i find a good philosophical exercise to imagine the last tweet. Centuries may come when one cryptobot longs for another cryptobot, or in 2025, when Donald Trump, the new president-elect, presses the big Electromagnetic Pulse button on the Decisive table. Or it could happen in a few months when Elon Musk realizes there’s no use in human despair, regrets turning his electric clown car into a social media goat rodeo, and shuts things down with a single “lol.” (The way to own books.) And then? Are we all going to switch to some Twitter makeover like Mastodon, hundreds of millions and destroy that too? oh
Lately, it seems like the last tweet could come any day. The entire technology industry—by which I mean the group of companies that sell products powered by code to billions of people—is in an extraordinary slump. The Zuckerverse is anything but users, which means Meta has to find increasingly creative ways to destroy Instagram and/or the community. Microsoft, Amazon, Google – their stock charts look like Niagara Falls in profile. At least 3 trillion dollars have been spent on cataracts per barrel. When your brand is in endless development, investors don’t like to see it fail. It’s possible to imagine a day when not just the last tweet exists, but only as a multi-exabyte ZIP file in Facebook’s archive, or when Googling becomes an interactive exhibit at the Museum of Internet History.
Of course, really huge things—on the scale of social media platforms, religions, and nation-states—don’t really die. They deflate like air mattresses, soften in corners and sometimes wake you up to pump them up. The institutions that dominated my childhood, AT&T and the Soviet Union, seemed to suddenly give up the ghost. There was joy: Now a million new innovative companies can flourish! Now democracy will spread everywhere! Both were stripped for parts, which were eventually transformed into new, gigantic shapes, like beads of mercury found on a plate. The relaunched AT&T bought many things, including Time Warner, giving it control over both pipelines and content. Ex-USSR, well… There’s always someone with a fantasy of getting the band together, even if the consequences are dire.
Like many of you, I have looked at this changing world and found the changes quite rough to see. Decline, authoritarianism, nuclear derangement, weird climates—they unfold as unbidden on tape as when Apple put on U2. Songs of innocence on everyone’s iTunes without asking. I am sure that when future historians write books about this period, they will choose titles like theirs Broken, Frying Knot, Hope Reclaimed, Leviathan Triumphant, The Unwoven Web, things like that. (If they’re Q-storytellers, they can go with them Gathering Storm.) Obviously, they’re going to include the last tweet, no matter what. How else are they supposed to define the end of the glorious web content revolution?
Personally, I would start and end this history with the House of Windsor. When Princess Diana died in 1997, the internet was just coming to its senses. Cable TV dominated, but online news—the links between articles, the packaging of stories on home pages, the richly dithered GIFs—suddenly began to feel real and relevant. The tragedy was immediate, shocking, and unscripted, and to an early web enthusiast, it felt like the big leagues. But when Diana’s former mother-in-law died, a quarter of a century later, the role the internet played was predictable. We knew to expect anti-colonial and anti-colonial tweets. We implicitly understood that funeral horses would be memed. We had a vocabulary for shots, hot shots, takedowns, and dunks. We published through it.
overthrow the revolutionary the internet, 1997–2022. I’m getting a little sad here. But no matter who wins the US midterm elections, who owns Twitter, or how ridiculous the metaverse is, life must go on. So every morning, sometimes before breakfast, when I feel hopeless, I remember three letters that always give me comfort: PDF. And then I go digging when I can. I read about Gato, a new artificial intelligence agent that can write descriptions and play games, or “digital twins” that are simulations of real-world things like the mathematics underlying misinformation or cities that consulting firms can sell these days. One site, scholar.archive.org, has PDF documents dating back to the 18th century. Seeking out this material instead of waiting for it to be discovered socially and jammed into my head is empowering.
This was the original function of the internet – to transmit learned texts to those who sought them. Of course, people have been able to quote Pliny’s last tweet (“Something up w/ Vesuvius, brb”) for millennia. But search is also important; people should explore, not just feed. Everything that will move society forward is not hidden inside the deflating giants. There’s some pathetic PDF with a title like “A New Platform for Communication” or “Machine Learning Applications for Community Organization.” The tech industry said we had it all figured out, but we ended up with a billionaire telling us to strap on a helmet (space or VR) while rising seas bent our toes. So now we have to try again. Now we get to try again.
Paul Ford (@ftrain) is a programmer, award-winning essayist, and co-founder of Postlight, a digital product studio.
This article appears in the December 2022/January 2023 issue. Subscribe now.