Since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for an eye-watering $44 billion last week, the Tesla CEO has been on a tear trying to remake the platform, firing thousands of workers, floating new monetization plans, trying to keep advertisers and civil rights organizations and his reactionary fanboys happy, and tweeting through it all. As much as he thinks he’s doing something different, more than anything, Musk is continuing the dream of every Twitter executive that has come before him: He wants to turn Twitter into something it isn’t. And yet the answer for what could truly save Twitter is to embrace what it really is: It’s time to get Weird.
Twitter has always succeeded in spite of itself. Everything you think of when you think of Twitter—the @ reply, the hashtag, the thread, even something as simple as posting photos—was an innovation introduced by users. Only later were any of these now mainstays adopted into the platform itself. This bottom-up approach—part by design, part by neglect—rewarded experimentation, or at least didn’t punish it. And for a while, Twitter was filled with experiments, with non sequiturs, with random moments of joy and surprise. There was a time when “Weird Twitter” reigned supreme.
There was @horse_ebooks, a maybe-automated account that offered surreal snippets cut from across the internet. A red panda named @darth made Santa hats for people’s avatars around the holidays. There were the oddly prescient, misspelled musings of @dril. There was “Hafiz,” a short story written in retweets by novelist Teju Cole.* And there was @MayorEmanuel, my own contribution to Weird Twitter, which told a surreal elseworld story of the 2010 mayoral election in Chicago, a story that eventually revealed cracks in a multiverse hidden inside a secret winter garden on the roof of city hall. You had to be there.
“You had to be there” was always part of what made Twitter great. The real-time nature of its systems created a sense of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it urgency, whether it was a new parody account born in an instant from a presidential debate, the tweeted revolutions of the Arab Spring, or the cultural impact of Black Twitter. Twitter moved at the speed of the now, even as, back then, its own servers often strained to keep up.
Eventually the server issues were fixed, the weirdest edges of Twitter sanded down to make the place more palatable to politicians and celebrities, and the executive dreams of making Twitter something it’s not took over. It’s not as though Jack Dorsey was personally cracking down on @darth’s hijinks. Many of the accounts that made Weird Twitter, well, weird are still around, but the culture of Twitter changed. Tweets about Hollywood drama and D.C. sniping commanded the media attention that Weird Twitter once occupied. On top of that, the technical reins of Twitter were tightened and innovation on the platform became top-down. It mostly failed. (Remember “Fleets”?) The platform stagnated, harassment—always a problem Twitter struggled to keep up with—got worse, and the constant stream of tweets from the former president kept everyone on an uneasy edge for four years. Twitter stopped being fun.
The joy and surprise that Twitter used to regularly bring has largely been replaced with anger, misinformation, and abuse. Aggrieved incels and white nationalists flooded the platform, wanting to make everyone as miserable as they are. Post–Jan. 6 changes to enforcement removed some of the worst accounts from Twitter, but by that point it was clear we were all miserable enough even without them. We wake up in the morning and stare into rectangles that just make us sad. No wonder Twitter’s most active group of users is shrinking.
It wasn’t always like that. Twitter has brought people into my life that I consider to be as close as family, relationships forged 140 characters at a time. It has commanded news cycles and enacted real change in the world. It defined the way we communicate for well over a decade, despite never scaling the way the other social sites that grew up with it did.
Twitter has always been the strangest social network. Facebook offered connections to everyone you’ve ever known, especially the people you didn’t want to know anymore. Instagram offered to filter your life into something more beautiful than it really was. Twitter was always rougher, more enigmatic, as much about ideas as it was about anything. A lot of early criticism was that Twitter was just for sharing what you had for lunch. But you couldn’t even post a photo back then: You had to describe what you had for lunch. And in describing our lunches, we described our hopes and our lives in ways that the other networks could never replicate. Capturing your ideas in the truncated character count of Twitter always felt closer to writing poetry than prose, and as a result, the whole thing had a strange beauty to it.
For as frustrated as Twitter makes me now, and as unsure as I am about what the Musk era will bring, it’s for this reason that I can’t walk away. I know that the demands of capital will likely result in jettisoning much of what made Twitter unique in a grab for market share, or it’ll simply crash and burn like a Tesla on autopilot, but I’ll likely be there until its fiery end. But also, maybe, if I squint at it just right, I can see a way that Twitter pulls it off. That it embraces the things that make it special and dumps the things that keep it awful. In a moment of upheaval like the one that it currently faces, maybe anything could happen. Maybe, as Twitter stands at this crossroads, things will get Weird once again.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Correction, Nov. 7, 2022: This article originally misidentified the short story “Hafiz” as “Hafitz.”