To tweet or to toot: the messiness of platforms and the chaos of using them

By Ranjana Das

As I write, Twitter (whose biography is grasped brilliantly here), is now owned by Elon Musk. Twitter  is immersed in mass firing, massive uncertainties around what dramatic shifts in policy and ensuing public discourse on Twitter might look like, and indeed, valid doubts on the future of Twitter itself, as dangerous new toys are played with. People are migrating as the #TwitterMigration hashtag captures, and spaces are (re) forming. Scholars of communication, with a wealth of expertise on platforms and content moderation have advised Musk – but is he listening?

The messiness of platforms

When I stand up each autumn, I take my final years through a module on datafication, armed with fantastic scholarship on platforms, people’s experiences of algorithms, citizen agency in an inherently datafied world, data and oppression, and much more. My students find energy and motivation, as they delve into data-driven discrimination, and architects of disinformation, just as they find hope in journeys towards data justice. Whilst I teach this module, I remember, that I am, at heart someone who started out calling herself an ‘audience researcher’. As the ground shifted, through debates around whether there are audiences at all in the social media age, the questions that became eternal for me became less about the precise terminology of audiences, users, citizens – and more about people’s, often chaotic, feelings and experiences around media and technology – their communicative agency, how they decode algorithms, agentic user cultures, amidst other things.

As many of us, myself included, step into the fediverse – particularly Mastodon – the conversations unfolding range from the practicalities of figuring out the bricks, roads and cultures in an alternative space, how to be in that space – and also a very wide range of chaotic feelings around platforms. This is partly because, of course, there is a particular messiness about platforms – how they are regulated, how they are, and might be, moderated, all remind us of longstanding questions of whether we, the people, are seen as citizens or consumers. Their messiness spills all over their very architectures, notions of them being like a blackbox, the ways in which they manipulate and control. This messiness is, lived and experienced daily, in the humdrum of everyday life, in ordinary people’s negotiations of all this, often unarticulated, often unnoticed. But this messiness also creates imperatives to act, to have our own distinct little policies about things we like doing, and things we don’t like doing with platforms. And fundamentally – what platforms mean to us. This is why, perhaps much about leaving or staying on Twitter, or being somewhere in between – is chaotic, and involves our feelings around the messiness of platforms.

The chaos of being user

As (some) people migrate from Twitter (note scholarship on online communities migrating), we might now, suggest, as users, people, citizens – this is how we should act. We must leave. Or – we must stay. We must – or must not – go away. We must invest into alternative spaces. We must try to do a bit of both. We might even fight strongly for these corners and argue against others. We might ask – but how, after all this, could you still stay? Or – How, after so much, could you just go away? We might groan, we are tired – Not another platform to figure out, no. We might be confused – A chronological timeline? But what about ‘the algorithm’? What is life like outside of it?

But inherently, to tweet or to toot – is a chaotic choice for some, and perhaps that is okay. The chaos inside our heads, as users, publics, audiences, is real. For some, the choice to leave, amidst the overwhelming evidence of dysfunction on Twitter that predates the current situation, appears a decision able to be made swiftly. For others, perhaps those beginning to build foundations and networks in a punishing world, they might have just found their bearings on Twitter. For some, to tweet is a microphone, alone. For others, it’s a lifeline of camaraderie and connection. For some, the camaraderie feels easy to transport, to align with what feels right, to do. For others, it presents itself, as choices pulling in different directions. For some, there is an array of reasons which prompt no, or very light-touch engagement with platforms such as these. For many, it is a fight, and not a choice to turn away from what is ugly. None of this is an argument for a highly individualised, each-to-their-own lens of looking at our world, and our roles in it, but a (gentle) suggestion that nothing about our status as users –  quite like being audiences, in this world, where we are also simultaneously publics, citizens, parents, carers, and … people – is easy. The chaos we feel is real, and is also, perhaps okay, for just a little bit.