By Nisha Susan
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Everything I am writing here is likely to be irrelevant/wrong/hilarious in hindsight by the time you read it on the weekend. But I have a lot of practice with that because I have been on Twitter since 2009.
In 2009, I found out that two people I saw every day, for several hours a day, were tweeting their complaints about me to each other. When I confronted one, she mumbled that she treated Twitter like her blog. I was astonished. At that point, I thought of myself as an extremely online person and had barely ever tweeted. Little did I know what was coming down the timeline. Every year brought its fair share of astonishment at what happens online. A big shift was thinking of online as my secret fun place to Online as out there. A place out there where you must look left and right many times before you scuttle across the road. A place out there where you look over your shoulder to see who may be following you. But every year there would be a few weeks when I learnt something amazing about the Offline right there on Twitter.
The histories of glamorous women from the 1920s. Panda videos. The best and the worst (meaning the best) bilingual puns. People being jackasses, tweeting in ways just asking to be screenshotted. Intense self-awareness of being a savarna jackass. Intense and irritable self-awareness that I can take privilege checks from anyone but upper-caste, “progressive" men. A friend who knew exactly how to raise funds for Kerala flood relief. A career-changing job offer. The despair-inducing #MeToo revelations. Haryanvi vocabulary tutorials. News. More news. News from Nigeria. And Brazil. And Iran. Panda videos. More news. “Some personal news". Despair at the news. Delicious subtweets about some people’s personal news. Protest updates. Search for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. A couple advertising their OnlyFans account with images of their life in a one-room apartment with spectacular hair, perfect bodies, mermaid tattoos and mighty indoor plants. Rumours that people are dead. Fellow fans of that one Korean sageuk (historical dramas) that broke my heart. That boy who used to tweet as a khap panchayat member. The account that tweeted about Bengaluru rain. The account that tweeted lines from the love notes between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. More news. Of late, a lot of Competition Success meets Ted Talk type threads. Announcements about breaks from social media. Leopard seals that had hijacked a boat.
Twitter has been all kinds of things. Frequently, folks referred to it as a hellsite, for good, solid reasons. You had to nod along to all the terrible things said about Twitter. It’s all true. Especially if you have been online during election season. One of the strangest things I have experienced was a sweet, good-natured man from Gujarat, whom I had met in Bengaluru, trolling me more than a little during national elections on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Post elections, he went back to his usual self and wanting to discuss the romantic short stories he wrote. I didn’t know what that was about until later it became common knowledge that there is a revenue stream in this activity. Hellsite. Yes.
I have been on other online platforms that stopped being relevant or popular but Twitter in its (possible, probable) decline and fall is also astonishing and different from, say, the disappearance of Livejournal or Digg or Google Reader.
Right now on Twitter, it is both exodus (“Come, there are no Pharaohs in Mastodon, fellow Egyptians") and Noah’s Ark (“we are determined to survive to defend our communities against the deluge of the angry and punitive god"). Occasionally, it feels like being right on the spot as Emperor Caligula made his horse, Incitatus, a consul.
Right now on Twitter, large populations have put their differences aside to hate Elon Musk.
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Right now on Twitter, people are searching for the passwords to their old Tumblr, which is apparently allowing nudes again, reversing their notorious 2018 ruling which had led to an enormous exodus of the micro-generation that adored the extremely versatile site. Back in 2013, Yahoo had bought a flourishing Tumblr for $1.1 billion. Verizon bought it from Yahoo and banned nudes. By 2019, Tumblr reportedly lost 30% of its visitors and in 2019, it was sold again for a mere $3 million. Tumblr is clearly doing chance pe dance in the midst of the Twitter panic.
Right now on Twitter, a few people are asking whether this is an opportunity to end their engagement with social media and simply not go and search for a server (a federated timeline/an instance/a toot, Mastodon terminology that I don’t get yet). What would life be without it?
As for me, I am just hanging around without a clue as to what happens next. My fascination this week, instead, has been watching a skinny, bearded Penn Badgley (who in the way back was Lonely Boy from Gossip Girl) dancing to Meghan Trainor’s banal but inexplicably sad Made You Look. It’s a TikTok video but it’s on Twitter that I found hundreds of other women wondering aloud why a 30-second clip of Penn Badgley, all loosey-goosey and graceful wrists, is so beautiful. Why are we watching it over and over again? It doesn’t matter and yet, it matters so much.
Saul Bellow was once asked why he continued to teach even after becoming hugely successful. He said, “You’re all alone when you’re a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride on the subway will do that but it’s much more interesting to talk about books.’’ Saul Bellow, everyone feels they are alone. Oh, the humanity bath of Twitter. Steam room and cold shower and spa and hammam. Dirty, glorious humanity bath.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.