Free Bird: On Elon Musk and Twitter
In more than a decade on Twitter, Walter Kirn watched as the platform manipulated reality in real-time. Now? ‘Let the wild rumpus begin.’WALTER KIRNNOV 2∙GUEST POST
Schoolchildren and peace campaigners release doves and pigeons in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Adrian Dennis via Getty Images)Let me tell you about my strange time on Twitter, a so-called “social-media platform” of the early 21st century. In what I suspect is the increasing likelihood that digital records of our lives now will someday be erased, mislaid, or virtually composted in such a way as to make them irretrievable, the little story I’m about to tell may make little sense to future generations. It takes place during the period when the American establishment sought to control the flow of information in much the same way it once pursued dominion over resources such as land and oil.This power grab caused a sort of virtual cold war, and I, as a consumer, a producer, and a conduit of information, got caught in it. Here is how the experience felt and how it went and a statement of what I hope will happen next, now that the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk promises a better, freer day.I joined Twitter in 2009, finding it a worthy novelty: a bulletin board for stray thoughts and observations, the spillover of my hyperactive mind. The writer Gertrude Stein once said that “remarks aren’t literature,” but I have always disagreed (ironically, Stein is best remembered now for two such quips, the other one being “there’s no there there”), so I set out to make remarks to my new audience. It was small in the beginning, consisting of my wife and a few friends, but it grew as I pushed on. The platform belonged to celebrities back then, who hawked their movies, albums, and TV shows in words that were their own, supposedly, fostering in fans a dubious intimacy with figures they knew only from interviews. One of these stars, an investor in the platform, was Ashton Kutcher, the prankish, grinning actor who became omnipresent for a spell and then, stupendously enriched, largely vanished from public consciousness. It seemed that Twitter had sped-up fame such that it bloomed and died in record time. The power of the new platform struck me first in 2012. Two incidents. The first one, a small one, occurred in Indianapolis, where I’d gone to watch the Super Bowl. I attended a party the night before the game at which many Hollywood folk were present, including an actor on a cable TV show who played a roguish businessman. The actor was extremely drunk, lurching about and hitting on young women, and it happened that my wife, back home, whom I’d texted about the scene, was able to read real-time tweets about his antics from other partygoers. A few hours afterward she noticed that these tweets had disappeared. Instant reality-editing. Impressive. I concluded that Twitter was in the business not only of promoting reputations, but of protecting them. It offered special deals for special people. Until then, I’d thought of it as a neutral broker.The next illuminating incident happened while I was reporting on the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The political magazine I worked for, The New Republic, had reserved a row of seats in the upper reaches of the stadium in a press section used by several publications. When the then First Lady rose to speak, I watched my colleagues, who had their laptops open, log in to Twitter, almost to a person. They monitored the reaction to the speech, chattering among themselves when they found comments that suited the directions of the columns and opinion pieces they were already typing into their machines. Within minutes, a consensus formed that the speech was a triumph, moving, eloquent—perhaps the best such performance of its kind in living memory. Not being on Twitter, just focused on the words I was hearing, I found these conclusions unjustified. But the tide of superlatives kept swelling. An extra step had been added to the process of commenting on political events: consulting the chorus, excerpting its views, and rolling them into a tidy super-narrative. When I couldn’t bring myself to see what others saw, I felt distinctly isolated, particularly after spitting into the trend and publishing my sour reaction online. Remember the playground scene from Hitchock’s the Birds?