Despite Musk, There's Still No Place Like Twitter for Building Sustainability Solutions
Twitter's been selling visibility for a decade - as with surreal "promoted trends." Use it right and verification-for-$ doesn't really matter.
Various updates - It’s getting hyper-mercenary in a hurry at Twitter as Elon Musk seeks ways to make his massive investment pay off.
Musk has ordered a crash update to the blue-check verification process, according to Alex Heath of The Verge (@alexeheath) after the basic news was broken by Casey Newton @caseynewton).
What had been a badge of honor granted to accounts that are “authentic, notable and active” now looks like it will go to anyone willing and able to pay $19.99 a month for Twitter Blue access. (I started using Twitter Blue for the editing capacity and other conveniences a few months ago, when it was ~$4 a month.) [Now he’s saying $8/month.]
The latest news from Twitter feels discouragingly akin to the longstanding “pay for play” payola pattern on radio. It’s also like the premium charged to consumer product companies to get their wares on the coveted ends of shopping aisles (the end cap).
In the marketplace of ideas, as in a supermarket, visibility is a commodity. Now the verified symbol, and the algorithms that boost it, is for sale.
If you’ve been on Twitter awhile, you may recall the year 2010, when @Jack Dorsey launched a product tweak almost as disturbing as buyable verified status - the promoted trend.
I found that abhorrent but didn’t leave the platform. At least back then the promoted trends were specified with a yellow label. (Now Twitter Business calls these “trend takeovers”; and I don’t see labels like I used to; am I missing something?)
If the verified shift occurs, Musk is poised to mash up established, reliably-real people with pay-to-players. The biggest problem with verification for cash is dilution, misrepresentation and confusion, of course. I agree with this point tweeted by cosmologist Katie Mack (@astrokatie): “I suspect if this change goes through, it’ll just generally be harder for anyone to know what information is in any way reliable or vouched for by a real person or organization. More noise, less signal.”
This is the same kind of potential “brand blur” I’ve criticized at The New York Times, where a non-news subsidiary, T Brand Studios, makes co-branded content for advertisers including Big Oil.
Stay or go?
Does all of this mean you stop going to the market, or does it mean you become a more educated consumer - avoiding the quick pitch and flashy placements and getting the food (for body or brain) that you need?
I’m with that second strategy.
I started a Thriving Online series of Sustain What webcasts as both the pandemic and the “infodemic” around it surged. My aim there, and here on this dispatch, is building a tool kit and set of practices you can use to make the most of online connectedness without being overly conned, steered, intimidated or otherwise manipulated.
I hope you’ll subscribe to this Sustain What effort - both the dispatches and webcasts.
Particularly suited to this moment is the first conversation I had with Renee Hobbs (@reneehobbs), who teaches propaganda education at the University of Rhode Island and wrote the book “Mind Over Media.” Please dive into the related online curriculum.
The bottom line? Twitter, and social media generally, already deeply distort what and who you see in your feeds based on money or - even worse - on algorithms shaped to keep you engaged by alternating doses of validation, aggravation and eye candy.
Musk’s Twitter rebuild appears to be intensifying the rush of folks weighing a move to other sites like Mastodon (and becoming confused by the need to choose a server, if the flow on Twitter is any indication).
I’ve set up an account there to test the waters. But my first Mastodon post (fun typo) reflects my main issue. For now, I'm concerned that alternatives to Twitter will be populated by self-selected, like-minded communities and that’s certainly not what I seek on a variegated planet where a diversity of responses to threats are normal and even desirable.
This may change, but for now Mastadon and other refuges feel more like a Slack channel than a full, open conversation space. I’d love your thoughts of course!
Here’s what I hope folks will keep in mind before they abandon Twitter altogether:
The signal-to-noise ratio you experience is mainly a function of how you choose to use this (or any other) platform. As I wrote in May, there are a host of ways you can “own” Twitter no matter who owns it - as long as the basic open functionality remains.
In a Twitter thread last week, I added a couple of additional ways Twitter matters, uniquely.
Twitter as creative crossroads
One is the platform’s role as a creative crossroads for refining and iterating communication innovations like the “warming stripes” climate data visualizations of climate scientist Ed Hawkins (@ed_hawkins), made substantially more useful by his prolonged Twitter back-and-forthing with a German engineer, Alex Radtke (@alxrdk). I brought them together for their first live conversation about their long-distance, trans-disciplinary relationship.
One of my other favorite examples is how, early in the pandemic, Twitter brought together the Columbia University emergency room doctor Craig Spencer (@Craig_A_Spencer) and the art-focused journalist Isabeau Doucet (@IsabeauD). Together they created an astounding graphic animation of his gripping COVID-10 ER diaries. I encourage you to watch our Thriving Online conversation.
The results were astounding and speak to the enormous untapped potential in unorthodox communication collaborations.
Twitter and disasters
Insert 11/1 - In a recent Substack post, Sam Montano (@samlmontano), who teaches emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, laid out several ways Twitter helps people working in disaster response and recovery - and helps her connect wider discussions with vital lessons from disaster research. Here’s an excerpt but there’s much more, including an anecdote showing how her Twitter output in the pandemic led to a big report by Chris Hayes:
People who work in emergency management use Twitter for all kinds of formal and informal uses. Arguably most important is the role Twitter plays in spreading lifesaving information during a response. It’s via Twitter that the world often first learns a disaster has even occurred. It’s where survivors can speak for themselves and share their experience and their needs. It’s where we come together to make sense of a disaster.
Operationally we use it to help spread warnings, share shelter information, and find where people are when they need to be rescued. It’s a way for people who have become displaced to reconnect with other members of their community and share information. It’s how we check on our family in the midst of a disaster. It’s where government agencies can explain where and how to get aid. In the absence of media coverage, Twitter is often the place where those of us from away can stay up to date on recovery progress. It’s where we share donation links and find the organizations we want to support. It’s how those organizations raise money and get connected to other opportunities for long-term recovery efforts. It is where small community groups advocating for mitigation can find an audience of supporters and see that they are not alone.
Please read the rest here, and subscribe to her mostly-monthly newsletter (I became a paying subscriber today).
Isn’t this a climate newsletter?
Those who’ve followed my writing since my New York Times days know I care about the quality of the communication environment almost as much as the biogeophysical one. That’ll be the case here, as well.
I was lulled around 2010 into thinking of global connectedness as a planet-saving “knowosphere.” I know better now~. But there are paths to progress here, just as there are in confronting intertwined climate, energy and vulnerability challenges.
A significant portion of my work at Columbia’s Climate School focuses on how the social climate will largely determine whether humans build a safer relationship with the physical climate. Remember, if communities know where vulnerable people are, “Nobody needs to die in a heat wave,” as University of Washington climate-health expert Krisite Ebi keeps saying). Twitter, Facebook and other connectors can help - or not.
Since its launch, I’ve come to appreciate Twitter well beyond other social media as a fantastic tool for sharing and shaping ideas and information, for spilling teaching beyond the classroom, as Margaret Rubega (@profrubega) demonstrated with #birdclass, for saving lives - as Jim Moffitt at Twitter (@snowman) and the Indonesian disaster-response team @petabencana are demonstrating with a Twitter-powered flash flood warning system in the sinking megacity Jakarta.
On his Crucial Years Substack this morning, my old friend Bill McKibben proposed limiting Twitter to a couple of windows during the course of the day. I responded by noting this flash-flood system is all about 24/7 citizen input and output.
It does take work to find the up side without being consumed by the downside.
I’m here to help.
Let me know what you need, or disagree with!
And please do subscribe and pass this newsletter/blog along to friends and colleagues.
I find Twitter quite useful. I have been careful about my interactions and use muting and blocking strageically to keep the level of conversation high. I get at least one idea a week that will influence my work and, especially, my writing. I haven't been much affected by the takeover, though it's early days yet. I left FB and IG some time ago because conversations were too trivial. So, I intend to stick with Twitter unless something changes for the worse.