The Media Today

A Very Online summer

August 4, 2023

Last summer, in a piece for CJR, Karen Maniraho spoke with writers who cover the internet and its subcultures. “The best of these journalists are immersed in the internet but do not obsess over viral moments, which fly by too fast and seem, in isolation, to be trivial,” she observed. “By focusing on creators, communities, and the algorithm-based platforms that drive trends, these writers find ways to cut through the noise—and surface a deeper understanding of life, online and off.” This summer has only reinforced the impression that everything online is ephemeral—including the platforms themselves.

A timeline of the cascading social media dramas that led us to this point might begin last fall, when Elon Musk took charge of Twitter. For a while, Mastodon, an open-source alternative, looked poised to serve as a replacement; a number of journalists set up camp there. But Mastodon was complicated, intimidating, often uninviting. An array of other candidates saw an opening, including Bluesky (a product of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and former CEO), Spill (created by two Black former Twitter employees and described as a hopeful “New Black Twitter”), and, most recently, Threads (from Meta). Musk, meanwhile, blocked people without Twitter accounts from viewing the site and imposed a rate limit on the number of posts registered users could see. By early July, when Threads debuted—with more than a hundred million sign-ups in its first few days—Musk had challenged Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, to a “literal dick measuring contest” and threatened to sue. So far, so puerile. But as Sriram Krishnan—a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm that has invested in Twitter, Reddit, and other social media companies—wrote for the New York Times, “This is more than just a tech founder cage match; it is the latest incident in a pattern of increasing chaos.”

One platform stood at the center of the chaos. “Twitter is hemorrhaging users and relevance,” Taylor Lorenz declared, in the Washington Post. (Threads had an impressive start, she added, though TikTok still reigns.) Tucker Carlson, who had recently debuted a Twitter show, played to dwindling audiences. Within weeks, “a crane rolled up to Twitter’s headquarters on Market Street,” Casey Newton reported for his newsletter, Platformer. The crane was there to remove a sign from the building’s facade, marking the rebranding of Twitter as X. “In keeping with Musk’s characteristic indifference to authority, none of this had been cleared beforehand with the city,” Newton continued. “The crane partially blocked the street, confusing passing robo-taxis. The San Francisco Police Department briefly intervened to stop the work in progress, but eventually relented.” Newton called the name change “intentional vandalism,” writing, “The old Twitter has been vanquished, it seemed to say. X marks the spot.”

Confronted by a cornucopia of non-Twitters—or, non-Xs—social media managers have been tasked with firing all burners; journalists are burned out. Some seemingly promising ventures have simply crashed and burned. “Bluesky has gotten real toxic real fast,” Ryan Broderick, who produces a newsletter called Garbage Day, reported. Nadira Goffe noted for Slate that, in 2020, Black people congregated on ​​Clubhouse until “the app disintegrated into a hellscape as it suffered from a lack of content moderation, which resulted in too many offensive and tired conversations,” adding: “Many Black Twitter members are afraid that Spill will devolve in just the same way.” TikTok, which last week announced the arrival of its e-commerce business in the United States—sure to trigger both impulse purchases and regulatory concerns—has now enabled users to share text posts. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that, earlier this year, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, brought a standalone Pinterest-meets-Instagram app to the US called Lemon8, which went briefly viral, then sputtered. For The Verge, Barbara Krasnoff compiled a list of Twitter alternatives, writing that “no social network is forever.”

As Rebecca Jennings, a senior correspondent for Vox, told Maniraho last year, “Covering every little thing that goes super viral on TikTok is just like running on a treadmill. Because they’re all kind of the same.” The same principle could apply to covering every bit of social-platform intrigue, every digital-media company pivot, every tech-exec feud. If the dynamics of online life have always been complex, the ways people communicate now seem to be increasingly fragmented. It can all be hard to sort through, though the approach that Jennings aims for—to “look for stories that help me explain something to people, or could be a bigger part of our future, or the way that we interact”—seems a wise one. You can read Maniraho’s piece on internet culture here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Donald Trump was arraigned in a Washington, DC, courtroom on charges stemming from his efforts to overthrow the 2020 election. He pleaded not guilty. Cameras amassed outside the courthouse but were not allowed inside, consistent with a long-standing ban on the broadcast of federal criminal proceedings; Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein assessed whether, and by what mechanism, the ban might be lifted. Meanwhile, Trump could soon face further charges related to the 2020 election, in Georgia. Poynter’s Amaris Castillo spoke with two local reporters there about their coverage of the case, while, for The Intercept, George Chidi, another Georgia-based journalist, wrote about recently being subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury as a witness in the case, and the challenges that poses for a member of the press. 
  • Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, weighed in on the news that Jeffrey Goldberg, the top editor at The Atlantic, will be the new moderator of Washington Week, on PBS. “I can’t say that I’m a fan of Washington Week, even though its recently departed moderator, Yamiche Alcindor, is someone for whom I have a lot of respect,” he writes. “When I’ve watched, which has not been often, it has struck me as being obsessed with political gamesmanship to its core.” It’s “a mistake to follow Alcindor with a late-middle-aged white guy of moderately liberal views,” Kennedy adds, though he sees The Atlantic’s unstinting coverage of Trump and democracy as a potential positive. 
  • For The Conversation, Esther Brito Ruiz and Jeff Bachman, of American University, wrote about research that they conducted comparing New York Times headlines about the Saudi-led war in Yemen, in which the US has armed the Saudi-led coalition, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which the US has supported the latter country’s defense. “Our research shows extensive biases in both the scale and tone of coverage,” the pair found. “These biases lead to reporting that highlights or downplays human suffering in the two conflicts in a way that seemingly coincides with US foreign policy objectives.”
  • Yesterday, days after the military seized power in a coup in Niger, the new authorities blocked the broadcast of RFI and France 24, two French state-backed broadcasters, inside the country. The broadcasters and France’s foreign ministry condemned the move, which echoed restrictions placed on the broadcasters following recent coups in Burkina Faso and Mali. (We wrote about the latter blockages last year.)
  • And, with controversy still swirling around the use of generative AI for editorial purposes, Adweek’s Mark Stenberg tracked how publishers are already using the technology on the revenue side of their businesses. “In doing so,” he writes, “media companies including Politico, Raptive, Newsweek, and Bustle Digital Group have increased the efficiency of their businesses, improving their margins and increasing win rates.”
Sign up for CJR's daily email

ICYMI: Meta let researchers study whether it stokes polarization. The results were polarizing.

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Ryan Broderick’s newsletter.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.