As people close to you grow older, it’s wrenching to see their worlds shrink. Physical limitations are part of it, but so is the passing of their friends, one by one by one, until there’s hardly anyone left for them to talk to.
For a while now I thought I'd have a hedge against that kind of loneliness: I'd have Twitter. As long as I could type or dictate, I would be connected to people, the news and the world.
After more than 13 years on the platform, it’s easy for me to use and I have thousands of friends and followers. They are interesting people who retweet interesting people, and the circle keeps growing. Some of them are older than me, some are younger. They won’t vanish on me all at once.
Except now it seems they might.
I’m still in the first stage of grief: denial. But it’s getting harder to sustain. Elon Musk’s reinstatement of Donald Trump felt like darkness had fallen and end times were near. And yet the stakes for me are relatively low. For some communities and nations, Musk’s wholesale sacking of Twitter threatens a rollback of equality and even freedom, or the means to achieve it.
'Why would you do this?'
As deaf actress Marlee Matlin tweeted recently, “This platform has virtually leveled the playing field for all of us, but, particularly, for people like myself; this space has evolved into a barrier-free game changer.” So why, she asked Musk, did he dismantle Twitter’s Accessibility Team? Especially as someone who has “self-identified as having autism spectrum disorder," she said, “why would you do this?”
That was the team that made sure people with any kind of disability could use Twitter. Search #DisabilityTwitter on Twitter and it’s obvious just what this platform means to this community. People figure out their diagnoses, find others with their rare disease, “lurk” to learn how others cope with problems, build their businesses and careers, make friends.
"I hate that I only started using Twitter in 2020, finding an explosion of resources and validation through #DisabilityTwitter that I never had before, and now it’s likely to disappear,” a user named Raven tweeted.
Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don't have the app? Download it for free from your app store.
Governments at all levels use Twitter to alert people to emergencies and communicate public health information. The Ukraine government turned its official Twitter account into “a national version of real-time trauma processing,” social media specialist Jessica Maddox of the University of Alabama wrote at The Conversation. Twitter posts of Russian tanks stuck in Ukrainian mud became instant metaphors for Russia's larger failures.
Just this month, weeks into protests over the death of Mahsa Amini in custody for what Iran's "morality police" deemed inappropriate dress, the Iranian women's basketball team removed their mandatory hijabs and posted an unveiled team picture on Instagram with the slogan "Woman Life Freedom." Their protest quickly took off on Twitter.
"Courage is contagious," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a tweet that had nearly 58,000 likes and 10,000 retweets. "Another cultural earthquake," tweeted Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, from women fighting "the main pillar of a gender apartheid regime."
Deborah Brown, who studies digital rights and technology at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said there has long been concern over how Musk's purchase of Twitter could affect people who use the global platform "to express themselves, to organize, to hold powerful actors to account, and to document human rights abuses."
After Musk took over, Brown moderated a Twitter Spaces talk called "Bad for Human Rights, Good for China and Saudi Rulers?" Twitter has offered a rare opportunity for self-expression in China, HRW senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang wrote recently, but Musk's business interests there could make him vulnerable to government pressure. As for Saudi Arabia, when the Twitter deal closed last month, the second largest shareholder after Musk was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz.
More from Jill Lawrence: If our political and legal systems worked, there wouldn't be a Donald Trump 2024 campaign
Musk has already shown he can get in trouble all on his own. He enraged Ukrainian leaders by proposing – via tweet, of course – what he no doubt considered his nifty ideas to end Russia's war on Ukraine. He put out the welcome mat for Trump. And now he's offering "a general amnesty" to suspended accounts, a move safety experts view as extremely dangerous.
I don't have nearly as much to lose as others if Twitter collapses, but I love it and care about its fate. Why? It's not just because I hope for companionship when I'm 90. Twitter is where someone who read a column I wrote on TV escapism told me (correctly) that I should try "Ted Lasso." It's where I discovered that Morgan Fairchild is an eagle-eyed curator of liberal content, and that I have an unexpected mind meld with Never-Trump conservatives.
'Don't cede the commons'
Many have characterized Twitter as a hellscape of hate. What I’ve experienced is more like what political scientist Norman Ornstein described in a touching Oct. 30 thread. Both of us were pulled into Twitter by editors who told us we had to promote ourselves and our work. And once we got there, as Ornstein put it, we found inspiring content, a place to vent and, most of all, community.
In Ornstein's words: “A place where I could be candid about my own traumas, including the loss of my son, & be surrounded by warmth and love. I could tweet about my dog lost in downtown DC and have 28,000 people respond, both with sympathy and calls to help keep a lookout to find him.”
Some people argue that it’s complicit to stay on Twitter at this point. Others act like it's about to hit an iceberg. "Happy to get a starred review in Publishers Weekly before Twitter dies," Claire Jiminez tweeted of her debut novel.
Is it time to leave Twitter?: Can we just be honest? Let's ghost social media and the billionaires who run it.
More often, especially among high-volume users with followings that range from tens of thousands to several million, there are those who – like me – agree with cookbook author Mollie Katzen. “Staying here is a form of resistance. Don’t cede the commons,” she tweeted the day after Trump was reinstated.
"I'm continuing to use this site until it dies on me or becomes useless. Are people still here? Anyone?" I asked Nov. 17 after mass resignations at Twitter. We were. And we are. So far.
Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
More from Jill Lawrence:
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Twitter under Musk could mean Trump and chaos, but I'm staying for now