A world drowning in misinformation, depression, existential isolation, conspiracy cults, wellness circuses, creeping fascism, resurgent white supremacy, and the degradation of humanity’s collective attention span isn’t exactly crying out for more social media. That’s like turning to booze to deal with a drinking problem. Or capitalism to fix the climate crisis. You see this thing ruining all this important stuff? Perhaps we need more of it? It’s a fucking wonder we get our pants on each morning.
We as a species aren’t exactly in need of another billionaire dick-measuring contest, either. Not the metaphorical dick-measuring trash-talked and chest-beaten by Meta owner Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter owner Elon Musk: a proposed UFC-style biffo, in Las Vegas, presumably aired on pay-per-view for the unwashed underclasses to cheer on their favoured DemiGod of the algorithm. Nor the literal dick-measuring contest proposed by Elon Musk as an alternative to the fight.
The world doesn’t need any element of this, and yet here we are: more social media, more billionaire penis flailing, this time about who rules social media. There will be collateral damage. Whoever wins, we lose.
“I have to join Threads don’t I?” “Yes,” my boss replied, no discussion, no meeting with HR and work safe, no consideration of the turmoil and influencer engagement-bait this would inflict upon me.
My personal relationship with social media is chaotic; both extremely beneficial and fairly-fucking harmful to my state of being. It has helped me find work, an audience, clarity, like-minded souls, connections, allies, friends, even love. It keeps me informed. Kind words from a community motivate and heal. There are pictures of dogs and red pandas on there. Twitter has quite literally changed my life.
Thinking how grateful I am for the people that routinely say nice things to me on this website. It's so easy to hop on here, vent, and have a go at someone; to do the opposite, to try to big-up and encourage someone is a genuinely cool thing to do. It's not nothing, thank you 🙏
— David Milner (@DaveMilbo) July 20, 2023
At the same time there isn’t a yogi, rabbi, elder, psychologist or sensei anywhere that thinks each morning should begin by gathering up the most irrationally angry incels in the world and having them scream at your pre-coffee brain while you catch up on the endless horrors that unfolded while you slept. Much better to do almost anything else, in fact. My super team of hypothetical gurus wouldn’t be thrilled with us burning through our daily stores of dopamine like we do either, quite literally wasted on earning gamified rewards like hearts and ticks – all of it designed to hold our flailing attention so we can be sold more stuff. Endless hours absentmindedly surrendered to the mesmerising draw of the algorithm. We are far less in control over this than we tend to think we are.
We are not powerless against these forces. But, like a 39-year old with Jiu-jitsu training battling a 52-year old that posts Rick n Morty memes, this is an unfair fight: we have monkey brains and they have accurate maps of them. Maps of our fears. Our desires. Of what draws our attention. They possess detailed models of our emotional triggers, of our weaknesses. They know what we need to be fed, at precisely what moment, to keep us bleeding our time and energy into websites that feed our impulses but malnourish our souls as we endlessly scroll.
But I get it!! Independent media needs the reach and conversation afforded by these platforms. The Shot needs the reach they provide. I’m not thrilled about the prospect, but I understand it.
So, singing and skipping with glee, I joined Threads (@davemilbo), Meta’s opportunistic attempt at a Twitter killer – a liferaft for normal people fleeing the toxicity and ravenuous free-range porn bots of Twitter 2.0.
It is presently friendlier than Twitter, kinder, and far easier to converse on without the whack-a-mole of Cooker and Nazi chuds flocking to posts of any notable size. But it is also more vapid, less funny, and far less interesting (in the sense that a car crash is interesting).
On the day I joined, I grew bored fairly quickly with celebrities asking me what my favourite colour is and impulsively returned to Twitter. There, Musk had retweeted a Tucker Carlson interview with Andrew Tate. Carlson is a man recorded in court documents – thank you, Dominion lawsuit – that knowingly lied about the 2020 election being “stolen” from Trump, exacerbating America’s violent fuckwit problem. Andrew Tate is a proud misogynist and accused sex-trafficer. Musk boosted this meeting of the minds with the caption “interesting interview”.
I tweeted some mild disgust at a liar interviewing a neanderthal being boosted by a Bond villain, and was hounded by Elon simps, the apex dorks of Twitter 2.0, for fucking days. This party sucks now, dudes!
It got worse. A few days later it emerged that not only was Musk aggressively promoting these people with his own inane replies to their dog-shit takes, he was also paying them to post as part of Twitter’s creators program. Tate was reimbursed for his grunts to the tune of $20,000. Ian Miles Cheong, long-time resident right-wing dweeb and RoboCop misunderstander, was paid $16,000 for his pre-school grade culture war trolling.
Ever since Musk took over Twitter, he has steadily made it worse for a certain type of user (normal people) while attempting to improve the experience for the aforementioned irrationally angry incels. He hasn’t actually improved the experience for them – all the interesting people are quickly losing interest, and the social capital stamp he sold them as the new verification system has instead proven to be a digital “kick me” sign – but they are enjoying a moment of being encouraged to piss on the furniture by the new owner.
And because the apex dorks willing to pay for Twitter Blue are now boosted to the top of threads, conversation on Twitter no longer mirrors natural conversation, with interesting comments followed up on in detail and shorter diversions for less important or less witty points. Boosting the inane replies of inane people that have paid real money to be listened to has destroyed the natural flow of banter.
And this is why all these start-up platforms, but especially Threads, have a genuine chance at eating into Twitter’s cultural capital – the only form of capital it actually has.
But whoever wins, we ultimately lose. How can a species solve its myriad existential problems if it can’t focus long and deep enough on any one issue without being distracted by bullshit, culture war-adjacent or any other banal blinking, flashing source of light?
Mark Zuckerberg owns some of my insecurities, my sense of FOMO, and my depleted dopamine receptors. Elon Musk owns much of my dwindling attention span, some of the buttons that swing my moods, and the structural integrity of my personal political and shitpostin’ bubbles; to a degree the things I see, and therefore the things I think. He is not a man with morals or ethics that align with my own – I find his brand of anti-union Libertarianism and conveniently flexible approach to grandstanding around free speech somewhat cuntish and moronic – and yet I am gifting him the ability to shape my worldview to a larger degree than even I am probably aware of.
This is a deceptively brutal moment in history. Once upon a time, our rulers needed to own our bodies in order to amass and horde their wealth and power. Whether explicitly in the form of slavery, explicitly-with-some-PR-wiggle-room as ‘indentured servitude’, or simply as a loyal subject of a sworn ruler we’ve had sweet-fuck-all say in choosing, our bodies belonged to the powerful – to be exploited and grounded into gristle for the mill as they desired. Today, the world’s actually powerful – read: the obscenely wealthy – do not need to do this because they instead own the levers to our scattered, atomised minds.