Twitter has been a daily dose of drama and upheaval ever since Elon Musk offered to pay over $40 billion to buy the social media platform. Media outlets and public transit agencies had been abandoning the social media platform—should planners?
The social media universe has been in turmoil ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter for the cost of a mere $43 billion. Journalists have been quick to lament the state of the social media platform—a long-time favorite among the profession for providing access to a universe of information and sources at the touch of a mobile phone screen. Think pieces speculating about the date and time of the platform's final demise are common. Public transit agencies and major daily newspapers have come to the conclusion that the platform no longer works for them.
Less ink has been spilled over the question of whether Twitter is still an effective tool for planners, though Planetizen mentioned the risk of Elon Musk’s acquisition of the site in the 2022 edition of the “Top Twitter for Planners” list. Suffice to say that many of the same factors that have confused and frustrated media outlets and public transit agencies are also applicable to the experience of planners.
Other changes, namely the introduction of the Blue subscription service and the unblocking of accounts dedicated to the promulgation of hateful messages, have precipitated a perceptible vibe shift on Twitter. In my opinion, and the opinion of many other one-regular Twitter users, it is harder to identify authorities on any given subject, including the numerous geographies and concepts of planning. Rather than the verified authorities of the past, the Blue subscription service prioritizes a sycophantic variety of post-Elon Twitter user. Favorite sources and community organizations have left the platform or reduced the number of communications posted on the site. Twitter just isn’t the same.
Twitter once was once the social media platform of choice for planners. Year after year, Planetizen collected and shared the best of planning Twitter. In 2023, we find ourselves questioning whether Twitter is still an acceptable platform for professional purposes. Like in so many other forums in public life, it's become harder and harder to separate fact from fiction on Twitter—a problem for which Twitter largely has itself to blame. Verifiable facts and human opinions are the lifeblood of planning practice, so what is a planner to do with Twitter in 2023?
A Chronology of Auspicious Events
In case you missed it, or in case you have been overwhelmed by the steady stream of alarms and pearl clutching over the developments at Twitter, the website TechCrunch has a page that presents a chronology of events in the recent history of the platform. The summary below is an attempt to focus especially on the developments most pertinent to the question of whether Twitter is still a benefit to the practices of planning.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who was already problematic figure in the world of planning, announced a bid to buy Twitter in April 2022. The purchase finally went through in October 2022. Almost immediately, Musk relaxed content policies on the platform in the name of free speech, and researchers noticed an unprecedented increase in hate speech. To date, Musk's professed free speech absolutism has been mostly selective in application—he's censored accounts that criticized him directly and also enacted content policies that allowed state suppression of speech.
Two of the biggest changes for the experience of Twitter dropped in January. Twitter launched a new default algorithmic timeline "For You" on January 11, forcing users to confront the algorithms idea of relevant content, rather than the curated list that users signed up for. The move was reminiscent of the band U2 automatically loading their album, the laughably titled Songs of Innocence, to iTunes without user consent. (Elon Musk is a lot less likely to apologize than Bono, however.)
On January 18, Twitter began offering a new subscription service called Twitter Blue that reserves the former symbol of verified users, a blue check, for those willing to pay for the vestige of prestige. Toward the end of march, Musk announced that beginning on April 15, only Blue subscribers would be published on the For You timeline (though as of this writing, in Mid-May, that seems not to be the case, yet, in this user's assessment). Reply Tweets, always imperfect (trolls) but still somehow fertile ground of productive discussion and debate, now actively promote subscribers who have paid for a cheap facsimile of authority. A few weeks later, Blue subscribers were allowed to post 10,000-character-long posts, a move some believe was meant to respond to competitor Substack. (Twitter is also censoring Substack links, by the way.)
After the chaotic rollout of the Blue subscription service, a host of mainstream daily news sites—the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, CNN, and Politico—in March publicly rebuked Musk by refusing to pay for Twitter Blue subscriptions, releasing statements criticizing the program as destructive to the field of journalism. Other media outlets also went silent on Twitter, including Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, Hawaii Public Radio and LA-based local news source LAist. NPR announced that it would cease all communications on Twitter, after being labeled by the app as "state-funded media," in April. During the same month, Musk dropped the blue check marks for legacy verified accounts, even including the New York Times.
Also in April, Twitter updated its content moderation guidelines regarding hateful content, removing a policy that prohibited the targeted deadnaming or misgendering of transgender people. Progressives will also find fault with the app's accessibility practices since the ownership change. As reported by TechCrunch, "One of the numerous rounds of [job] cuts eliminated the platform’s entire accessibility team. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) called on Elon Musk to bring the accessibility team back in an open letter."
Site failure had been mostly nonexistent since the app's halcyon days, but it has become a recurring theme with Musks's Twitter. There was an episode in February, for example, when the app broke down entirely, leaving users without the ability to Tweet. The February breakdown was followed by a March breakdown. All in all, Twitter has not been as stalwart or as accessible for a professional field, planning, constantly striving for certainty and access.
Public Transit and the Twitter API
Perhaps the most direct connection between the new Twitter and the world of planning was a decision that rendered public transit agencies unable to automate service and system updates. Twitter is central to public transit, not just for advocates to debate plans, discuss service levels, or explain for the umteenth time what the term headway means, but also by riders trying to stay up to date with service changes and disruptions on a day-to-day basis as well as for agencies to gather feedback and gauge the rider sentiment. Recent research shows just how much riders and agencies leveraged Twitter for information during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.
Despite all that social benefit, in April, Musk announced changes that would require payment of $50,000 a month for access to Twitter's API to automate Tweets. Automated systems are used by transit agencies, as well as other public safety organizations such as the National Weather Service, and media organizations, such as Planetizen. For Twitter to rescind automation from long-time users to help fill a gap in revenue created by sending advertisers fleeing from a wave of racist rhetoric, read to some observers like extortion. In April, the New York Post and Curbed picked up news of the emerging threat to public transit Twitter operations. The New York Times, AMNY, Bloomberg, and the Associated Press reported at the end of April that the New York MTA had gone dark on Twitter.
A few days later, Twitter reversed the policy, as reported by the Washington Post and AMNY, but the damage was done. Elon Musk has a track record of forcing the public to choose allegiance between his fanciful ideas and the tried and true practices of a public transit, just like he did in 2018 when Musk's enthusiasm for tunnel projects triggered a shouting match with Human Transit author and transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker.
It's possible to mostly avoid confrontation with what Twitter has become, by curating your own lists and not venturing into the reply section on any given tweet, though avoiding the replies is proof of some of what has been lost. Gone are reasoned debates between experts. Intellectual pursuits have dissolved into a steady stream of blue check-bearing sycophants, dog whistles, ad hominem attacks, and the Dunning-Kruger effect. The "vibe shift" achieved by the Blue subscription program might not be noticeable enough to take down Twitter entirely (the blue checks are clearly relishing in their newfound prominence, for example), but it's enough to make many people think twice about opening the app in pursuit of useful information.
The graveyard of defunct social media apps is long and distinguished, including once-household names such as Friendster, MySpace, and Vine to name a few. Others, still hanging on, no longer hold the cultural cache they once did in key demographics (Instagram and Facebook, for example). Most of those apps were replaced by new and improved competitors—and each offers cautionary tales for Twitter. Friendster constantly crashed. MySpace required too much HTML wrangling and lacked a customizable timeline. Vine didn't recognize what it had going for it. Facebook was overrun by less fun voices (aka, grandparents and Boomers). Twitter seems to be risking all of these mistakes simultaneously.
The cultural and economic footprint of Twitter is already greatly reduced. Musk's reputation, already suffering in the court of public opinion, appears greatly damaged. Twitter's brand is irrevocably altered—damaged might be a better word. Twitter, the company, isn't even called Twitter anymore. According to court documents filed on April 6, Twitter, Inc is now known as X Corp. Moreover, thousands of workers no longer call themselves Twitter employees. Twitter’s workforce is down from about 7,500 employees to less than 2,000 since Musk.
In December, Musk posted a Twitter poll asking if he should step down as CEO of Twitter, promising to follow the command of the crowd, no matter the result. The crowd voted for him to leave. In May, just last week, Musk finally announced a successor: Linda Yaccarino, previously an advertising executive at NBC Universal (cue 30 Rock jokes). Time will tell if Yaccarino is a more stable force for Twitter.
As for what we can do to replace, supplement, or adjust Twitters use in light of all this turmoil, following Planetizen's Top Twitter lists from 2020 and 2022, or my own News list, will help cut down the noise from a platform…and will deny Elon Musk the satisfaction of deciding which Twitter users are "For You." In the meantime, I'd also recommend requesting access to BlueSky, Post.News, and Mastodon and seeing which one sticks. BlueSky has been attracting the most positive media coverage in recent weeks, but it's hard to get an invite to join that platform, and the window of opportunity for the app could be closing with every passing day. I'd like to recommend an obvious substitute, but the barriers of entry have been challenging enough that I haven't been able to devote the necessary time and attention to any of these options. Twitter is still delivering news and insight in real time at a scale and volume that the emerging competitors just aren't capable of producing. Until that day comes, many of us will be stuck with Twitter, I am afraid.
The fact is that Twitter always had limitations and weaknesses—well documented overrepresentation based on race and income, the use of the tool for misinformation, and Donald Trump's presidency are a few examples. The problem hasn't always come from the app either. For years, transit-interested Twitter users have relied on the platform solely for venting their frustration with public transit agencies, rather than participating in the processes, voting, and riding to actually plan, fund, and improve transit systems.
The use of Twitter by planners should have always come with serious caveats about the need for critical thinking and more representative public engagement. The trends on the platform have exacerbated those weaknesses and risked even more very bad outcomes. But instead of waiting for some new app and some new tech billionaire to deliver us from Twitter, I'll be actively looking for more permanent solutions to the Twitter problem. Google alerts have already provided a good substitute, providing a steady stream of info to my emails (too many emails) without the drama of social media.
We at Planetizen used to recommend the Top Twitter feeds for planners with a big reveal every year. This year we are recommending alternatives to Twitter. Although no clear alternatives are yet available, we at Planetizen will also be sure to keep readers apprised of new developments. If and when a post-Twitter victor emerges, you can read about it here.
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