Open discourse retrenches

As 2022 draws to a close, it feels like we’ve been here before. Not so much in the specifics of Elon’s exploits — which are truly hair-raising — but the feeling of displacement, dispersal, retreat. 2023 looks to be another season of scrambling, where reporters and audiences alike struggle to identify where the news lives and who they can trust.

Twitter’s implosion has underscored a persistent pattern in journalism, in which periods of consolidation and aggregation of content and eyeballs alternate with explosive experimentation on new platforms. This dynamic tends to drive traffic to celebrity journalists and blue-chip brands while torpedoing the time and energy of everyone else who’s just attempting to report the news.

For journalists, attempts to move to Mastodon mirror the rise of other small-group discussion platforms such as Discord, which put conversations that might have taken place across broadly public platforms behind closed walls. This has real consequences for the ways we talk to one another, how and where new ideas circulate, the ways we follow movements and debates, and the ways we connect with sources.

Musk’s purchase matters because over the years, Twitter emerged as the go-to network for journalists. The hashtag and the blue checkmark may have been weak forms of organization and verification when compared to the rigorous fact-checking of prestige publications, but they were fast and relatively transparent. Of course, Twitter enabled flotillas of hate speech, and a lazy strand of “s/he said” reporting that parroted ramblings of political and cultural influencers. At the same time, though, it enabled powerfully transparent new forms of crowdsourced reporting, accountability, and public assembly.

As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes writes, “Twitter is a place where all kinds of perspectives and obscure expertise are instantly accessible and overlapping. This can be dangerous, sure. But if you find the right people, you can be instantly brought up to speed on everything from the fluctuations in lumber prices to the maintenance problems in the Russian tank fleet to the scouting report on the Welsh goalie. For someone in my line of work, it’s indispensable.”

Of course, Twitter was never the public square of our dreams — unlike the airwaves, it has always been commercial. Given the precipitous dismantling of protections, it’s not surprising that reporters are contemplating jumping ship. But the fragmentation into many smaller conversations taking place in walled-off chats and behind publication firewalls augers a retrenchment in open discourse — particularly dangerous as we continue to be rocked by global public health and climate crises.

Similarly, the “Substackization” of celebrity journalists removes these voices from the larger conversation and makes them more narrowly available to a paying audience made up of superfans. Nice for them, but this does little to support the day-to-day work of gathering and sharing the news.

In the process, once again we see a degradation of a shared public sphere, especially given the range of shifting media habits across generations. This happened with the rise of cable news, talk radio, the blogosphere, podcasting, and on and on. Each time, new generations of aggregators, critics, curators, and tastemakers have risen up to make sense of the cacophony, sniff out fresh forms of reporting, and puzzle through new business models to gather the best-of-breed — often short-changing reporters in the process.

While this may be great for creativity and innovation, it’s proved less helpful for democracy. Our policies and platforms for keeping citizens informed and hosting civil dialogue have lagged many years behind the pace of communications innovations. Plus, it leads to newsroom attrition. Journalists are forced to learn new tech and production skills every few years — to the detriment of actually honing their craft — only to have those skills become moot when a major platform makes a pivot.

This may not sound much like a prediction — but along with annual trend-spotting, another key tool for futurists is pattern recognition. Let’s take a step back for the long view: Amid the frothy hyperbole about the virtues of decentralization, what can we learn from previous moments when our centralized hubs for civic discourse lost salience? And what new forms of aggregation are in the offing that might serve us better than a commercial platform owned by an imperious tyrant?

Jessica Clark is the executive director of Dot Connector Studio, the futurist in residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the publisher of Immerse.news.

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