X Is Elon Musk’s Lonely Party Now

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Written By Pinang Driod

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As we close out the year, it’s official: The Twitter we once knew is long gone. Elon Musk’s reinvention of the platform, from its name down to its core features, has rendered it nearly unrecognizable to users. The lead writers of this newsletter, Tom Nichols and Lora Kelley, have each spent time thinking and writing about X, as well as posting and lurking on the platform. I chatted with them recently about Musk’s murky logic and the new internet era he’s accidentally ushered in.

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‘It Still Has a Kitchen’

Isabel Fattal: Do either of you call it X? Does anybody call it X?

Tom Nichols: Nobody I know calls it X. What stupid branding, to go on the internet with something called X. It’s like Musk just doesn’t understand the site that he bought—I think that’s been a problem from day one. Musk wanted the new Twitter to be just like the old Twitter, except it would be a place where he and all of his friends are cool.

A lot of people use the metaphor of a playground, but it’s like walking into a party in an apartment building, and people aren’t laughing at your jokes, so you buy the whole building and say, This is my apartment now, and I own the building, and you have to like me and laugh at my jokes.

Lora Kelley: Musk made changes to the algorithm to help his own posts get more engagement, according to reporting earlier this year. He wants it to be the place where he’s the funniest guy.

Something I’ve heard comedian friends say in the past is: If you’re doing a stand-up set and the audience isn’t laughing, it’s not that there’s something wrong with the audience. There’s something wrong with the jokes that you’re telling. I think Elon Musk is trying to use his billions of dollars to reorient that logic, and it’s not really working.

Isabel: Tell me how you each use Twitter (uh, X) right now.

Tom: I don’t use Twitter professionally as much as I do to post cat pictures and talk about vintage television and swap nerdy tips about gaming. I do post stories from The Atlantic, and I do push my books every chance I get. But I first came to Twitter years ago, when I was a professor, and, as an academic, I had many other resources for substantive conversations—so Twitter was mostly about political arguments while posting little life bits here and there.

These days, my political engagement with the platform has dropped significantly, because it’s too tiring to have to wade through all the crap.

Isabel: Have you had a productive political debate on Twitter in the past six months?

Tom: No. If you had asked about the past six years, I would have said yes.

Lora: I’m largely a lurker at this point. I was never the biggest Twitter user; I have always used it to share article links and do some reporting. I do have this thread of anthropomorphic teeth, my finest expression of Twitter use.

Tom: I have not seen this. Is this something I need?

Lora: Yes!

Isabel: At this point, Twitter isn’t much use for reliable news, but there was a time when users were relying on the platform for news updates—maybe too much. Do you think that an overreliance on Twitter for news was a mistake even in the pre-Musk era?

Tom: It was always a mistake to rely solely on Twitter for news. But it was really useful. I’ll actually say a good thing about Twitter being less useful for news, which is that it doesn’t allow people to live in the moment of a national crisis all day. They actually have to unplug.

Lora: I agree with Tom that relying solely on Twitter for news, to the extent that people were doing that, was a mistake. But I did find it useful to hear directly from people who were living through news events—the day-to-day experiences of living in this country during times of change. I used to find sources for articles on Twitter, but it’s gotten less useful since Musk made changes to features such as search and DM.

It’s a shame that that’s gone. But the site has gotten so bad lately that it’s easy to idealize what it was like before Musk took over. People were being harassed and sharing all kinds of weird, funky information back then, even if the owner of the site wasn’t personally pointing users to this information.

Isabel: We know that the platform has lost some of its users under Musk. Do you think we could see a mass exodus in the coming months?

Tom: All good parties end up in the kitchen, with a small group of people that are having a lot of fun because they’ve moved away from everything. Twitter still has a kitchen; you’re still connected to the people you were connected to five years ago or three years ago. Every now and then, some uninvited doofuses drunkenly stumble through. But by and large, we’re still having fun, just with a smaller group.

We haven’t hit the point where everybody leaves, but there are now multiple places to go in the same building: Bluesky, Threads. It used to be that Twitter was pretty much the only place in the building where there was a good party. Now the party’s dispersed. That’s all Musk really achieved: reminding people that there are other options, and making it conceivable for other platforms to pick up the slack.

Lora: I do think that this has been a gift to Meta and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s ironic: A lot of people are flocking to Threads, but a few years ago, a lot of people in the media and in general wouldn’t have flooded to a Zuckerberg-operated product.

Tom: Elon Musk has achieved the impossible: He’s made people think well of Mark Zuckerberg.

Isabel: How do you each approach the idea of leaving X? Is there one line the platform could cross that would make it impossible to stay?

Tom: The people who leave annoy me, because they’re like the people who say, “If Trump’s reelected, I’m moving to Canada.” You don’t solve anything by going anywhere. You stay and you voice your objections, and you communicate with the people that you want to communicate with.

The one thing that could kill off Twitter is if Musk removes the block function. Then I think everyone would have to leave, because it would become unmanageable.

Lora: For me, it might be less of a dramatic “I’m quitting and never coming back” and more of a decline in my usage, which has already been happening. As someone who writes about these topics, it’s interesting for me to keep an eye on things, but I’m already finding the site less useful.

Tom: We’re never going to get to the end of Twitter, but we’re at the end of Twitter as the most influential social-media site. I also think that could change. If Musk were to leave and grown-ups were back in charge of Twitter, Twitter could actually come back.

Lora: I also wonder if the era of these big, dominant social-media companies is winding down, especially for younger users who are coming of age on the internet. For a few years now, a lot of younger people have been moving toward direct messages, group messages, and smaller-format social-media experiences rather than posting to the world on a feed.

Tom: In that sense, Musk broke the spell. He taught people that they can live without deep engagement on social media.

Related:

  • Twitter’s demise is about so much more than Elon Musk.
  • The co-opting of Twitter

Evening Read

Illustration by Matteo Giuseppe Pani. Source: Getty.

Why Black Jesus Made My Grandmother Uncomfortable

By A.J. Verdelle

When I was a tween, and just beginning to be conscious about the giving of gifts, my sisters and I were Christmas shopping at one of the festive pop-up markets in our corner of the city. We found a stellar gift for one of our grandmothers, which we knew for sure she would love …

By her own careful design, Ma Jones was the personification of Black matriarchy: loving, hovering, caring, devoted almost to the point of martyrdom. She worked three jobs not for herself, but for the family; not for herself, but for our future. Not one of us doubted that she modeled herself after Jesus—his behaviors, his ideals …

We found a painting of Jesus who was as chocolate brown as Ma Jones. I can still see her—dark skin ringed with wisdom lines, showing age in the same way as trees …

When gift-giving time came, my sisters and I worked as a team to ceremonially reveal our studiously selected present. Our grandmother looked on, smiling. We carefully unsheeted our Jesus, and we watched our grandmother as recognition slowly dawned … Our grandmother turned and left the room, holding her hand over her mouth. Sacrilege!

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

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Watch. The Color Purple (in theaters) finds its own rhythm in a tear-jerking and exultant epic.

Read. Condolence, a new poem by L. A. Johnson:

“After the store-bought Christmas / dinner was ordered     purchased / picked up by me     and presented on / ceramic dinner plates because / it is Christmas     after all.

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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