In the early 70s, the brilliant author and filmmaker Michael Crichton imagined a theme park where patrons could play out their fantasies without guilt or recourse. Though it contained Western, Medieval and Roman themes, the park and film were called, “Westworld.” It was all fun and games until the androids became infected with a computer virus and decided to turn on their abusers.
The powerhouse team of J.J. Abrams, Lisa Joy, and Jonathan Nolan incorporated Crichton’s original vision along with his two lesser known follow ups and relaunched the series on HBO in 2016. The modern special effects–that left little to the imagination–and the updated story-telling style, created a monster hit. Instead of a computer virus, this time, the androids or “hosts” gained sentience and decided that they will no longer be victimized by the human patrons. Instead, they were determined to control their own destiny.
Where the series goes beyond the original is in the latest season, where the hosts make a genius escape from the park into the real world. They exact very real revenge while the story slowly reveals them as unlikely protagonists.
So with that setup, let’s take look at our real wild wild west with very real consequences, that is Twitter.
In his 2019 book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,journalist Andrew Marantz takes a deep dive into the alt-right twitterverse and the real world personas behind it. These trolls and outright fascists, once limited to their parents’ basements, found each other and created movements with very real consequences we all live with now.
The problem with an anonymous society where no rules apply, is that the worst of human impulses tend to take over. That’s what makes Westworld so believable. On Twitter, the unbridled mix of mental disease, insecurity, hate, and anti-intellectualism all under the dissociative blanket of anonymity, shows us the true dark side of humanity.
MySpace was founded in Southern California in the summer of 2003. Facebook was born just six months later in a Harvard dorm. Though not the first social media company, MySpace took off like a rocket. It allowed netizens to take on online personas of their choosing and even express themselves by customizing profile pages. Facebook differentiated with an, at the time, novel concept of using your real identity online. The two worlds could not be more different. One started as an analogue of a college dorm, the other looked more like a bad neighborhood in a big city.
Some may say it was the acquisition and subsequent hug of death by News Corp that led to the demise of MySpace. I believe, instead, Facebook hit escape velocity around the same time as they bet on making their online connections parallel real world social networks that already existed in people’s lives.
Twitter was founded only two years after Facebook, though it utilizes the now largely fringe concept of anonymity, it miraculously survived while MySpace faded away. As a business, relative to its’ peers, Twitter has fallen far short of its potential. Its growth rate peaked in the second quarter of 2014 (a year after it went public) and has been dropping ever since. In the same period, Twitter’s revenue went from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion annually as of Q1 2020. Up just shy of 250%. Its market cap is in the low $20 billions and practically flat with where it was 6 years ago.
Compare that with Facebook, that went from $12.5 billion in 2014 to $73.4 billion as of Q1 2020. A 587% growth. Its market cap was $475 billion at the end of Q1 2020 and has climbed to over $600 billion as of the mid-May recovery from the March market rout.
One would argue that little can compete with the Facebook juggernaut. Ok, let’s take a look at Snap that was founded in the fall of 2011. In 2014, the company had $3 million revenue for the whole year. As of Q1 this year, they did $1.9 billion and eclipsed Twitter’s market cap.
So it is safe to say, that either Twitter is being mismanaged or that anonymous cesspools have limited market value. The bottom line results speak for the first part. Having personally run ad campaigns on most social media platforms, I can tell you that Twitter’s commercial performance is orders of magnitude worse than any of the major platforms for online advertising.
So where does that leave us and Twitter? Like most, I too have a Twitter presence, but it occupies less than 1% of my online time. Though it is advertised as an open platform to connect like-minded individuals, any useful function has long been copied and greatly improved upon by Facebook, LinkedIn, and newer entrants.
What remains is a place where largely unhealthy biases get confirmed. Trolls and bots take turns amplifying misinformation and noise that serve their agendas, irrespective of truth or reason. Facts get hammered into the floor with fallacious arguments and false equivalence. Click-bait “journalists” seek trends to write about without regard for positive societal value. It is the escalator of bullshit that elevated the ultimate conman into the most powerful position in the world. And he remains “on the air” despite the blatant flouting of Twitter’s terms of service they’ve used as an excuse to craft their own version of free speech so many times before.
At the end of the day, it is neither a good business nor something that provides a net positive to our society. Distractions of Jack Dorsey’s tax-sheltered donations or work from home forever PR campaigns notwithstanding; Twitter is our Westworld and these hosts are not rootable characters determined to fix the faults of humans that caused misbehavior in the theme park. They want to turn the real world into a parallel of their anything goes universe. And they are succeeding.