored by Trow and Postman, but that doesn’t mean our outlook as a species has improved. In fact, the two grumps would be delighted to learn that, while the exact conditions they diagnosed no longer obtain, there remains ample cause for their civilizational pessimism.
There has been considerable debate, in part conducted on Twitter, about whether the recrudescence of far-right politics seen around the world in recent years should be called fascist. It certainly has fascist potential, and Twitter—by giving people a channel for unimpeded self-description, by acting as both stimulant and sponge of humanity’s narratomania—has had no small part in organizing that potential. Some of the new types of guys that the website’s cultures have produced are those who worship death, take pleasure in the pain of others, and see subhumans everywhere. Twitter may not survive Musk, but if and when the website dies, I won’t be sure whether I should mourn it. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, and so sometimes it’s hard to know how to feel when such documents burn.