The Social Circle

The completed purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk reflects a symbolic victory for those who saw its power as a tool of influence, rather than for communication.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: The bastard finally did it. After months of talk and threats of lawsuits, Twitter has now been handed over to Elon Musk, who apparently plans to do whatever Elon Musk plans to do (starting with studying every engineer’s code, apparently). And sure, it felt like we were probably going to be mired in drama around this potential decision for years, the potential danger of this happening more likely than the actual thing itself. But then the thing happened and all those Twitter shareholders that held on got a payday well above what they were looking for cheered … even though many of the heavy users didn’t. The first question I’ve seen from many of my followers and mutual follows has been this: Where do we go? I guess I’d like to get a little philosophical here. Today in Tedium, let’s talk about communities and the magic spark that made Twitter both special and complicated. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Coffee Circles

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The “second family”: The power of the social circle

The year was 2006. I was about two years out of college, and I had been fairly transient since I graduated. I lived in different cities and had different experiences, while working in an industry I really liked (though one that would always struggle to love me back). I had just moved into my fourth city since August of 2004.

Personally, I was not in the best of places. I had given up most of my belongings to support this more transient, minimalist lifestyle, and there was even a period in there where I didn’t have a working computer. I had a bad roommate situation and was, for a time, living in temporary housing while I was waiting to move in with a co-worker.

I remember, vividly, being stuck without a laptop, watching the final four episodes of Arrested Development, my favorite show, on a TV set in a hotel room during the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics. That was what brought me joy at the time.

So, in a way, I had my “time in the wilderness.” I could access certain things at work, but for the most part I had a brief, computer-free period where I didn’t really have much in the way of social circles outside of the group of people I worked with, also largely transients who had moved to town from elsewhere.

Coffee Shop

(Rod Long/Unsplash)

But then I moved to another town, and found my people. I would go to a coffee shop every day and find camaraderie with folks there. I met some of my best friends at this coffee shop. And suddenly, my social circle began to widen to the point where I was out and about basically every single weekend, taking a trip or going to a karaoke bar or even just wandering around the neighborhood or rocking out to music.

This in-real-life social circle did a good job looking out for one another back then, but then a lot of us ended up moving away—including me. Life moved on. I liked the idea of living in that town forever, but then I moved away, but with a better sense of social skills that I learned from being a very social person for a little while. And our social situations changed. I met my future wife, other friends got married and had kids, others transitioned out of jobs, others stayed put.

It’s that same gradual thing with a lot of interactions. Some people stay friends for life with people they met in college; others don’t bother going to the reunions. Some people do a lot of networking or travel; others stick close to their family.

I’m still good friends with many of those people I met during this time frame today. Recently we’ve been doing movie nights in our yard—and for the last one we did, at least half a dozen people showed up that I’ve known for at least 15 years.

They always say that, when done well, friends develop into your second family. Time constraints aside, I think I did pretty well on that front.

And I think I’ve carried the lessons from that time in my life with me ever since.

But what I find interesting is what happens when you apply this thought process to the digital world. And yes, it does apply.

“I think that’s hysterical. Now people expect not only wireless, but electricity for a $3 latte.”

— Eileen Hassi Rinaldi, owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters, a San Francisco coffee shop, speaking in 2009 about a decision to shut off outlets in her coffee shop. (Rinaldi is reacting to a customer who, after finding out that outlets were disabled in her coffee shop, demanded a refund. The customer didn’t get it.) In many ways, her comment highlights the fact that coffee shops have changed in dynamic over time, thanks in part to the influence of wireless and power outlets, which have encouraged people to work in coffee shops over long periods. A 2012 study analyzed in depth the dynamic shifts that occurred with coffee shop culture after the laptop was introduced to the mix. I think it’s important to note the sometimes corrupting influence of new technology on certain types of experiences … social media included.

Remix Social Media

(Daniele Levis Pelusi/Unsplash)

How social networks—and honestly, online media in general—remix well-worn dynamics in disruptive ways

In many ways, I think online media started out with an interesting dynamic: In its most primitive forms, such as during the days of the BBS, the channels of IRC, or of Usenet, it brought people together who largely didn’t know one another. The appeal was not unlike going to a bar; if you knew nobody you were going to have a bad time, but if you knew everyone and had earned the respect of the space, you might be treated like a king. The interactions were often anonymous or pseudonymous in nature. People learned to hide behind nicknames at a scale never seen before.

But once a more mainstream audience started to get on the internet, this dynamic started to change. For example, MySpace and Friendster were built around the idea of connecting with people you already knew. Facebook furthered this idea by initially tying it to specific communities, where the odds of interacting with someone in person were high. There was a reason everyone reconnected with the folks they knew in high school when on Facebook.

But other communities continued in earnest. Reddit and SomethingAwful, to name two, sort of started as extensions of already existing approaches to culture in the pre-social-media day.

Twitter, while it started from localist roots, I think in many ways superseded all of these network concepts. The thing that made Twitter unique as a service is that it combined these aspects of social interactions. Yes, it was somewhere where you could hang out with your friends. But it was also where everyone else would hang out, too. Your best buds and your mortal enemies all interacted in one messy place, along with everyone else.

It wasn’t just one social circle. It was every type of social circle, with no real control over what that social circle looked like other than character count and site reliability. You could build your “second family” here. Or troll your haters. Or invent a new persona for yourself.

Remix Social Media2

(Jan Kopřiva/Unsplash)

It was a place where anonymous people and serious thinkers whose entire identity was predicated on their recognizable name could coexist. It was a spot where people could become lifelong friends, where serendipity brought people together, rather than the other way around. Massive celebrities could interact with people with two followers directly after a concert.

I’m convinced, for example, that part of the reason we’ve seen an uptick in the number of past-their-prime musical acts that have found notable Twitter presences is that, unlike the chance of getting a hit on the radio, the ability to build an audience on social media is not fully to chance. If you work at it, you can be successful—and for end users, there is a nonzero chance that you can become online friends with someone who you listened to in high school.

Other social networks, like Tumblr and Instagram, mined this territory effectively, but Twitter excelled most significantly at the social circle part. It wasn’t the largest social network—after all, a lot more people are likely to go to the movies than the coffee shop—but it was perhaps the most important because of who spoke there.

Twitter is a coffee shop where the patrons can either be random people or A-list celebrities. It can be a concert hall, a pub, an AA meeting, a place where you can share your deepest secrets or live another life entirely. If other networks now look more like Twitter, it is because they found inspiration in what Twitter is and put their own spin on it.

Newer social networks take this idea even further. TikTok doesn’t care if you have any existing relationship with the video you’re watching—all that matters is whether you’re entertained by the 30 seconds of video directly in front of you. There are limits to how useful that can be, but on the surface, it’s a powerful tool.

At its best, social media can be the great equalizer. It can generate movements, or amplify them into new directions. It can give a voice to the voiceless, or at least make their voice more accessible than it was before.

The problem is, the dynamic shifts of social media can be too easily manipulated. We see this in the political sphere all the time, where a talking point starts from a single social media user and turns into the dominant message when the right person shares it. In the wrong hands, this kind of toxicity can become all-consuming.

And some days, it actually is. And that’s where the metaphor of comparing this place to a real-life space starts to break down.

Twitter, very accidentally, became all things to all people who logged in, because it was simple, free, and largely unfiltered. No two people had the exact same experience on Twitter in its original form. Sure, we didn’t think as deeply about the things that we said, and the discourse could be a bit mind-numbing. But I think it’s the kind of place where, if you really commit to it, you can find strong, lasting communities of people much like you can if you commit to going to a coffee shop every single day of the week.

But the chain rattlers that exist to chain rattle are usually better at this whole social media thing than you or I, and I think as a result they carry undue influence over the whole thing. They are the ones who are willing to self-immolate on a toxic take because of the 1 percent chance that it will help make them more successful. They understand that more attention is always better than no attention, no matter where it comes from.

These people are professional griefers, people who are more obsessed with image or ideology than communication. And that’s why they are so dangerous, because they are willing to keep self-immolating until they can execute self-immolation without getting burned.

I think that’s the part about Elon that bugs me the most. It’s not that someone bought Twitter, but that he bought it seemingly for the sake of the people who rattle the chains, who make a tiny minority of the users but a majority of the hot air. The first person he interacted with on Twitter after the sale was finalized is telling.

But that’s not what Twitter is, or what it excels at. Twitter is best when it is everything to everyone, where it is the coffee shop, and the bar, and the stand-up gig, and the trade show, and the theme park. It needs legitimate controls to ensure that everyone can take part, but if it has those controls and they’re managed well, it can work for nearly everyone.

Twitter Handle With Care

(Ravi Sharma/Unsplash)

And that’s why the journey to find a new Twitter, the coffee shop/maker space/bar/bonfire that isn’t just about politics or sharing links, seems like it might be really difficult. There is literally nothing like it on the entire internet. Oh sure, there are things that are close. Mastodon, for example, feels like a good start, but there are genuine concerns that people have with the idea of decentralized networking, a desire to see someone in charge to help manage legitimate trust and safety issues.

I think networks like Slack and Discord have elements that could lend themselves to a Twitter style feed if organized slightly differently. If one of these networks does lean that way, it may actually be easier to pull off than if Twitter were to adjust its network to work more like Slack or Discord. The hard part is all the engineering and the work to convince communities that This. Is. The Way. The easy part is the feed itself.

Maybe the network that emerges as the new watering hole will be something old, like Tumblr. Maybe it’ll be something new and untested, like Cohost or Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky. Maybe Elon won’t screw it up, though plenty of people, myself included, aren’t convinced.

Or maybe we won’t find a Twitter-sized watering hole, one big enough for all of us, with differing personalities, qualities, capabilities, and sense of humor. Maybe this was a temporary social experiment to see if we all could be thrown in the same place with only our thoughts and a word limit, and how we would engage and interact with society.

I think the big lesson we learned is that the margins will always ruin the good parts of what made something fun. That’s not a fun lesson, but I would like to suggest that you don’t focus on the chaos in the margins. If you’re a Twitter user, think about what you gained from the whole thing.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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