Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.