Recent Twitter trending hashtags like #RIPTwitter and #TwitterDown have signaled a virtual wake for the website as if it were already dead.
Site users have consistently praised the social network in the chaotic days since Elon Musk bought the platform. But the death knell sounded louder on Thursday, which saw a further exodus of what remains of Twitter’s workforce. That night, the Top 5 Twitter trends in the United States, all related to what people see as the impending end of the site as they know it.
Amid the flood of tributes, a consensus emerged on what makes the platform worth mourning: Twitter has been a unique accessible space where otherwise marginalized groups have felt heard and built community.
Twitter has been a go-to site for news, advocacy, entertainment and community for years. But the massive layoffs within the company have instilled in many people the feeling that the site could shut down at any time. As Twitter crumbles, Musk’s major changes, including his overhaul of the verification system, have already sent people fleeing the site for other social media platforms.
But many fear that other platforms won’t be able to replicate the same functionality they found on Twitter.
A megaphone for marginalized groups
“It gave people a voice,” said Ryan Broderick, who covers internet culture in his Substack newsletter, Garbage Day. “I think Twitter’s ability to act as a megaphone for overlooked communities, cultures and subcultures is so much a part of our lives now that we don’t even think about it.”
It’s a theme he noted after he and Buzzfeed tech reporter Katie Notopoulos hosted a three-hour long conversation on Twitter Spaces Thursday night “to say goodbye” to the site. Nearly 200,000 listeners collectively connected to the chat.
Sanjukta Basu, a writer who studies gender-based violence online and who joined the discussion from India, saw the event as a perfect example of the value of the platform.
“I talked for five minutes on it,” she said. “And suddenly I have all these 50 people following me. That’s the power of Twitter. No other platform has given me this feeling of, you know, a global public square.”
Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning actress and advocate for the deaf community, remembers the platform for the connections it fostered. She says Twitter helped take the “dis” out of the “handicap.”
“I found camaraderie with EVERYONE,” she said over email. “As a deaf person, it has pretty much eliminated barriers to communication because I can speak [about] anything or ANYONE, whether or not they know American Sign Language.”
She credits Twitter’s accessibility features for removing these barriers. The site introduced alt text in 2016, which allowed people who are blind or partially sighted to access images via printed descriptions. Last year, the addition of automatic captions reached people who are deaf or hard of hearing with captioned videos.
But after Musk would have cut the team who worked on Twitter’s accessibility features, Matlin says she worries about who will develop these new tools as the social media landscape changes.
Donyale Padgett, a communications professor at Wayne State University, honors Black Twitter now that she thinks he’s in danger.
“I relied on Black Twitter so much,” Padgett told NPR. All things Considered. “It was a place of refuge. It was a place of humor. It’s a recording of something deep that happened. It’s where you want to go to really follow and follow the conversation. “
Meredith Clark, author of a forthcoming book on Black Twitter, defines virtual space as “a series of communities on Twitter made up of black people tweeting about issues of concern to members of black communities.”
Clark cites the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements as prime examples of Black Twitter’s impact.
“So many people got to see how people from different parts of the globe, from different parts of the world and from different parts of this country connect with each other to talk about issues of racial justice,” she told NPR. Twitter has forced people to pay attention to black contributions that have been historically misrepresented or overlooked.
Twitter’s content moderation policies have made it a relatively safe online space for free speech, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesman Josh Richman.
Richman praised Twitter’s “forward-thinking” and “sensitive” approach to content moderation, whether or not it’s always been successful. Under Musk, Richman says those kinds of protections that Twitter provided to marginalized communities seem to be eroding.
Advocacy groups now fear the site is littered with hateful rhetoric against marginalized communities. Some accounts that were previously banned for violating Twitter’s hate speech policies have been released from the platform. While Musk said Friday that Twitter would downgrade “negative/hateful tweets” on the platform, it has yet to define what that entails or say whether Twitter’s current policies on hate speech and harassment will remain effective.
A chance to improve social media
For many, Twitter’s uncertain fate presents a moment to ponder what might happen next. Broderick says now may be the time to start thinking about decentralizing a sphere of social media that has cemented “unhealthy” cultural dominance.
“When you get to the point where a wire determines everything that’s in the news, everything that’s on TV, everything that politicians talk about, I think that can be really dangerous,” he said. “No matter which website reaches this point, someone like Elon Musk will need it.”
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