The Followers We Made Along The Way
I have been on Twitter for 15 years, 3 months, and 14 days. So a few days ago, when Marisa Kabas asked “what was your favorite day on twitter,” I had a lot to choose from.
But first, a quick story.
- “Let There Be More Light” — Pink Floyd
- “Too Small to Fail” — Forgetters
- “Razzle Dazzle” — BoomBaptist
- “Oh No” — Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch & Nate Dogg
- “Anxious Type” — Shit Present
- “Swan Dive” — Waxahatchee
- “Ce matin-là” — Air
- “Vibes and Stuff” — A Tribe Called Quest
- ”Tweeter and the Monkey Man” — Traveling Wilburys
- “Red Headed Stranger” — Willie Nelson
- “35.31” — Childish Gambino
- “Power” — Rapsody (w/ Kendrick Lamar and Lance Skiiiwalker)
- “Holiday” — Weezer
- “The Last Living Rose (Demo)” — PJ Harvey
- “Because the Night” — Garbage (w/ Screaming Females)
- “Woodpecker from Mars” — Faith No More
In 2012, I was invited to speak at a content strategy conference in South Africa.
I had never been to Africa — no one in my family had been to Africa — so this was, understandably, a very big deal. This was early in my career, at a point when I was trying as hard as possible to ingratiate myself, to build up a story and prove myself on a bigger stage. I had the hunger, and Cape Town was calling.
If you’ve never travelled to South Africa from the midwest, I can tell you that it’s … a long trip. A two-hour flight from Minneapolis to Washington D.C., an eight-hour flight to Dakar to refuel, another eight-hour flight to Johannesburg, and then an hour and a half flight to Cape Town. I landed roughly the same time I left, but one day later, arriving at the airport about 9:45 p.m.
The first thing I did was buy an in-network SIM card for my phone. At least I’d have data, I figured.
The conference was booked at a winery resort, roughly 30 miles out of town, and I still had to get there. At this point, it was just after 10 p.m., and the airport was clearing out. There were no busses available. No taxis. No way to get a rental car. More than that, I had no idea where I was — I was completely alone in an airport on the verge of closing for the night, and I was suddenly stranded.
And then: I saw an airport shuttle service.
This was not an … official shuttle service, it seemed. It felt as though it was camped up in an abandoned kiosk. The lights were off: they were closed. But someone was still standing behind the desk.
I begged them to help me out. The man behind the counter agreed. I gave him my credit card.
No problem. I ran to the ATM. I plugged in my card. I worried a little about exchange rates and what the service charge might look like. I punched in some numbers and started getting antsy to head out.
My card was denied.
My card was denied, here in Cape Town International Airport, at the only ATM I could find, at a time when I could only pay with cash. My card was denied because, despite calling my bank and letting them know I would be travelling to South Africa, they had flagged my attempt to get cash as fraudulent activity. I was now not only stranded, but essentially broke.
The rest of the story played out in absolute fear. The shuttle guy agreed to take me anyway, with a promise I’d pay when we got there. I got into (I am not shitting you) an unmarked van. He stopped at a sketchy gas station outside of the airport to get me to try my ATM again. I was convinced this is where I was going to die: the gas station looked like something sketched in the background of a dystopian film, and the ATM felt like a phishing scam made corporeal. After it didn’t work, we drove — in the dark, to a winery I didn’t know, through streets I didn’t recognize, for longer than I could ever imagine.
And then we arrived. A friend paid. I went inside and everything was okay.
Marisa Kabas’ tweet was an important collection point in the hours after it was announced that Elon Musk had purchased Twitter. But the tweet really doesn’t matter — the replies are what matter. They represent the collected memories of a social network, or (at least) a subset of the collected memories. They are about specific tweets, and collections of specific tweets. They are about shared experiences and they are about pseudo-tragedies and they are about successes and they are about horrible people and they are about good dogs, Brent.
The tweet reads “what was your favorite day on twitter” but what I interpreted was “what is your defining moment on twitter.” for me, it was two sets of DMs that occurred across two days in 2012 — October 23 and October 24. They occurred in the few hours between landing in Cape Town and arriving at the winery resort.
First, it’s a set of DMs between my wife, Kerrie, and me as we attempted to navigate an ocean, a half-dozen time zones, and the complexities of bank fraud. That SIM card is all that kept me from being completely lost and alone, without a single line of communication. Instead, when I couldn’t text, I couldn’t call, and I couldn’t even get my own money, the internet and TWITTER OF ALL THINGS was there to save me. It was not quite 5 p.m. back in Sioux Falls, so Kerrie navigated (and yelled at) the bank. By the time I got to the resort later I had been cleared and my account was open again.
Second, it’s a set of DMs between my friend Sara Wachter-Boettcher and me as she kept a conference-worth of speakers up to date on the sordid travel woes of this kid from South Dakota. More importantly, it was through Sara that I was able to confirm that YES, STRANGE MAN IN AN UNMARKED VAN, I promise there will be someone to pay for this shuttle at the end of the trip, SO PLEASE DO NOT KILL ME. At that moment, there in Cape Town, I knew that while I had no money or way to call for help … I at least had a group of friends who knew where I was.
It’s become a joke — a dig at inspirational quotes — when someone says how we should focus on the journey, not the destination, and how the real gift in all of this is the friends we made along the way. I can tell you that, in those few hours in dark Cape Town, that inspiration was wrong. The journey sucked. The destination was a godsend.
Yet, even on that journey, those two sets of DMs brought me relief. Relief that I was able to connect with the most important person in my life, even from a different continent. And relief that my future destination was a safe space, that I had friends — new friends, who I didn’t know that well — who would be happy when I showed up.
For me, Twitter has rarely ever been about Twitter. Twitter is a company that struggles to justify its funding, a random and mismanaged mess of messages. We act like Twitter has slowly become a megaphone for bad ideas. In reality, it always was — it’s a techbro-led social platform designed around hot takes and absurdity. Largely anonymous. Largely unmoderated. Kind of a disaster, at times.
But, within it all, there’s also something really special.
We built communities on Twitter, because it leveled the playing field. It was smaller. It wasn’t as overwhelming. We felt comfortable reaching out to people we looked up to, to include them in the conversation, not because we were calling them out but because we wanted them to notice what we said. We followed each other and liked each others funny tweets and sometimes we carried on conversations with each other and then we met each other in real life. It was still personal.
It’s not as personal anymore — at least, not for me. Now, my relationship with Twitter is one of past appreciation. Twitter introduced me to people who then became friends, at a time when I wouldn’t otherwise have the confidence to make those friends. Back in 2012, it was just as formative as the conferences I attended. I sometimes joke that I owe my entire career to Twitter. It sounds flippant, but there’s some truth to it: Twitter facilitated the work I did to write intelligently, get noticed, and build connections.
It meant a lot that a connection started on a website could grow enough to become part of the real world.
It doesn’t mean as much anymore, and for that I’m kind of sad. I know a lot of people who are still active on Twitter. I’m not — and I don’t miss it. I’ll pop in from time to time, but the value that Twitter brought me on a personal level — the discourse, the friendships, the asynchronous networking — has moved behind closed doors, into private Slack groups. Now, new connections are vetted through old connections in an invite-only kind of way.
Of course, it was all bound to change. That’s how the world works. My fear of missing out faded away, and with that my need — our need, I guess — to continue pushing the Twitter envelope also faded away.
But my journey began fifteen years ago, and fifteen years is a long time. There are still people discovering Twitter for the first time, finding voices they never thought they’d see, finding voices like their own, curating the kind of community they hope they can be a part of and, due to the closeness of those messages — the ability to reach out and connect directly — a community they start to shape as their own.
I don’t care about Elon Musk. I never have, honestly. Still, I am surprised that I don’t care more about Twitter’s purchase, and even more surprised that I don’t think I’d even care if it closed. I’d write a eulogy, and think hard about what it did to all of us, and then I’d move on.
I think it’s because I know Twitter itself was never the point. Twitter is just a website — it’s the journey, a tool that facilitates connections. Sure, I’m nervous for future users, and I’m cautious about any new direction. If Twitter dies, something else will show up. If Twitter dies, it won’t change what it was a decade ago. If Twitter dies, we’ll still have the friends we made along the way.