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📱The Vibe Shift That Was Foretold Came, & Twitter Did Not Survive It
Social Media Reconsidered, Redux
This is an entry in Shaped by Tools, the PEP section on media & technology. Subscribe for free or $5/month forever.
Back in February, a time that feels much farther away than a mere 10 months ago, The Cut published an essay called “A Vibe Shift is Coming. Will any of us survive it?” It was a piece meant to get people talking, and it did. It featured a lot of coast-centric media bubble trendspotting talk mingled with pandemic lockdown introspection. But some of it resonated further—that something was in the air, ready to change the zeitgeist. I’ll contend that the shift was about social media itself, but first, a quote from Sean Monahan, who is quoted at length in the piece:
“I feel like the trajectory of the 2010s has been exhausted in a lot of ways. The culture-war topic no longer seems quite as interesting to people. Social media isn’t a place where you can be as creative anymore; all the angles are figured out. Younger people are less interested in things like quote-unquote cancel culture. These were kind of, like, the big pillars we used to navigate pop culture in the 2010s. And we had the rise of all these world-spanning, like, Sauron-esque tech platforms that literally have presences on every continent. People want to make things personal again.””
A couple of months after this piece, Elon made his bid to purchase Twitter based on vibes only and no due diligence. Following that, the early deserters left the platform; following that, Elon tried to back out of the deal; following that, Twitter countersued to enforce the deal; following that, Elon feared a loss in court and closed the deal in October; following that, he has brought rapid and frantic change to the service and the company, reducing staff via layoffs and “hardcore” ultimatums, reinstating Trump’s account via Twitter poll and offering “general amnesty” to banned accounts, including neo-Nazis.
After Musk’s Twitter acquisition closed in October, another swath of folks deleted their accounts or abandoned them (my own modest follower count has fallen by about 400). Professional journalists (and headline writers) were quick to write obituaries for social media writ large. At VICE, Edward Ongweso, Jr offered an interesting analysis under the clickbait headline “Social Media is Dead,” which highlighted that users are gravitating toward networks that emphasize the one-to-many broadcast model:
“Instead, we're getting YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and an endless number of streaming platforms that replace the more rhizomatic structure of polydirectional conversation with something essentially unidirectional: a broadcast model, which sees "mutuals" replaced by a creator and their audience.”
There has been also plenty of navel-gazing about Twitter’s value (or lack thereof) from high-profile journalists working at major outlets: Rebecca Jennings at Vox wrote about the folks “who rely on Twitter for work, exposure, for pleasure, for passion;” Charlie Warzel at The Atlantic wrote about how “in the media, a whole microgeneration of younger journalists owe parts of their career to the way that Twitter collapses social networks and allows people to find new and interesting voices.”
Musk’s actions at Twitter and on the platform itself feel like private-sector Trumpism—a regime run solely on personality and its concomitant cult. We’ve read this script before: a powerful man becomes the permanent Main Character of Twitter—his inner circle becoming enablers and his online audience hangers-on acting as a cadre of digital enforcers, using shitposting as apologetics. Musk even uses the same culture war tactics as Trump to goose engagement, and has the same unpredictable chaos/unquestionable loyalty management methods Trump became infamous for.
It has not gone unnoticed. On December 11, Musk tweeted this:
Warzel, mentioned above, put it plainly in his Atlantic article “Elon Musk is a far-right activist:”
In five words, Musk manages to mock transgender and nonbinary people, signal his disdain for public-health officials, and send up a flare to far-right shitposters and trolls.
Two days later, Gideon Lichfield at WIRED remarked on the Trumpification of Elon Musk, and how media coverage fell back into Trump-era patterns:
News coverage of what Musk is doing at Twitter betrays another trope of the Trump years. There’s a large category of stories that report with a kind of ghoulish delight on moves that will surely—surely!—sink the platform in short order, like alienating advertisers and influential users. Meanwhile, there’s a drumbeat of pieces from right-wing outlets that just as willfully ignore Musk’s worst behaviors to argue that his slash-and-burn tactics are literally the only way to rid Twitter of excess bureaucracy and make it profitable, as if it were such a pit of vipers as has never been seen in the annals of corporate management.
It’s tiring. And it’s got lots of people reconsidering how much time to invest in these platforms.
One such essay was published by Micah J. Murray, here on Substack. I recommend the entire thing, which I have linked below.
Of all the passages that resonate, this one resonates most for me:
What we are experiencing is not an accidental state of decay or the inevitable cost of doing business online. The internet in which we exist was engineered to extract money from us at the cost of our souls. The richest men in the world have hired some of the best engineers and scientists in the world to build machines which consume our time, attention, and creative energy to produce valuable datasets and advertising streams and profit for shareholders.
I don’t need to tell you how it works; you probably know.
But I need to remind myself: the reason it feels soul-crushing is because it was designed to be soul-crushing. Because anger and fear and greed and ego make the machine run better, keep you there scrolling through endless content and throwing words into the void in hopes of human connection.
Because crushed souls yield more profit for the companies.
This is the “vibe shift” that was foretold. We know with ever-increasing clarity that the promise of social media is not worth the peril for most of us.
These changes have been brewing for years. The very introduction of Jenny Odell’s 2019 opus How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy speaks to it:
We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations—and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.
Given how poorly art survives in a system that only values the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest–destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious. Such “nothings” cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables.
How To Do Nothing is part of a genre of books that challenges the effects of media & technology that includes Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, and a host of others. These books, focused on the effects of media & technology on individuals are supplemented by books about media & tech on society: Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis, Tim Wu’s Atention Merchants, Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, Ben Tarnoff’s speculative Internet for the People, and many more.
But lately, it is Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance that speaks to this same impulse to question the entire endeavor we find ourselves in. Hersey writes:
But there is always an incomplete understanding when you are engaging on social media because it has been created to be an extension of capitalism. The designers of the platforms wants us there all day scrolling, spending money, and absorbing messages in a fast-paced, disconnected manner…..
To truly grasp the heart of the messages, we will have to put down our phones and laptops and rest. We will have to take an intense look at the ways in which grind culture has traumatized us and then begin the lifelong process of healing from this trauma. This work is about more than simply naps and sleep, it is a full unraveling from the grips of our toxic understanding of our self-worth as divine human beings. Grieving in this culture is not done and is seen as a waste of time because grieving is a powerful place of reverence and liberation. A grieving person is a healed person. Can you guess why our culture does not want a healed person in it?….
You are worthy of rest. We don’t have to earn rest. Rest is not a luxury, a privilege, or a bonus we must wait for once we are burned out….When we can begin to tap into the deep vessel of who we truly are, so many things would end about oppression. I believe the powers that be don’t want us rested because they know that if we rest enough, we are going to figure out what is really happening and overturn the entire system. Exhaustion keeps us numb, keeps us zombie-like, and keeps us on their clock.
Somehow, amid the rapid decline of both the business & culture of Twitter, Elon Musk has quickly and effectively destroyed the mythology surrounding himself and social media more broadly—and Twitter in particular. Through his crassness and played-out culture war posting, he has done more to disabuse faith in both himself and the system that has so richly rewarded him.
I have seen all this before. I have lived it. You probably have, too. And refusing to participate in this same sort of entrenchment is a valid form of response that more and more people are choosing this time around, a bevy of Bartlebys responding “I would prefer not to.” Odell writes:
In Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau, we see how discipline involves strict alignment with one’s own “laws” over and against prevailing laws or habits. But successful collective refusals enact a second-order level of discipline and training, in which individuals align with each other to form flexible structures of agreement that can hold open the space of refusal. This collective alignment emerges as a product of intense individual self-discipline—like a crowd of Thoreaus refusing in tandem. In so doing, the “third space”—not of retreat, but of refusal, boycott, and sabotage—can become a spectacle of noncompliance that registers on the larger scale of the public.
I do not think social media is dying. It may, perhaps, be changing—or perhaps the ways so many of us relate to these services is what’s really changing.
My heyday as a “poster” was 2016-2019, when #exvangelical was becoming more of a known quantity on Twitter. Then in 2019, a personal private loss, followed by a public drama, forced me to re-evaluate how I used these platforms myself. I lost my appetite for confrontational dunk-tweets or punching up, and I set a boundary against encouraging or participating in online “drama."1 I would still post, but I am generally more measured and certainly less prolific.
But this latest chapter on Twitter has cast things in starkest, bleakest terms. When the world’s second-richest man kicks up drama for no reason, you start to question who has anything to gain from any of it.
I don’t know what the next step in social media’s evolution will be. The more successful companies like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube have shown that they are resilient and are capable of perpetuating themselves and encouraging the use of their particular platforms. Yet no platform has found a way to help their most successful creators avoid burnout; every algorithm dictates that you must post or perish.
This is what must be resisted. Whether it’s through the rubric of rest as resistance or time well spent, or Schumacher’s “enoughness,” there is a growing discontent, and a growing desire to do something else with anger than to endlessly post. Decades of grievance devolve to dead ends. We know this path—it has been explored at length in conservative media—and we can choose to walk another.
This particular spell is broken. The vibe has shifted. Perhaps now another can take hold.
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Drama is such a poor representation to what actually occurs online - when real trauma and hurt can happen - but also feels the most apt.