Quitting Twitter is easy — changing ourselves is harder

There are better reasons than Elon Musk to leave Twitter. But what will that change?

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 6, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Man using a smartphone (Getty Images)
Man using a smartphone (Getty Images)

"Elon Musk is buying Twitter! Oh no!" the united front of the Moral Army virtually screamed in all-caps. "I'm leaving!"

Before we start, I should probably define the Moral Army: people who spend more time interacting online than in real life, and who are always — always — on the right side of history. They are so woke and so perfect they've never said anything racist, homophobic, sexist, classist, ageist, or anything with an -ist in the back. They are so good they knew your pronouns before pronouns were a part of the conversation. They are beyond perfect, and if you are not, they advocate for your reputational destruction, your online death. No, you can't learn; no, you can't apologize; no, you can't evolve. The Moral Army doesn't forgive.

The entire Moral Army, plus everyone they convince, plans to teach Elon the Billionaire a much-deserved lesson by walking away from the platform. Well, Elon can't run me off, and I don't even use Twitter as much I did a decade ago, during what I like to call Twitter's Golden Age. 

RELATED: Elon Musk, Twitter and the future: His long-term vision is even weirder than you think

I moved to Twitter Town back in 2009, looking for an alternative to Facebook. My mom and all of her sisters had joined Facebook and sucked all the fun out of that app with their Bible quotes, harassing me in the comments of all my photos: "You lookin just like your daddy." To make matters worse, Facebook — a place where I once loved to fellowship and trade ideas — was becoming a lie factory. Every day, I witnessed good friends from high school and the neighborhood project inflated versions of their reality in gross attempts to outdo one another. It was kind of like what Instagram is now. Everyone was living out their wildest dreams, traveling the world, swimming with dolphins, marching with Dr. King, staying at 90-star resorts and munching on rare, unpronounceable cheeses while flaunting their limitless wealth. I figured Twitter, a social media platform designed more around thoughts than images, could be a better way for me to kill time in the digital world.

So I logged on and created a profile, only to delete it a few weeks later. I didn't understand how to build a community for myself on Twitter while my real friends were all still lying to each other on Facebook. From what I could see on that first attempt, Twitter was a place for regular people to try to talk to celebrities who almost never responded. 

RELATED: Don't blame the trolls: Here's why I quit Twitter and what happened after

"Wait, are you on Facebook?" a bartender named Nikki, who worked at my favorite watering hole across the street from the college I attended, asked a year later. "That's an elderly site." 

"I tried Twitter, but didn't get it," I said. "So I packed up my house phone and rode my dinosaur back to Facebook." 

Laughing, Nikki snatched my phone and downloaded an app — not the official Twitter app, but one another developer created that made my tweets look cool. I chose a user name that directly spoke to me — something like @SupremeBlackGods or @OriginalChildofAfricanRoyalty or some variation on that theme. OK, feel free to laugh, but this was a transformative time in my life — I was connecting for the first time to the work of artists like Amiri Baraka, scholars like Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur, geniuses like Nikki Giovanni, along with books that told powerful Black stories that made simple me feel special. No longer did I see myself or my people the way society often portrayed us; I was a new man and ready to declare my new thoughts and ideology on Twitter, if I could find someone to listen. 

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Nikki followed a bunch of our mutual friends for me, friends from the bar that I didn't know had been on Twitter long enough to gain substantial followings­­, and many of them followed me back. We had hilarious conversations at all hours of the day. Twitter swiftly went from an app I could write off to one I couldn't live without. The jokes and mindless banter also helped me to ignore some of my real problems. Through retweets of the jokes I made and other jokes I shared, along with random conversations I fell into with friends of friends that I didn't know in real life, on top of articles I read and responded to in what now we call threads, I developed a nice following of about 400 people.

That following hand-delivered me to Black Twitter, a collection of radical thinkers, creators, aspiring leaders and funny-ass people who mastered commenting on the Black experience in 140 characters or less. These people were brilliant. I never made the cut to be Black Twitter Famous, but I loved their commentary. Many of the OG Black Twitter personalities from that Golden Era are now bestselling authors, world-renowned speakers or holding their own in Hollywood writers' rooms. Unfortunately, some of them also went out sad, by dipping themselves in impossible wokeness before enlisting into the Moral Army. But Black Twitter, combined with the people I followed from the bar, my homeboys from around the way I convinced to join, and Eastside-Westside Baltimore Twitta, made my experience complete­. I was golden in the Golden Age.

RELATED: Not everyone has the luxury to leave Twitter

The Golden Age was golden for a number of reasons, starting with nuance, which has vanished. Now you have to pick a side and stand on it; presenting the counter will get you labeled unhinged or problematic. The idea that two things can be true at once is completely lost in a sea of victims wrapped in victimhood armor. As a social media grandpa, I am not ashamed of slamming down my bottle of Ensure and yelling, "When Twitta was good, you could disagree with somebody without attacking them as a person or their character! You could learn from strangers and trade ideas powerful enough to not only connect, but move culture forward!" to a group of 8-year-old TikTok celebrities who are straight ignoring me and could not care less about my opinion. 

I know more than those 8-year-olds. I know I'm biased, but I'm right: Some of the best arguments during my own personal age of enlightenment came from Twitter. The bird app introduced me to perspectives from people of all walks of life, ultimately helping me understand different variations of the Black experience, distinctions between feminism and womanism, what men should be doing to better aid women, the LGBTQIA movement, and the history of problematic artists and scholars profiting off Black pain while helping to deliver some of that pain. I learned the problem with capitalism, the power of unions, what systemic racism is and how it affects me. I consumed thousands of articles and hundreds of books recommended by brilliant people, watched countless documentaries and accepted invites to events that allowed me to connect with and expand those perspectives even further.

Twitter was also diverse. My Facebook and Instagram feeds are almost all Black. That's not intentional — I challenge you to look at your Instagram feed and see how close it hews to your own demographic. I don't really know the science behind it; I guess you just connect with people you know. But on Twitter, many of us step outside our own boxes. It made me a more complete person and challenged me to treat the people around me better, regardless of their background, race, sex, gender, religion, political ideologies or profession (except cops).

But somewhere along the line, Twitter also turned into kind of a cesspool. I'm not sure if I should blame the bots, the endless circulation of false information, the closed-minded people who rushed in as the app grew in popularity, or our divided society reflected in our feeds. Either way, the result is insufferable. I only log on to read articles from the respected journalists I follow and to share my own. But for the most part, I don't participate.

At one point I remember scrolling through my timeline, seeing nothing but posts from people making every problem, every issue, every event and movement in the world all about their comfort and how they feel, as if no one else matters, as if they were in this world alone. I didn't see healthy debating or educating — just complaints. I've now muted more people than I actually follow. And I've shut down — I keep my ideas to myself. The last thing I want is to get caught up in an exchange with a member of the Moral Army. The way Twitter rewards and amplifies a combination of hyper-victimhood and the sick desire to always be right has produced a delusional user base of the most unpleasant personas on the planet. Twitter is a place for the super-entitled, roaming wild and free, to feel validated. That's probably why Trump was so addicted to it — and why Elon Musk wants to buy it.

And why wouldn't he? Musk is just doing what rich white men have been doing since the beginning of time: buying what they like. Here's the bottom line: My absence or presence — or the Moral Army's — is not likely to affect his. After all, how much damage have our collective bursts of Twitter outrage done to the oppressive systems that allow people like him to accumulate that level of wealth to begin with? 

RELATED: The cult of Elon Musk: Why do some of us worship billionaires?

If Elon's deal goes through and the Moral Army leaves Twitter, where will they go? To another app run by another tyrant? How much did we care about Jack's political views before? What does Mark Zuckerberg believe in — is he even a real person? Leaving a social media app on principle, just like boycotting a company that does something racist, only to shift your support to another company that is probably just as oppressive, sexist or racist, doesn't really solve those problems. 

But don't let my corner store logic derail those on a mission from their oppressor-crushing journeys. By all means, rock out. I'm just acknowledging that America is made up of institutions, individuals and corporations that built wealth at some point through exploitation — namely, slavery or unfair wages. Supporting one is just as bad as supporting another; the only way to really make a difference is to change ourselves.

We change ourselves by calling these systems we are addicted to what they really are, by not basing our activism and human connections solely on apps, by not expecting corporations to care about us, by owning our support of these problematic corporations, by acknowledging that we know they were flawed yet still give them our money. But most importantly, we change ourselves by not holding our fellow citizens to impossible standards, by not itching to see them mess up, because like Elon Musk, like Wells Fargo, like Georgetown University, we are all dirty to some extent; we have all supported something that has led to someone's pain. 

This isn't a social media or business problem; this is an American problem. Even companies run by the most ethical people in the world are attached, somehow, to something toxic and or racist or exploitative. Quitting Twitter's easy. What then? 

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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