For more than a decade, Twitter has been a kind of digital town square, a place where people have sought information, advocacy, community and job opportunities – even love.
In the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover as Twitter CEO, rapid-fire layoffs of thousands of employees followed by a wave of resignations have many people worried about the future of the platform. Some former employees took to Twitter to post emotional goodbyes.
Many users followed suit, tweeting short eulogies for the platform. For some, like writer Dan Sheehan, gaining a platform on Twitter later allowed them to excel in their personal and professional lives.
Twitter has been an incubator for Sheehan’s comedy and writing since high school, even before he realized what it could become.
“I built this following for myself, and that got me some of my first job offers just in the copywriting space. That’s how I paid the bills for a very long time,” he says.
Through copywriting, Sheehan was able to dedicate time to writing his novel, a project that was made a reality in part by crowdfunding through his large Twitter following.
“The fact that I was able to keep the lights on, the bills paid, while writing the book, and then have the book reach that audience of over 100,000 people directly, none of that could have been done through traditional means,” he says.
Sheehan credits Twitter’s more level playing field for the emergence of new voices in various creative fields.
“It’s allowed so many people to basically be present in spaces that they wouldn’t have been allowed to be present in otherwise,” Sheehan says.
“For the longest time, creative fields have been cornered by the wealthy, or the children of the wealthy…Twitter allowed you to build this audience that made you undeniable to the people holding the keys to that.”
Twitter also helped Azucena Rasilla, an arts and community reporter for The Oaklandside, to gain a platform and open a door into the journalism industry outside of traditional routes.
“I didn’t come from the pipeline of an Ivy League school or journalism school, so I sort of had to find my own way,” she says.
“For brown reporters, there aren’t that many ways for us to get our names out there and get poached by publications.” At the start of her career, Rasilla posted her work to Twitter, mainly music reviews, and eventually landed a job writing those reviews for a local TV station. From there, her audience grew, and she continued getting job offers, which led her to her job today. Rasilla worries that future journalists won’t have similar opportunities.
“It’s just unfortunate that the diversity problem continues, and I don’t know how now, those communities are going to find each other… Twitter was such a way to see it right there and start following people and start reading other people’s work,” she says.
For others, the outreach that Twitter went beyond career development – it was a tool for activism and finding community.
Wendi Muse, a Ph.D candidate with multiple sclerosis, was an active member of ‘Disability Twitter’ for years. She spent the pandemic posting resources to help people get masks, as well as sending some from the personal stockpile she had amassed. Earlier this year, she noticed a greater demand for reliable N95 masks in the immunocompromised community.
“I just said, let me let me start fundraising and do this in earnest, in a more committed and organized fashion.”
Soon after, she began collecting donations, and offering free N95 masks to her followers. The response was immediate.
“In total, it’s going to be more than 12,000 masks that I sent out just on my own, literally from my living room since January of this year,” Muse says. She doesn’t think she would’ve been able to reach that many people if it hadn’t been for her reach on Twitter.
“It has been crucial because it’s been a way not only to learn more about the pandemic, myself and my family, but also to reach out to other people who are less fortunate and maybe either don’t have the information, or don’t have the access [to these resources].”
For Muse, and many others, the potential end of Twitter would be a big loss, even as alternative sites like Discord or Mastodon have seen a recent influx in new users.
“I know that we’re trying to kind of find out what will be the next best thing. But as of right now, we don’t know what that is,” she says.
“I think that uneasiness of not knowing is making it more difficult, especially for people who are disabled, elderly, who maybe don’t have social networks in person right now.”
Though Twitter has yet to fully collapse, people have already jumped to other social media platforms, leaving the Twitter town square a little less full than it once was.