‘Thanks to the internet,’ the Bluesky user Bobby Bungus (formerly Twitter’s @internethippo) wrote last month, ‘I don’t need to wait for the evening news to learn about recent events. I can read 2000 posts from the most deranged people on earth and make up my own mind.’ In the year since Elon Musk bought Twitter and renamed it X – at, well, deranged cost to himself, financial and reputational – it has largely dispersed as a useable medium and as a quasi-community.
Moguls used to have a certain shyness: they funded libraries and museums, collections and concert halls, but always paid someone else to curate it all for them. Today the second-richest blight on the planet would rather be judged the Memeing Sage of the People. And his subscriber-admirers – the excremental crust of the worst reply guys at the upper end of any popular thread – continue to declare their enthusiasm for his fug of stale jokes and stances.
At the heart of every conspiracy theory is a secret hope that at least someone knows what they’re doing: better a mastermind with a calculated and coherent plan than the inept whims of the billionaire k-hole! Meanwhile Apartheid Clyde, the omnipotent baasskap baby, hapless and incurious, isn’t even that clever about the things he’s said to have mastered: electric vehicles, rocketry and so on. None of his over-promised futures arrive: no Mars, no chips jammed into living brains, no everyday banking on X the Everything App.
Everything apps used to be known as newspapers. But the habits and practices of print were already unravelling when the internet arrived, and soon any blogging urchin – so the thrill of it ran – might confront and correct the unearned expertise of the seemingly better placed mind. Younger, impatient, keen to thumbtack the seats of the mighty, the net-native generation injected the cheek of this style into their journalism, with Twitter as their gossipy Rolodex, blurring much that their forebears kept severely siloed.
Since the 19th century, high-standard news-gathering had aimed to deliver reliability across the political divide. If you disagreed on everything else, you could still be confident in distinguishing fact from opinion; at the rational-utopian technocratic-liberal limit, a diversity of conflicted voices might (possibly) resolve disagreement without violence – that was the ideal, anyway, and much of the purpose of fact-checking, editorial balance and right of reply. But as the machine’s levers stopped delivering, it dwindled into a narrowly defensive professional tribalism, able to see partiality only outside itself. The more it sought to stand above politics, the more obviously and mockably political it became.
If Twitter is bad (and it is), it’s primarily because it remains so relentless a feed for and from its now untrusted precursors: the TV, radio and print we have never yet escaped. If Twitter always degrades those who supply their content and those who encounter it, so had and do those prior outlets. If Twitter is good (and intermittently it has been), it’s because it allowed us to take them to task; an asymmetrical, often pseudonymous harrying for their failings and their self-importance, which Musk’s clumsy tinkering has not entirely wiped away.
Ridicule, however, can no more repair the structure than it can replace it. All too easy in the new settlement, as @dynamic_proxy has observed, to fall for ‘the groundless superstition that being able to meme means you have the mandate of heaven’ (or its converse, that being unable means you don’t). Because this too is a blurring: yes, your unmannerly local eloquence has garnered a following – but this is not the same as refostering trust across social divides. Old-school and urchin-school media – and Musk’s even more self-satisfied and thin-skinned versions – treat expanding your engagement (your follows) as a measure of quality, but such expansion always works by exclusion.
Even if none of us get to Mars, perhaps a less chaotic life awaits on the off-world colonies. I already mentioned Bluesky: there’s also Mastodon, with its riddles of entry; the unappealingly corporate Threads; or else Tumblr, Instagram and Tiktok – or even Facebook itself, antique, shattered, colossal and unusable. If we flee there, will the most deranged people on earth follow us? Will we miss them if they don’t? The knowledge that we’ll always be lied to arrives with psychological consequences. How ill do we no longer want (or need) to be?
‘Move fast and break things,’ the smart guys kept saying – and more and more things are broken. Bench by bench, the coders are fired; the system glitches and shrivels. Then, in response to murder and invasion and climate upheaval, mass migration and expulsion, a news-generated intensification across the unlicensed public square of the worst possible images and takes. Our screens are dense with untruth and personation; with shrieking racist scam-bots and bloodthirsty glee. A squid-ink of crackpot tech-bro fascisms spatters the contracts we must make with the scofflaw gamer-tycoon, as he strives to cosplay the worst of the untended ugliness.
But the switchback from trivial to deadly and back was always just the shape of the human mind adrift in the swirl of the world. So maybe, as the stakes intensify, it’s somehow good that the internet, this vast shivering mirror, is so palpably distorted by the many agendas running through it. Who can still be fooled that a top-down objectivity was either achievable or desirable – let alone that anyone laid plausible claim to it? The more utopian dreams of the early internet seem very distant now; the belief that we might all simply reconfigure our antennae and become our own citizen investigators – what’s even a citizen in this unhinged settlement?
If the attention economy is struggling, so too is the pop-cultural era, some seventy years in the ascendancy, which imagined that a ‘cooler’ politics would make for a better politics: Musk is its reductio ad absurdum, and look at the state of him. A pity, for sure, that the man who ruined Twitter for everyone else will not end his days in a bankruptcy barrel and braces, freed of his money and the attention that came with it; ignored, powerless, forgotten.
And all around, the tycoon class doubles down and profits in other ways; if their broader humiliation is mounting, nothing material has truly yet shifted. This is one of the laws of large numbers. But the deeper law remains that no one well understands large numbers – and all can be changed in a moment.