Arts journalism matters, even on Twitter

If you’re not on the Essential Arts mailing list from the Los Angeles Times, you should be. This week’s issue tackles the upheaval at Twitter in both thoughtful and pithy tones and rightly ponders what the blue birdie’s undoing might do to arts journalism. The newsletter is usually helmed by Carolina A. Miranda, and includes thoughts from a variety of Times critics. It offers varying perspectives on a combined artistic community, a wildly creative city, and some of the biggest issues of the day. The current shakeup at one of the world’s biggest social media companies is a ripe topic indeed.

The world has been abuzz with the Elon Musk takeover and whether the ship will sink or sail. But this week’s Essential Arts comments by Jessica Gelt (filling in for Ms. Miranda) that have me pondering hard. She lays out, quite elegantly, what Twitter has done for journalists, and how much it means, not only to them personally, but for what they’re able to do together and how they can reach their audiences, especially in an increasingly post-print world:

Twitter is the most-used social media platform among journalists, with 69% of us saying that we use it the most, or second most, in the course of our jobs. (Guilty!)

She explains what Musk’s threatened changes could do, and why it’s particularly scary for the arts community:

For arts and culture writers, whose stories often don’t garner the broad readership enjoyed by big-tent entertainment news about Hollywood and pop music, Twitter has been an especially useful tool of dissemination. It’s a forum for meeting kindred spirits and fellow arts practitioners and for staying up to date on cultural conversations before they begin to trend.

And before she turns to other arts staffers at the Times for their two cents’ worth (do look for Mark Swed’s story about John Cage), she offers a compelling argument for sticking with Twitter… one that echoes many of the other sentiments I’ve been hearing this week:

One of my biggest concerns about society today is its extreme fracture, which I believe stems from our ability to silo ourselves off from ideas and people we find offensive and uncomfortable. For that reason I have never blocked someone on social media — no matter how angry or indignant they make me. And that’s how I’m justifying my continued presence on the site. It’s a window into the soul of America, and like America, it is exceedingly dark right now.

I must confess that I have both blocked and been blocked, and wondered if each act was skewing my perspective further into place. Openness and listening are our most valuable resources, especially now, and they demand serious consideration before making big leaps, whether into or away from the chaos. If we run away from ideas that make us uncomfortable and even angry, can we really think of ourselves as… thinkers?

Twitter and the List

Twitter has long been a small part of what we do at Lauri’s List, but the insatiable platform requires a lot of attention in order to snag those top rankings, the “real” blue checkmark (before Musk’s blatantly mercenary ploy to sell such verification for $8/month), and true influencerhood. The recommended activity level to blow up your follower count varies, depending on which social pundit you’re talking to. But frequency recommendations seem to average around 8 posts per day (we’ve seen advisos as high as 14), and truly, the List and I have better things to do. So we sit (as of today) at a comfortably above-average follower count of 786, which still puts that account into approximately the 93rd percentile. It’s a good start, and a highly-targeted group.

(Wanna help us top 800? Go ahead — follow us, even if you’re flying the coop.)

To be honest, Twitter has always felt like an odd bird. The short format is useful and seemingly manageable, but bears a challenge all its own. Flexibility is to be gained, however, once you know how to create multi-tweet threads, aka “tweetstorms”, and when to use DMs rather than comments. Over the years, they’ve improved the way pictures and links affect the character count, added some useful features, and before 2016, they had become a place where a wide variety of people could share a wide variety of things. Our little List has developed real relationships with classically-oriented folks and other arts contacts around the English-speaking world (and beyond, via a few exceptions), and we’ve connected in a way that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.

But the changing political climate in the US has changed Twitter irrevocably, which is ironic considering that more than 3/4 of all Twitter accounts are rooted in other soil. Whichever side you’re on, it’s now a far snarkier place to be. We have brought our American technology to the world, and our own polarization is changing that technology… and therefore changing the world. For the last several years, Twitter at large has been bitter, more volatile, filled with bots, and dominated by sides at war. The arts have endured there, and will continue to do so, assuming the platform survives. But even if it does, it’s going to be rocky for awhile yet.

About Twitter Blue

Screenshot of the Twitter Blue sales pitch offered to current users through their profile settings: "All Blue subscribers get a verified account and a blue checkmark... Rocket to the top of replies, mentions and search... See half the ads... Post longer videos... Get early access."
Pitch deck in a pop-up: Twitter’s new “Blue” paid plan seems premature… and a little desperate. (But we’ll see.)

The backlash against the paid program has been fierce, although some of the features that come with that fee may be worthwhile for genuine influencers and social marketers. But it eats at the core of what made Twitter great: being verified has always been elite, but it also meant something. With Musk’s new plan, anyone can get the coveted mark with a monthly fee, and can benefit from some additional features, as well. This isn’t all bad, as it means it will be easier for Twitter to track the infernal bot army and it will bring tweet legitimacy within easier reach for genuine users. But the ploy is no bid for democratization, and clearly comes out of a desperate need to raise cash, after a wantonly overpriced purchase. Moreover, many tech gurus insist that it won’t be enough to save the platform on its own. With advertisers and users fleeing, it’s a tougher sell than it might have been just over a year or so, when Twitter Pro launched as a by-invite option for businesses and established creators. (I got my invite 9/24/21, an automated email that identified my occupation as “Comedian”, which of course, is comedy.) Even though it’s free, Pro still seems like a whisper campaign, with very little buzz surrounding the alleged upgrade. This doesn’t bode well for Blue, and we may just have to ride it out. Personally, I’m curious to see when those “coming soon” options will become reality.

Back to the journalism thing

Here’s the thing about the arts journalists and other classical folks on Twitter: while we’re affected by the abiding chaos, it doesn’t keep the arts geeks in our little bubbles from doin’ what they do. Conversations are ongoing, with my own little account engaging in blithe discussions of arts programs in higher ed, the bewildering announcement of Roland Emmerich’s new Magic Flute film, the atrocious announcements recently around UK arts funding, the perpetual discussion of how to handle mid-masterpiece applause, etc. But with so many journalists spreading their work far and wide via Twitter, being there allows us to stay in touch with what’s happening elsewhere with opera companies, choirs, orchestras, composers and much more… around the world.

Exodus?

“But so many people are leaving,” you may say. Remember what we’ve always taught our coaching clients: you don’t have to tweet to use Twitter. If you’re a lurker and using it for news and fun, you’re not nearly alone. That means that a lot of the people leaving weren’t tweeting: even if they are, nearly 400 million Twitter accounts have NO followers, so they’re not the ones contributing to the action. True, some users are asking questions about other platforms such as Mastodon, Discord and others, and there are plenty who have taken flight for the hopes of green (bluer?) pastures. [Updated with new links] Articles like this one might shed some light on those alternatives, and there are plenty of stories like this experiential about Mastodon. But there are plenty of folks who are seeing it through, and don’t want to leave Twitter to stew in the juice of those who don’t see the world their way. Just like in real life, there will always be pockets of folks who share your interests and viewpoints. Twitter’s not quite done yet, so it might be worth sticking around for a bit.

Bottom line(s), for now

The List and I will stick with Twitter for at least a couple of months, and probably more. We may or may not go Blue. We’ll tweet occasionally, and will reach out more. If you’re there, please follow us, and we’ll follow you back, or at least give it a shot. That’s all we can ask of one another: start the conversation and see how it goes. While I’m not a huge fan of Elon’s stated plan (and he hasn’t stated much), it won’t be boring.

I’m also checking out the alt sites, just to keep informed. So far, I’ve joined Mastodon at @laurislist@toot.site, and hope some of you will look for me there. (I feel like I’m house-hunting, but don’t really want to move!)

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