Now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, does this portend the downfall of western civilization? The Internet’s Favourite Dad, Stewart Reynolds, AKA Brittlestar, thinks The Kids Today won’t put up with this shit the way Gen-X and the Boomers do. Want to know more? Listen to the full podcast:
From smoke signals to blowing smoke: The wild ride of social media by Amber Healy
There was a time, not that long ago, when people didn’t have the ability to immediately tell the whole world every little thought that popped into their head. People couldn’t share a photo of a pretty sunset, or a cute puppy, or what they were having for dinner, with the click of a button on their phone, in part because their phones were used to call people, not connect digitally to the world.
The world before social media was a different place. We socialized in person. Media was books and movies and TV.
Social media, undoubtedly, has become many things to many people in the past few years, especially during the pandemic when our in-person social interactions were somewhat limited. (That’s both for better and for worse, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss or explore today.)
We’re on the precipice of a potentially massive change in at least one social media platform, but before moving forward into what might be a hellscape in an already pretty ugly environment, have you ever wondered how social media started in the first place?
Here’s a quick review:
Let’s go back to 1844. A man sitting in a room perfected a method for communicating across long distances, utilizing a tool that allowed information to travel much faster than via mail. Samuel Morse, sitting in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.used a series of long and short taps on a communications wire, sending a message almost 40 miles (64 kilometers) to Baltimiore, Maryland. His immediate thought, conveyed by that first Morse code telegram, spoke volumes in its simplicity: “What hath God wrought?”
Morse code transitioned from its own mode of communication to telegram service quickly, with Western Union building its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, 10 years after the company started. That development was single-handedly responsible for killing the Pony Express, a surprisingly short-lived endeavor considering the footprint it had on culture and old Western movies.
Telegrams were incredible tools for their time. It notified people of their loved ones’ deaths in several wars, hand delivered to worried families by uniformed men, carrying them solemn news.They conveyed, in those same eras, word of surrender, of victory, of triumph and of disaster, in equal measure. News of marriages and births, along with the score of baseball games, stock market prices, just about any information that could now be tweeted or posted, was delivered in dots and dashes.
Western Union, synonymous with telegram service in the United States, shut down its telegram operation in early 2006; the last traditional telegram system shuttered its services in July 2014 when India’s Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited pulled the plug.
Oddly, you can still send something akin to a telegram thanks to companies like iTelegram (to the United States: $19 for up to 20 words for a mailgram that takes three to five days to deliver; $34 plus 75 cents per word for priority delivery within 24 hours); this might be service worth considering for serving someone court documents or other important, dated legal correspondence. And yes, there’s the social media app Telegram, the cloud-based international messaging service that provides messaging as well as voice call options.
If you want to get technical about it, or like technology that doesn’t seem like technology at all, you can argue that smoke signals and codes transmitted through light reflected off mirrors both predated any kind of formal messaging system or language like Morse code, but those tools required the senders and receivers to understand and share the same code. Otherwise it was just, literally, smoke and mirrors.
We’re interested in technology here, so let’s get back to it. In 1969, the U.S. government launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, ARPANET, for use by the Department of Defense to share software, hardware and data at four select universities. That led to the development of the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET in 1987, and the launch of the first social media platform in 1997: SixDegrees.com. Around the same time, we were introduced to AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy, featuring chatrooms and other communications tools that allowed people in different cities or countries to instantly send messages to each other. (Let’s be honest: If you were in college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you were sending messages to your friends across the hall or in the same room because it was fun and easier than getting up and walking the 10 steps from your desk to the door.)
From there it was a quick jump to Friendster (2002), which led the way for MySpace (2003) and, later, Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006).
And then came the slow dissolution of civil discourse and the growth in accusations of fake news, hand-in-hand with the wildfire spread of misinformation. But that, too, is a research project for another day.
Where are we now?
We’re waiting to see if Elon Musk, the ultimate techbro, will go through with this threatened/forced purchase of Twitter.
A quick timeline:
In March, Musk, the brilliant (admittedly) and wild (c’mon) mind behind PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, reached out to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey about the future of social media; the next day he makes it clear he’s interested in buying the company, or maybe joining the board, or maybe starting his own company that would directly compete with Twitter. Or maybe all of the above in some combination. He’d already purchased in excess of 5% of available Twitter stock.
Another week later, on April 4, Musk has upped the ante and now owns a 9.2% stake in Twitter, worth $2.89 billion.
The next day, Twitter makes Musk a director of the company until at least 2024.
The next week, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal says nope, Musk is not joining the board, sorry dude.
Unhappy and wanting more, Musk announces on April 14 he’ll just buy the whole company for $43 billion.
The next day, April 15 (aka tax day in the United States, for what it’s worth), Twitter announces a so-called poison pill move to block his hostile takeover.
A week later, April 21, Musk says he’d be pursuing the Twitter purchase without any equity partners.
On April 25, Twitter relents and agrees to allow Musk to purchase the company, but he’d have to be personally responsible for half of the financing of the $44 billion deal.
The first big hurdle: May 10, Musk says he’s going to be a so-called free speech advocate and his first order of business would be to reverse Twitter’s ban of the most recent former president.
May 14, Musk learns the deal is temporarily on hold after he allegedly asked to learn more about the company’s statement that 5% or less of all accounts are bots/spam/not run by real people. When the company’s current CEO lays it all out online, Musk, the consummate businessman and professional, replies with the poop emoji. No words, just 💩.
Three days later, after first suggesting he might be able to buy the company for less, Musk says the deal can’t move forward until he gets better accounting of fake accounts.
By June 3, the Securities and Exchange Commission says the sale can move forward if Twitter’s board approves it; on June 6 Musk counters, saying he has the right to back out of the deal if he wants to.
Musk meets with Twitter employees on June 16, again touting his idea of being a free speech advocate.
July 8, he again tries to blow up the deal, saying Twitter failed to meet its obligations.
July 12, Twitter turns the tables, suing Musk and attempting to force him into buying the company.
July 18, Twitter makes a statement saying Musk’s attempt to derail the sale is one failure after another. Now we’re in court.
On August 22, Musk calls on Dorsey to provide documentation to support his effort to end his takeover, filed in a Delaware court.
September 13, Twitter’s stakeholders vote to approve the $44 billion sale. Musk is still in court, remember.
On October 4, Musk says he wants to seal the deal along the lines of the original merger proposal of $54.20 per share.
Will he or won’t he? Will this forced marriage be a success? Can it survive? Can we?
As it happens, the case is back in court this week, with hearings slated for October 17. Get the popcorn ready and grab your smart device to livetweet the proceedings.