Updated: Jun 15
In the beginning, Twitter was a magical place. A place where you could while away hours with witty strangers engaging in ridic conversations, rofl lols and big ideas. It took me a while to catch on but when I did I realised these were my people. I was hooked.
At times I’d say Twitter has been essential. When I lived alone in London and my partner was on the other side of the world. During long months doing newborn nightshift hours. Riding the COVID lockdown waves. (And, yeah okay, while pushing swings at playgrounds.)
A bellwether for the spread of political movements. A place to revel in the schadenfreude of celebrity stumbles or rally behind those who deserved better. A one stop shop for recipe ideas, ADHD coping strategies, grassroots activism, gardening tips, political debates, excruciating public misunderstandings and streaming recommendations. And, of course, a home for porn and hate. Lots of it.
Communities have sprung up on Twitter around everything from niche hobbies to global movements to Tradwives to conspiracy theories so far fetched reading their Tweets makes your brain bleed. (I'm told the only way to release the pressure is to stab yourself in the eyeball with a 5G phone.)
You could never predict who would become Twitter’s main character from week-to-week but when they galvanised the entire site it was a beautiful thing to behold.
Likewise you could never predict which of your Tweets would be pulled from the feed and elevated into the pantheon of the viral (as I discovered the time I flippantly posted about icing my post-birth vagina only to wake the next day to see it doing big numbers).
Of course, journos were always lurking to pull the most incisive, polarising or provocative Tweets into their news copy – I once did a news search of my Twitter handle and found myself published by a range of global news sites that would make any journalist’s folio look impressive.
When it was at its best, Twitter felt like a village. Sure, the village included people aggressively interrupting each other's conversations and a reply guy following you from shop to shop explaining in acute detail and with zero factual accuracy all the ways in which you were wrong. But all that was forgotten in a crisis. Seeing a whole community rally around someone when they needed it most was regular and welcome.
Births, deaths and marriages have all been shared on the bird site. Spontaneous moments of generosity and camaraderie have been legion.
Perhaps most importantly, it has connected and amplified voices who need to hear each other and be heard but have been marginalised or isolated by traditional media.
Voices I might otherwise never have heard but have made me think deeply and adapt the way I walk through this world. It has been a privilege to eavesdrop on their vital conversations.
Twitter has also been a primary source of information during times of incredible change. It has fostered collectivism, giving satellite communities the opportunity to link up and build strength in numbers. It has allowed us to hear stories from people living through crises, conflicts, and injustices and mobilise help in real time. You can’t underestimate the impact of Twitter clicktivism: as seen by movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Robodebt.
In my own very small contribution, it was Twitter that made me launch an art project that raised $10,000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in 2017. In November of that year, I and many others watched in horror as the refugee crisis on Manus Island escalated into a humanitarian disaster at the hands of the then Australian Government. Reporters weren’t allowed access to Manus. But as the refugees' camp was forcibly closed and they were denied food and water, we watched it all unfold via Tweets from the refugees themselves.
Their words were profound and were being lost to the perpetually moving newsfeed -alongside NYTimes recipes and breakup memes. Wanting to do something to help, I created Freedom Calendar to let the refugees know they were being heard and supported and to take their message to a wider audience.
With input from the refugees themselves, we recruited artists from Australia and NZ to transform the refugees' Tweets into moving artworks. The works and their corresponding Tweets were displayed in a digital gallery, became a social campaign, sold at auction and featured in a 2018 calendar that sold around the world with all funds raised donated to the ASRC.
Of course, there is a flipside to all this progressive goodness.
Bad faith shitposting, mega trolling, harassment, hate speech, extremist ideology and the undercurrent of darkness have been lurking from the beginning. For a long time Twitter did at least seem committed to addressing these problems, despite never being able to fully get a handle on it. Dumping Trump gave us all hope.
Sadly, that all feels in the distant past. When I log on now, I have to wade through a lot of crap to find the people whose presence has given me great joy.
Whereas it once felt like walking into a room full of friends at a party, now it’s more like walking into a room full of angry drunks and Andrew Tate wannabes while one concerned, familiar face cowers in a corner somewhere.
A new owner with a warped view of free speech, a shift in the algorithm, the prioritisation of accounts who've paid for Twitter Blue and the general drift of good people tired of being slapped with a spray of hate when they open the app over a morning coffee - have all made Twitter a less safe and less enjoyable place to be.
It's also become a serious issue in terms of the mainstreaming of extremist viewpoints. There have been some great pieces recently that talk to the real risks of normalising hate. Twitter certainly seems to be doing its damnedest on that front these days.
Transphobia, racism, misogyny, fascism, rampant misinformation. It was always there but now it's too loud and relentless to block and move on from. It can't help that some of it is being encouraged to spread and bloom from the top. Elon Musk always seems to be the main character these days.
It’s a crying shame, really. Because I still find the occasional jewel in the junk heap - a new account I can’t believe I’m not following or a perfect tweet that nails the human condition in 280 characters. But the grip the bird once had on me has most definitely slipped.
Am I still Tweeting? Yes, of course.
You'll most likely have to drag me out kicking and screaming ('and another thing', I'll be typing as you wrench the keyboard from my clawed hand). But my visits are less frequent these days and my lurking time brief.
Whatever Twitter is destined to become, it will never again be what it once was. And right now it is but a raging bin fire.
Real world, here I come.