“Software is more than just a commodity, it replicates itself. When it is decentralized, it becomes a means of production all its own,” a friend of mine professed, with a slight drunken slur, amidst gulps of warm Pabst. He was an organizer who had been lured to socialism through open-source programming: he was a nerd at heart, and it was the collectively built code of Linux that showed him that something outside capitalism was possible.
Software is itself a product like any other, created to drive sales and profit, scraped together from surplus value. But it can also create other commodities, other pieces of software, even to the point of self-replication through Artificial Intelligence. So it was, in essence, another kind of rupture, one that Marx could not have foreseen when writing Capital, but in line with the growth of an inherent contradiction in capitalism.
Capital drives towards its own accelerating accumulation for the ruling class, but in doing so it creates certain ruptures that, if exploited, could collapse the system entirely and return control to those whose labor capital is being siphoned from. As Marx wrote, that power was in the wage relationship, the model by which a worker provides their labor for a set chunk of the surplus profits the employer receives. It is a barbaric system of toil, where a worker is alienated from the value they create: they chug along making useful products, and the value encased within them is passed along to someone outside the labor used to make them. But that worker, by virtue of that role, has a secret weapon: they can withhold labor, striking and flipping the script. The ruling class has capital, but the working class has people, the origin point of that capital. Within these relationships are the seeds of a new, revolutionary type of society. It was just a matter of time.
But a hundred and fifty years later we are still waiting, and it seems like we have missed our chance. Those countries claiming to represent Marx’s vision are either history, or they are recuperators of the worst excesses of capital. Unionization is almost at an all-time low. We are entering a new Gilded Age of widening income inequality, falling real wages, expanding workforce precarity, crushing debt, and cascading houselessness. The point of Marx’s vision was not just that the working class could usher in a new world, it’s that they would, it was our future. Commit to the vision, let the contradictions become a weapon, wield it against the employing class.
But what that drunk computer programmer suggested was just one example of that same vulnerability envisioned in the wage relationship, expanded to new, cybernetic terrains. What if the producers of software refused to produce? What if they created software that undid the work that capital had made to dominate markets? What if software took down the tech world?[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
This is not a bit of unnecessary tech utopianism. You don’t need to be a primitivist to see that technology is not inherently neutral. It holds, within it, the structures of ruling class ideologies, including the same hierarchies and bifurcations that went into creating it. But what it also carries with it is contradictions, which are just as endemic to the commodity system. What was once called Web 2.0, and of which social media is the largest and most ubiquitous, is based on an Internet where users generate the content that give the platforms their value. Unlike a television channel whose content emerges from the genius of the reality show writers and focus groups, platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter hold value because we collectively generate content, some good and most less so, to give it value. That is a form of recuperation: we seek to be individuals, they seek to sell it back to us.
But it holds contradictions as well. During the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, Twitter played a primary role in organizing mass uprisings, keeping activists on the ground abreast of news and coordinating actions. In 2011, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali escaped his country as protests inspired by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi raged. When reporters were barred from coverage, Tunisians turned to Facebook and Twitter and created the channels necessary to continue the struggle. The same became true for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, sparking the Arab Spring, and the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013. This inspired the term "Twitter Revolution,” where radical change was made possible by maintaining "information cascades," giving people options for public action, and the visibility to see others taking a stand.
In 2020, as protests raged around America following the killing of George Floyd, Portland was embroiled in over 100 days of nightly protest. Each day I would pop onto Twitter, following hashtags and activist accounts, to the daily announcement of the time and location of the protest. This followed the fluid dynamics of the social movement that was forming on the ground, which was not bound to a particular organization and had to constantly change its plans to avoid police repression.[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
Twitter is, like many companies, interested not only in their profits. They also, in creating a system where they are able to exploit the labor of their staff with impunity, completely eradicate any sense of control employees hope to have over their work and working conditions – a good example of this was forcing staff into the office despite their work easily done remotely. But, nonetheless, people have turned to it for years as a tool to aid uprisings. Anytime I enter a protest space, Twitter is still often the first place I check: I can use hashtags to track the movements of crowds (and police), see meet-up spots, share information quickly, and share media work. This is, decidedly, not what the Twitter of today is designed for, but it is what is possible.
Much of the tech that has become not just ubiquitous but ominous, has a shadow side that provides a window into what could be. Uber and AirBnB reveal one of the darkest parts of the modern life of a worker: jobs are so precarious that you have to rent out your car and home, day by day, to simply get by. These tech companies are not in the business of the business they are in: AirBnB does not rent property and Uber does not lease cars. Instead, their product is the methods of decentralized coordination, the ability to arrange complex supply chains to get large masses of people things they need quickly and efficiently.
But what if precarious employment was not what they were used for? What if the kind of software that powers AirBnB or Uber were used to coordinate homes and travel sharing for people in the model of a “gift economy”? What would communization look like built on the same tech used to sell off our autonomy? A decentralized, socialized economic world would likely look largely like ride- and housing-shares, ways that people could collaborate and deliver on the various needs that people have, with the technology itself taking on some of the most onerous and stifling pieces of this work. Programs like Spotify have shown what it would look like to digitize and create a pathway to mass availability for media, something that could only have been dreamed of when anarchists were first thinking up radical libraries. Part of the problem with Spotify, that it centralizes music and underpays performers, is endemic to Spotify as a capitalist enterprise, not in what it could become if it was be used in an entirely new social context. What would it mean to “overheat” these programs, to bring them in the service of a post-capitalist vision, to build up mass, international networks of mutual aid? What would it look like if we ran them?
The futurist utopians out there point to the usefulness of such programs as examples of the tech-rich economy lifting all boats. But that fails the smell test. The issue was never what technology was available, but about who owned the means to make that technology. There is nothing liberatory about an app. It’s about who has control over it, how they use it, and how that changes the balance of power. What’s visible in these small bits of imagining, and those live-tweeted clips of revolutionary moments, is an example of a contradiction, a growing dialectic where capitalism builds in its own undoing as it barrels down the anarchic pathway to more and more accumulated wealth. But none of that means anything if it is not exploited.
In the last few weeks I have lost hundreds of Twitter followers. At first I assumed it was my failed attempts at gallows humor, but the reality is that people have simply had enough. After Elon Musk purchased the platform and turned it into a zoo, more and more people felt like they could no longer participate in good conscience. It’s hard to argue with them: harassment has increased exponentially, it has become a wasteland of pain and abuse, and it’s hardly where I would go to feel empowered day-to-day. Recent tech foibles, likely emerging from Musk’s fumbling of basic organizational protocols, will only serve to accelerate this departure or to leave many journalists without a stable venue for sharing their work.
While I understand leaving because of your own subjective intolerance for its cruelties, it is hardly a useful political act on its own. Leaving Twitter does little to change Twitter or to strike a blow against tech companies. Our own personal behavior, in its isolation, does little to change systems of power. No more than veganism shuts down factory farms or not shopping at Amazon brings down the leviathan, leaving Twitter, one at a time, is not a strategic blow against Elon Musk. If millions upon millions left at once, essentially going on strike creators as in the Web 2.0 factory, that could issue a change, but we are not seeing the coordination, consciousness, or desire to make that feasible. Instead, we must see what Twitter is: a contradiction to exploit.[book-strip index="3" style="buy"]
Leaving Twitter for platforms like Mastodon neglects what made Twitter useful to anyone in the first place – namely that it is a “mass platform.” It is used by both regular people and celebrities, journalists, and politicians, and a person can, at least in theory, accumulate a large following before being validated by conventional media companies. This has helped activists across the left build up audiences, but not only them. The far-right did the same thing, and it was exactly large-scale platforms like these that allowed the alt-right to grow.
For good and for evil, it is a mass platform, and, despite their possible virtues, the alternatives are not. Mastodon has seemed to do what sites like Ello never were successful at riding the anger at Musk into taking their previously “alternative” platform into the realm of mass usage. But, despite how widespread it may become, it will not replace Twitter. Twitter’s ubiquity was over a decade in the making. While Mastodon surpassed 2.5 million users by the end of 2022, it remains only a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly half a billion people who use Twitter at least once a month. (Mastodon will probably just become a new place where people will frantically syndicate their social media content, though perhaps more pleasantly than Twitter.)
The fact that Twitter and other social media platforms are mass systems is not a testament to their glories, in fact, it's a statement of their atrociousness. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The same might be true of commodities, systems, and technology. Twitter is, by its very nature, a loathsome place to exist, where argument is taken to its ugliest conclusion, humanity is usually stripped, and harassment and meanness is auctioned off for likes and retweets. We don’t join it because we like it. The exploitation of its contradiction is the entire reason we came in the first place. If you enter into a social media platform in hopes that it will provide personal fulfillment, you will likely be let down immediately since they are software designed to mimic human intersections while fostering the worst versions of interpersonal emotionality. The attempts to create more ethical and enjoyable social media platforms have largely been unsuccessful precisely because they could not reach the point of mass adoption that the introduction of capital supports, which, as mentioned, gets right to why places like Twitter are such a nightmare.[book-strip index="4" style="buy"]
In the past few weeks Twitter has further descended into a right-wing cesspool, as the use of slurs skyrocketed, antifascist and journalistic accounts were banned, and “the Jews” have continued to be a trending topic. Queer communities report a rapid increase in harassment on the platform, and Musk has ensured that Twitter will become a scion for a right dedicated to “defeating wokeness” by presenting its previous life as the center of the culture war and setting up former Twitter executives to be badgered by politicians. This is a bad sign, and no one should be forced to undergo the culture of abuse. The reality is that Twitter is a dangerous and volatile space, one that has become increasingly vile and the future of its seem even bleaker. The question is if there is still uses for Twitter, and the answer is only yes if we can manipulate that technology as cynically as Musk does.
So we cannot expect anything from Twitter other than what we have seen, and it needs a strategic and intentional response. This means defense against the far-right who also see it as an opportunity, a personal barrier between the platform and our own lives, and to think through what we hope to actually achieve from it. This does not demand secession from it, but expropriation: by finding a way of controlling it we try to take the reins of its decentralized, networking possibilities and mobilize them for something else.
We will never be able to operate Twitter in our own image since it is a publicly traded company whose ruling stakeholders dictate its future. But just as in any place where we organize for power, like workplaces, apartment complexes, and elsewhere, we can figure out points of organized pressure that balances the platform more in our favor and increases our power to exploit it. We don’t want it to be a more just and equal place, we want it to be a website we can manipulate for our own ends because we never expected it to be anything else.
Unless Twitter completely collapses under Musk’s incompetence, the structure of it and its relationship to the larger culture still gives us some strategic options. Hashtags and tweet popularity still allows for some types of “culture jamming,” to help shift media coverage on an issue, to sink in new narratives, and to raise up campaigns. Since public figures, such as CEOs and business leaders, still use it, “social media storms” remain a viable tactic, where public shaming through mass tweets and comments can still have an effect when used as part of a bigger pressure campaign. A pressure campaign is not just based on building real, material and economic pressure, it is also about ensuring that a target feels that pressure. Mobilizing social media against a CEO or politician often forces them into a precarious and emotionally volatile experience, thus invoking the pressure we need. Additionally, independent media still gains a foothold, and radical creators are building audiences, channels, and entirely new publications relying on the Twitter algorithm to reach people.
But most importantly, even with Musk’s entry, ever more cracks in the system have emerged. Musk pushed for a change in the rules for “verified accounts.” Previously relegated only to those who could prove their worthiness, he changed the Blue Check award to be something you could purchase, and Twitter was subsequently flooded with parody accounts claiming to be large organizations, governments, and companies. “We just overthrew the government of Brazil” tweeted out one account claiming to be Chiquita. A verified Nestle account tweeted “We steal your water and sell it back to you lol.” This form of culture jamming disrupted a great number of organizations, breaking Musk’s claim to legitimacy in the eyes of his corporate allies. After the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly had an account made in its name and suggested that its healthcare products would be now free, the actual company backed away on that claim and then pulled their advertising from Twitter. Since Musk’s takeover Twitter has lost around 100 of their major advertisers. The mass resignations and firings are also becoming a very public statement to the efficacy of labor actions, particularly now that Musk has to walk back his abusive explosions and beg for workers who know how the product works to stick around (since Musk has absolutely no viable skills).[book-strip index="5" style="buy"]
Since then, things have only gotten worse as various attempts to modernize Twitter, such as the new focus on video or the paid subscription options, seem to hold little connection to what Twitter’s actual appeal is. Just like is happening at Instagram, the new direction of the company seems completely detached from why people used in the first place, revealing an implicit assumption that Twitter’s use is so fragile that only “innovation” will save it. The reality is that people are continuing to rely on Twitter, not for these new features, but for what they have always used it for: to opportunistically promote the things they need promoted.
Just as when the factory worker uses the factory itself as a weapon against their boss, finding a way of using Twitter to target Musk specifically is the best possible revenge. And it is possible if we think of first how to build a campaign that can effectively target Musk and his various claims to wealth and then, second, figure out what role social media (and Twitter specifically) can have in it. Perhaps a mass Twitter blackout or boycott will have an effect, but only when it is adopted at a mass, organized scale, driven by real organizing goals hinging on demands and a determined set of effective tactics. Without that, we are simply refusing to participate, assuming that our personal preferences will lead to political results.
I don’t want to leave Twitter. I don’t even want to save Twitter. I want to wield it like a weapon against those who made it a cesspool to begin with.
Shane Burley is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021), and the editor of No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis (AK Press, 2022). His work has appeared in places like NBC News, Al Jazeera, Jewish Currents, The Daily Beast, Jacobin, The Independent, The Baffler and The Oregon Historical Quarterly.