Will Twitter Become an Ocean of Suck?
The resignation of Jack Dorsey is the latest plot point in the story of the Internet's transformation, from democratizing tool to instrument of elite control
Jack Dorsey, the extend-o-bearded CEO who co-founded Twitter and whose fame grew with that of his increasingly powerful platform during the Trump years, resigned today. His departure is the latest plot point in a long-developing Internet tragicomedy, which has seen what was supposed to be a historically democratizing technological tool transformed into a dystopian force for censorship and control. The departure of Dorsey, the rare CEO who not only has a conscience but appears to consult it more than once every few years, is bad news for those who already had complaints about the company, which during his tenure came to occupy a central role in what’s left of American intellectual culture.
Twitter under Dorsey suffered from working too well. Specifically, society responded to Donald Trump’s Tweet-driven 2016 presidential campaign as if it revealed a defect in the platform that needed fixing when actually Trump’s election was proof that Twitter was working much as intended. Our political establishment just wasn’t looking for that sort of functionality.
The original concept of Twitter was egalitarian, flattening, and iconoclastic: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas, instantly, without barriers.” That mantra fit with then-CEO Dick Costolo’s 2010 claim that “We’re the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
Prior to 2016, elite mouthpieces bragged about acting as gatekeepers to political power. Someone like then-ABC writer Mark Halperin could write boastful pieces about how a “Gang of 500” in Washington really decided the presidency. These were “campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern-day political establishment,” as the New Yorker put it. When political debates were held, a handful of analysts on television told you who won. We, reporters, told you who was “electable” and who wasn’t, and people mostly listened, even if “electability” was a crock that mostly measured levels of corporate donor approval.
Then came 2016. Trump didn’t get the big Republican donor money (it went to Jeb Bush), he didn’t get the support of his party’s bureaucracy (which at various times pulled out stops to try to “derail” his candidacy for the nomination), and even conservative media locked arms against him early in the race (the National Review published an unprecedented “Conservatives Against Trump” mega-piece featuring a slew of famed mouthpieces, who aimed to forestall the “crisis for conservatism” Trump’s presence threatened). Trump throughout his political career benefited from free corporate media coverage, but by the time of his first nomination, he had universally negative editorial treatment in mainstream media and even serious detractors on stations like Fox.
Once, that would have been fatal to a politician, which is why Nate Cohn could write with confidence in the New York Times that Trump had “just about no chance” to win the Republican nomination in 2016 — because, he said without embarrassment, it is “the party elites who traditionally decide nomination contests.” Such commentators didn’t figure on the power of the Internet, and especially Twitter.
Trump didn’t need the news media to amplify his message. He was expressing himself in a way that defied contextualization, on a Twitter account that essentially became the country’s most-followed media network. Between January 2015 and January 2016, Trump’s number of followers doubled, but beyond that, the average number of retweets went from 79 to 2,201, which as Politico noted, meant that his power of dissemination increased by a factor of 28 in that single year. Twitter’s unique ability to exponentially increase the messaging force of a single individual had never been dealt with by institutional America before.
One of the first things I wrote about Trump was about his unique knack for the platform:
Trump will someday be in the Twitter Hall of Fame. His fortune-cookie mind – restless, confrontational, completely lacking the shame/fact filter, monosyllabic, and rarely asleep when it should be – is perfectly engineered for the medium.
Whether he was being dumb or smart, petty or cutting, incoherent or inscrutable, Trump had a way of expressing himself that automatically gave his tweets superior reach to news stories about his tweets. This put him permanently ahead of the news cycle. Even just misspelling a basketball star’s name while stepping over a few racial decorum lines created fractal-like ripples of unpredictable headlines:
With this power, a politician was now able to communicate directly with voters, and even the collective displeasure of the entire self-described political establishment could not stuff that genie back in the bottle. Moreover, Twitter itself now decided things like who won debates. Pundits were often reduced to reporting the platform’s mood, in place of the previous practice of telling populations how to feel.
People will focus on the fact that it was bad bad Donald Trump who got elected that year, but that was really incidental. The real problem Trump represented for elite America had less to do with his political beliefs than the unapproved manner of his rise. Twitter, seen as a co-conspirator in this evil, became a target of establishment reprisal after Trump’s win.