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Social media

Twitter isn’t real life, it’s theatre

Elon Musk: playing to the crowd?

“Twitter is not the world,” says Jemima Kelly in the FT. Compared to platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which have “billions of active users”, Twitter has just 229 million. They’re richer, more male, more educated, and more left-wing than the average citizen. And most of them barely post at all – in America, a quarter of users account for 97% of tweets. So why do both Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, and his critics give the social network such importance? The most common argument is, as Musk puts it, that Twitter is “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.

Except it isn’t. “For one thing, most of us would never dream of speaking to one another in real life in the way we do on Twitter.” Rather than being a town square, the site is like a theatre: “everyone has carefully rehearsed their 280-character lines” to play to their own crowd; retweets and likes are doled out to those who “say something suitably outrageous or funny or consensus-pleasing”. It’s like a “dystopian and frenzied open-mic night”, or the Theatre of Dionysus in ancient Greece, “where audiences were often so rowdy that staff-bearers would have to patrol the aisles”. Twitter’s most prolific users aren’t worried about its future for noble political reasons. They’re worried, just as an actor worries about their fame, about the profiles “they have spent years establishing”.