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WIRED has written frequently of late about Elon Musk’s Twitter, so forgive me for coming back to it—but for those of us as terminally online as I am, let me just ask: What the hell happened last weekend?
I woke up on Sunday morning to learn that Twitter was going to block all mentions of, or links to, “competing” services, from Instagram to Facebook, to Linktree of all places. It was claimed to be about “preventing free advertising” of the platform’s competitors and to “cut down on spam.” Of course, anyone with two neurons to rub together could tell that this was a cover story—you don’t need a journalist to tell you that—and the great link ban was mainly about stemming the flow of active and popular users to other platforms while controlling speech in the name of Musk’s mission to [checks notes] … protect free speech.
What was essentially a small online riot ensued, with Twitter users from all corners decrying the new policy. Within hours, not only had the company backtracked, but all mentions of the less-than-day-old policy had been scrubbed from Twitter feeds and the company website. It was a whirlwind for anyone who was online to see it. (Although if you missed it, I wouldn’t say you missed it, if you know what I mean.)
But I’m not here to speculate on the true motives behind Sunday’s whiplash; I don’t think that’s helpful. After all, intention and impact are separate things. Regardless of someone’s intention when they hit you in the face, they’ve still hit you in the face. Now you have to deal with the situation that they’ve created. So my thoughts instead turn—and I hope yours will also—to the people impacted by the weekend’s policy change. Those Twitter users who spent Sunday wondering whether the platform they used and trusted to find and promote their work, make connections with others in their field, and in many cases, rely on for income, would allow them to continue.
When we at WIRED talk about “platforms and power,” this is what we’re talking about. Of course, any steward of any platform, whether it’s a CEO, founder, or middle manager, has the unenviable job of setting and enforcing the policies and guidelines for that platform’s safe and legal use. That’s not in question. Without such rules, online spaces can go bad fast. What is an issue is when those platforms choose to actively harm their users through policy decisions, and when those changes are large enough to force users to either adapt or abandon ship.
Let me explain: I’m lucky enough to know a lot of creatives as well as a lot of journalists and tech workers. When I woke up on Sunday to the news, it was delivered to me by tweets from artists terrified they’d be banned from Twitter for linking to their own portfolios and to platforms where they accept commissions for their artwork. I read horror stories from authors who were terrified that the Linktrees their publishers asked them to create to promote their books, reviews, and Goodreads profiles were suddenly bannable offenses on Twitter.
My friends on Twitch interrupted their streams to discuss the news, worried that they wouldn’t be able to tweet to announce they were starting a new stream, or add a link to their Twitter bio to help viewers find them. All of these things created the potential for lost income for people who, I would argue, need it more than the folks who made these policy decisions. After all, these same creators have the kind of disruptive, entrepreneurial spirit that everyone in Silicon Valley claims to want to foster and empower.