Why the Musk-ification of Twitter is giving me second thoughts about hybrid work
This post originally appeared in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe now.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has sent me into mourning — not just for that once-beloved social network, but for social media in general. And with that grief has come something like recognition: recognition that my optimistic view of hybrid work parallels the optimism I once felt for social media.
It’s time to give all that optimism a second look.
My optimism about social media dates back further than the dawn of Twitter and Facebook, and further than the term “social media” itself. I got excited about what was called “Web 2.0” all the way back in 2004, when I started blogging about RSS and tagging, and getting generally excited about all the ways these new, accessible and interactive tools could drive political engagement and social change.
I’m not closing my Twitter account (yet). I don’t want to risk my handle getting taken over, and I still hold some hope the platform may be Musk-proofed.
But I suspect I’ll wind down my use of the site, especially since I find my LinkedIn and Medium interactions more satisfying. So from now on, the best place to find me is on LinkedIn, where I post several times a week, or here on Medium, where I post this newsletter every two weeks, and other useful resources. You can also subscribe to my newsletter to be the first to get my latest stories and ideas.
That excitement was my own Optimism 2.0. When Rob and I started Social Signal as the world’s first all-Web 2.0 agency, I was already a decade into my career as an Internet researcher and tech writer.
Optimism 1.0 dated all the way back to 1996, when I decided the Internet was going to save Canada’s NDP, and social democratic parties more generally. There were so few people working in the nascent field of e-government and e-democracy (as they were called at the time) that I got the chance to develop a global research project on e-governance for a consortium of governments from around the world, and even facilitated the OECD’s first meeting of global e-government leaders while pregnant with our first kiddo.
Even though I was soon disappointed by the gap between my democratic hopes and the very banal ways that digital technologies were deployed by governments in those early days, I thought it was just a matter of time before the Internet would inevitably transform the nature of government, politics, and democracy itself. When the social web came along, it seemed like that moment had finally arrived: Here, at last, were the tools that could allow anyone to participate in public discourse!
In those early years when Social Signal was building non-profit communities and early Twitter and Facebook presences, I was convinced that social media was biased in favor of grassroots organizing and social purpose, just because that’s what people actually cared about. “Unless people care so much about your brand that they pay for the privilege of wearing your logo,” we used to say, “They don’t care enough about your brand to be part of a conversation about your brand.”
Boy, was that ever wrong! My analysis was missing one crucial factor: this little thing called money.
It turns out that if you have Starbucks-scale money, you can totally get people to care enough about your brand to tweet, post and snap about it…until they drown out whatever meaningful conversation is going on nearby.
If you have Koch-scale money, you can pay for people to receive whatever narrative serves your business and political goals. If you have Putin-scale money, you can pay for people to be inundated by whatever misinformation serves your geopolitical goals.
And if you have Elon Musk-scale money, you can take over the platform itself — and threaten to remove whatever guardrails mitigate the worst network abuses.
But big money isn’t the only thing that’s steered social media off course, and democratic discourse isn’t the only casualty of its derailment. Within a couple of years of Twitter and Facebook’s debut, I started worrying about social media’s impact on our personal wellbeing, and talking about why and how we needed to use it with care and intention.
At the time, there was a little bit of interest in thoughtful social media use within the evangelical community — a “What would Jesus tweet?” vibe — and within another few years the question was taken up in earnest within the mindfulness and mental health communities.
Again, however, I was unduly hopeful: I thought that we, the individual users of social media, could make thoughtful choices that would limit its damage and amplify its benefits. I thought parents could steer their kids towards a healthy relationship with technology. I thought we could spend our time online in ways that mitigated social media envy, and fostered compassion and connection.
Looking back, it’s hard to understand my own misplaced optimism, since human history is full of brilliant technological advances that led to horrible, anti-human outcomes.
It’s worse than you think
Even by historical standards, social media has been a dumpster fire. However bad you think it is — however much hate, stupidity, crass commercialism, and conflict you see — believe me when I tell you that it is a hundred or a thousand times worse than you imagine.
No matter how much crap you see on Twitter and Instagram and TikTok and Facebook, their algorithms are working hard to make sure it’s the least crappy crap they can give you, or at least, no crappier than you are willing to tolerate. I’ve just spent the past week digging through an unfiltered portion of the social media “firehose” (that is, a non-user-specific, non-filtered view of posts on multiple platforms) and it has once again reminded me that the vast majority of social media content is a lot worse than what I see in my day-to-day life.
Social media is now an ocean of hucksterism and cruelty and ignorance and misinformation, punctuated by tiny archipelagos of not-too-bad, and the sheer volume of it all is well beyond human comprehension.
And it’s not terrible because Elon Musk made it terrible, or because Vladimir Putin made it terrible, or because hate groups have made it terrible. (Though all those things are true.)
And it’s not terrible because the technology is intrinsically evil.
Why we can’t have nice things
Social media has turned out to be terrible because the biggest platforms are based on business models that amplify humanity’s worst qualities. Advertising and data mining, which are how these platforms actually make money, are both driven by attention in the form of views, clicks and sign-ups.
And since humans are wired to attend to threats over opportunities, the surest way to grab that attention is by triggering our fearful lizard brains. How? By showing us threats and hate and conflict.
Yes, we could use these networks to see the best in one another, and sometimes we do: We see generosity, creativity, humor and the compassionate ways people show up for another.
But too much of the time, the networks show us humanity at its worst. Greedy and envious, ignorant and loud-mouthed, judgmental and defensive. Perhaps that’s what humans are really like — awful! — or maybe I’ve started thinking people are awful because I spend too much time on social media.
I admire the various folks who keep trying to build social platforms that don’t simply mirror our worst (though I’m deeply skeptical that any for-profit can do better), but my own enthusiasm for the project is worn out. I maintain my little outpost on Facebook, and I’m trying to spend more time on LinkedIn and Medium: Following the maxim that “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product,” I feel more trusting of LinkedIn and Medium because I’m paying for their services myself. (I’ve also had great experiences working with both companies.)
But social media no longer feels like community, delight or joy. It feels like a utility, or like a chore. It feels like work.
Kill my hope….please
You’d think that my heart would be well and truly broken; that I’d learn from my disappointment in e-democracy and social media, and stop getting my hopes up.
But here I am again, excited about another big tech inflection point: the shift from a world that consists almost entirely of in-person, on-site work, to a world in which a lot of work takes place remotely and online.
It’s a shift that’s just as big as the advent of the Internet, and of social media. We’ve already seen how much our lives, our businesses and our economy have been changed by the rise of remote work, and that’s only going to accelerate as we build hybrid organizations for the long haul.
Optimism 3.0 says: Hybrid work can free us to live whole, integrated lives! It can reduce our carbon footprint, and mitigate climate change! It can make our teams and workplaces more inclusive, more accessible and more democratic! It can help align our work with our purpose, make time for the relationships that matter most, and give us the room to take care of our minds and bodies!
And I really, really want all of that to happen.
But people, I’m learning: My recurring optimism needs to be brutally reined in by a serious consideration of the worst-case scenarios.
Like: Hybrid work that sees us working 12 hours a day, and/or 7 days a week. Online tools that are used to surveil rather than empower us, so that we’re working to the demands of the keyboard rather than the needs of our organization or clients. Communities that are divided between people with “remote privilege”, and people who have to show up at the office each and every day — with fewer and fewer opportunities for interaction or advancement.
The history of social media, and indeed, the history of the Internet itself, teach us that we can’t let hybrid work unfold organically — because if we just let the chips fall where they may, they are going to fall in a way that means you’re going to be working 18 hours a day for the Terminator. That’s the future we get if we leave hybrid planning up to managers who are bringing people back to the office because they don’t know how else to manage, or executive teams who are insisting on surveillance as the price of remote work.
But that doesn’t have to be our future. We can craft a better version of hybrid work. We can shape a version of hybrid in which we’re measured by outcomes rather than hours or keystrokes, and where we live and work instead of living to work.
We’re the only generation that can make that future happen, because the transition is happening now: In another ten or fifteen years, the shape of hybrid work will be set.
Fifteen years ago, Twitter was barely getting started. Ten years ago, Elon Musk had barely begun to tweet.
That’s how quickly our online futures get written.
Let’s write this one for good.
This post originally appeared in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe now.