Opinion: Why those of us on Twitter are saying ‘I was here’
Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him Twitter. His views do not reflect those of the author. More information on SME.
Twitter deserves to be praised, not buried. Yes, I know that’s not how the line goes, but Twitter is a space where we meme, where we take the familiar and remix it, where we make self-referential loops of meta-commentary that somehow – for me anyway – has always added up to so much more than the sum of its parts. My life was transformed by Twitter in profound and absurd ways, professionally and personally.
The whole thing seems to be in danger of falling apart due to the chaos and cruelty that is often the mark of a billionaire.
Twitter is actually pretty small, with hundreds of millions of users – which may sound like a lot, but is actually many fewer than the billions who use Facebook, Instagram and the new kid on the block, TikTok. But those bigger networks tend to keep us siloed, whereas Twitter always has the potential to connect people, ideas, events, concepts and more in ways that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.
These can make life so much easier. It has helped build relationships, created social movements and built communities. I’ve found so many amazing ideas and people, been lucky to hear new perspectives, grown not only as a writer and historian, but also as a citizen, as a person. I’ve found new friends and collaborators. This ability to connect can be terrifying as well; on Twitter, I’ve been exposed to layers of hate that have left me shaken. I know I’m not alone in that.
But as the tweets of farewell, the “find me on Substack or Mastodon or Instagram” posts, continue to pile up, it feels as if so many people on Twitter – whether it collapses entirely or not – feel an immutable urge to say “thank you,” “you mattered,” “I was here.”
Perhaps the reason why is the fear that, in addition to losing this way to connect with each other, the world will move on too quickly, to question amid the ruins Elon Musk has made of Twitter whether the platform’s absence (if it comes to that) will make that much of a difference to people’s everyday lives.
That being said, I’d like to add: These are just a few of the examples that I have from my life in case you want to know if Twitter is really important or if it can be replaced.
In 2009, I joined Twitter to keep up with Fantasy Baseball and add relief pitchers to my league. In 2011, I was able to connect with historians from other professions and had new ideas and things to learn. This made me an even better scholar. 2013 was a year that I started writing more publicly and began finding collaborators, editors, and eventually a readership to support my work as an editor.
Twitter helped me navigate through not just one, but two challenging professional areas. I may, thanks to a reasonably successful book and over 500 published essays since then, be able to continue as a writer without Twitter, but it definitely wouldn’t have happened without that network.
I worry about the next generation of up-and-coming authors who won’t be able to make these kinds of contacts as easily. I’m especially concerned for voices that are otherwise marginalized who have used social media as a way to break out. And in place of “authors,” you could also insert any number of other groups who have found a place to thrive on Twitter: activists, artists, filmmakers, educators, entrepreneurs.
The impact of Twitter has had a profound effect on my political and citizenship identity. My first time logging on I didn’t think sex work was “work”. I thought American police could be reform and had no opinion about whether transgender women were women. The writers I link to on some of these issues – Melissa Gira Grant, Mariame Kaba, Katelyn Burns – are all people who I only started reading because of Twitter. There are dozens of other writers working on dozens of other issues to whom I’m equally grateful.
It’s not just commentary. In 2016, the #CripTheVote hashtag was created by Alice Wong and Andrew Pulrang. This hashtag combines decades of disability advocacy with the fact that Twitter has the largest real-time, public conversation ever. It’s not perfectly accessible or equally so, but it allows people who use a wide variety of communication techniques and whose access to physical spaces varies equally widely to connect with each other.
Stories that would otherwise be buried were also bought on Twitter, and then jumped to mainstream reporting. That was evident at the national level in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s death. Nobody was discussing it on Facebook. Everybody in my circle was tweeting about it. This meant that Twitter gave me all the information I needed about when and where to go in my basement, even though it was on a smaller scale.
And don’t forget: Twitter has beenFun. While I don’t watch the Oscars I enjoy Twitter and the Academy Awards. My entertainment and political lives are enhanced by the Twitter gestalt, which allows me to find out what TV shows to view, where to go, who is making new music, and what games I should play. When I was a teenager, N.K. was my first book. Jemisin’s first novel was mentioned by a mutual friend. So it’s not only my real world that’s richer, but my imagination as well.
Many of my bad tweets are about Twitter. I’m mentally ill and have had ideation around self harm since fourth grade. The most perilous incidents in my life since middle school have been bad Twitter cycles. It’s also the first place in my life where a Nazi called me a kike. But Twitter also has provided me with tools to explore and better understand my Judaism, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
And long before I admitted to myself that I had a problem – I started therapy for depression only at age 45, a long time since fourth grade – I got to lurk and listen to disability twitter talk about mental health and to build up the courage to seek help. This is also part of Twitter’s public nature. Sharing your struggles and coping strategies, as well as their experiences, with others can help to create a path for other people to follow, even if they don’t intend to. I’m in a better place now, and I don’t know if that would be true without Twitter.
I don’t want to lose this space that’s changed my life. My network is thriving and I’m inviting others to my Instagram account to share cute pictures of our children.
All of this is all about keeping what you already have. I don’t want to lose the next discovery that Twitter would bring, the thing I don’t know yet, the voice I’m not hearing. For me, Twitter is very important. I’m not ready to let it go.