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 on Twitter. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I come to praise Twitter, not to bury it. 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. Twitter changed my life in ways both sublime and ridiculous, profound, beautiful, professional and sadly often terrible.
And now, due seemingly to the chaotic, often cruel, whims of a billionaire, the whole edifice seems about to collapse.
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.
This can be wonderful. Communities have been built, social movements created, relationships forged. 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.
To that I would say: Here are just a few examples from my own life for anyone wondering whether Twitter really does matter or whether it can be easily replaced.
I got on Twitter in 2009 to follow Fantasy Baseball so I could win my league by adding effective relief pitchers. By 2011, I had connected with other members of my profession as a historian and found new things to read and to think about that made me a better scholar. By 2013, I had started doing more and more public writing, and found collaborators, editors and ultimately a readership for my work as a journalist.
Twitter has helped me navigate not one but two difficult professional fields. 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.
My politics and identity as a citizen have changed because of Twitter. When I first logged on, I would not have thought that sex work was work, I believed that American policing could be reformed and I had no real opinion of whether trans women are women (they are). 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. Starting in 2016, I watched the disability community rally around the hashtag #CripTheVote, led by Alice Wong, Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan, building on decades of advocacy by dedicated leaders and marrying it with the simple fact that Twitter is the most accessible real-time public conversation in history. 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.
Similarly, stories that might otherwise have been buried found purchase on Twitter and jumped from there into mainstream reporting. At a national level, that was exemplified by the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown. No one was talking about it on Facebook. Everyone in my network was talking about it on Twitter. On a local scale, that meant that, when a tornado was ripping through my part of Minnesota, it was Twitter that gave me the best information of when to get into the basement.
And don’t forget: Twitter has been fun. I do not watch the Oscars, but I watch Twitter watching the Academy Awards and have a great time. The Twitter gestalt lets me know what shows I might want to watch, what movies to go to, what new artists are making great music, what games to play, and otherwise enriches my entertainment life as well as my politics. I remember picking up my first N.K. Jemisin novel because a mutual friend tweeted about her first book. So it’s not only my real world that’s richer, but my imagination as well.
I have plenty of bad stories about Twitter. I’m mentally ill and have had ideation around self harm since fourth grade. Bad cycles on Twitter have been the most dangerous incidents for me since middle school. 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. That too is part of the public nature of Twitter. People who share their struggles, their coping methods, their journeys, can lay out a pathway for others to follow even without meaning 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. I am taking steps to keep the people I know in my networks, inviting people to follow me on Instagram for cute pics of my kids and collaborating with my co-author to start a new history blog.
But all of that is about maintaining what we 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. Twitter has mattered a lot to me. I’m not ready to let it go.