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Sensing an imminent breakdown, communities mourn a bygone Twitter

For a website with a user base known for its use of humor and irony during dark times, the tone on Twitter lately has been noticeably sentimental.
Gregory Bull
For a website with a user base known for its use of humor and irony during dark times, the tone on Twitter lately has been noticeably sentimental.

Twitter's recent trending hashtags, like #RIPTwitter and #TwitterDown, have signaled a virtual wake for the website as if it were already dead.

Users on the site have been steadily eulogizing the social network in the chaotic days since Elon Musk's purchase of the platform. But the death knell sounded louder by Thursday, which saw yet another exodus from what's left of Twitter's workforce. That night, the top five Twitter trends in the U.S. all related to what people see as the imminent end of the site as they know it.

Among the flood of tributes, a consensus has emerged about what makes the platform worth mourning: Twitter has been a uniquely accessible space where otherwise marginalized groups have felt heard and built community.

Twitter has, for years, been a go-to site for news, advocacy, entertainment and community. But mass layoffs at the company have instilled in many people the sense that the site could shutter at any moment. Whether Twitter collapses, Musk's major changes, including his overhaul of the verification system, have already sent people fleeing the site for other social media platforms.

But many are worried other platforms won't be able to replicate the same features they once found on Twitter.

A megaphone for marginalized groups

"It gave people a voice," said Ryan Broderick, who covers internet culture on his Substack newsletter, Garbage Day. "I think that the ability for Twitter to act as a megaphone for overlooked communities, cultures, subcultures is so part of our lives now that we don't even think about it anymore."

That was a theme he noted after he and Buzzfeed tech reporter Katie Notopoulos hosted a three-hour long conversation on Twitter Spaces on Thursday night "to say goodbye" to the site. Almost 200,000 listeners collectively tuned into the chat.

Sanjukta Basu, a writer studying online gender-based violence who participated in the discussion from India, saw the event as a perfect example of the platform's value.

"I spoke for five minutes on that," she said. "And suddenly, I have got all these 50 people following me. That is the power of Twitter. No other platform has given me this sense of, you know, a global town square."

Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winning actress and advocate for the deaf community, is remembering the platform for the connections it fostered. She says Twitter has helped taken the "dis" out of "disability."

"I have found camaraderie with EVERYONE," she said over email. "As someone who is Deaf, it has virtually eliminated barriers to communication because I can talk [about] anything or to ANYONE, whether they know American Sign Language or not."

She credits Twitter's accessibility features for removing those barriers. The site introduced alt text in 2016, which allowed people who are blind or have low-vision access to images through printed descriptions. Last year, the addition of auto-captions reached people who are deaf or hard of hearing with subtitled videos.

But after Musk reportedly cut the team that worked on Twitter's accessibility features, Matlin says she's worried about who will develop those new tools, as the social media landscape evolves.

Donyale Padgett, a communications professor at Wayne State University, is honoring Black Twitter now that she thinks it's at risk.

"I have relied on Black Twitter for so much," Padgett told NPR's All Things Considered. "It has been a place of refuge. It has been a place of humor. It is a record of something profound that has happened. That is where you want to go to really follow and track the conversation."

Meredith Clark, author of a forthcoming book about Black Twitter, defines the virtual space as "a series of communities on Twitter made up of Black folks tweeting about issues of concern to people in Black communities."

Clark points to the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements as prime examples of Black Twitter's impact.

"So many people were able to see how folks in different regions of the globe, different parts of the world and different parts of this country were connecting with one another to talk about racial justice issues," she told NPR. Twitter has forced people to pay attention to the contributions of Black people that have been historically distorted or overlooked.

Twitter's content moderation policies made it a relatively safe space online for freedom of expression, according to Josh Richman, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Richman praised Twitter's "forward-thinking" and "sensitive" approach to content moderation, whether they were successful all the time or not. Under Musk, Richman says those kind of protections Twitter afforded to marginalized communities appear to be eroding.

Advocacy groups now fear the site will become littered with hateful rhetoric against marginalized communities. Some accounts that were previously banned for violating Twitter's hate speech policies have been let back on the platform. While Musk said Friday that Twitter will demote "negative/hate tweets" on the platform, he has yet to define what that entails or say whether Twitter's current hate speech and harassment policies will remain effective.

A chance to improve social media

For many, Twitter's uncertain fate presents a moment to think about what could come next. Broderick says now might be a good time to start thinking about decentralizing a social media sphere that has consolidated an "unhealthy" amount of cultural dominance.

"When you get to the point where one feed is determining everything that's in the news, everything that's on TV, everything the politicians are talking about, I think that can be really dangerous," he said. "No matter what website reaches that point, someone like Elon Musk will crave the power of it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman
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