So Elon Musk now owns Twitter, after a brief but dramatic corporate tussle that began with majority stakeholdership, became what the former Twitter leadership considered a hostile takeover, and culminated in Musk basically being legally locked into the acquisition. Unsurprisingly, firing a huge percentage of the pre-existing Twitter staff and directors has been one of his first power moves as the new owner.
Some fear that he will now enable further noxiousness in an already contentious platform, making hate speech more visible and catering expressly to right-wing or conservative political agendas. There are numerous rumours, including that Musk will simply shut Twitter down, just because he can.
Alternately, Twitter may become a paid service. According to CNN, court documents show that Musk intends to make users pay using cryptocurrency for every post. The popular statement “This hellsite is free”, often shared alongside screenshots of varied evidence of social media toxicity, will then cease to be true.
As for it being a hellsite – well, to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people”. If enough people join Mastodon, or any similar platform, it will degenerate in some of the ways that Twitter had already degenerated, long before.
When I began getting notifications that people were following me on Mastodon, I moseyed over there for the first time in three years. I updated my profile, and put up a Toot to say I was back. Sort of. I can’t remember why some of us tried to migrate to Mastodon last time. What I do know is that we mostly failed to.
I made my Twitter account a private one in May 2021, when self-appointed fans of the Indian government sent me mass vitriol for a Tweet implying a governmental role in the horrific second COVID-19 wave. I had said that my father was on a ventilator and that I hoped people would vote better next time (no parties were named, and he died the next day). Which is to say, like many who have experienced this or any kind of abuse on social media, I’m a little unfazed by Musk taking over.
In fairness, it is not only right-wing folks who make these platforms dangerous and even unbearable. This week, a Dalit writer posted a thread about the psychological toll of being trolled last year for having religious markers at their wedding; the abuse came from people they had admired within progressive or liberal groups.
Hell is other people. Both offline and online. Platforms that aren’t designed for hatred and don’t bend to capitalism mitigate our exposure to bad experiences on social media, but cannot entirely keep them out because of human tendencies.
Just over a month ago, I opened a new Twitter account – a public handle that was and still is intended to help me reach more readers, enabling me to participate in the virtual literary world more. So far, it hasn’t done too much for me, but the fresh slate feels good. There’ve been plenty of other platforms before (Friendster was my first, I think). There’ll be more in future. The Internet has been here long enough for us to be nostalgic, maybe, but not surprised.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in November 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.