Robin Sloan on Social Media After Twitter
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Bestselling novelist and former Twitter employee Robin Sloan joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about how Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter and the rise of new platforms like Mastodon, Bluesky, and Meta’s Threads are shaping a new ecosystem of social media. The co-hosts and Sloan grapple with the unruliness of Twitter over time, political polarization on different platforms and the risks of disinformation, and what the end of Twitter—now rebranded as X—might look like. Sloan reflects on the role social media plays (or doesn’t) in authors’ careers, as well as his own decision to leave Twitter. Finally, he reads from his 2012 novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Amanda Trout and Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I’ve noticed that my [Twitter] followers are going down, not up… I assume that represents people leaving the platform who used to have accounts and don’t anymore. Is this going to die? And if so, what does that mean?
Robin Sloan: Well, I think it’s a healthy thing. I think all these platforms have held on for a little too long. Now I’ll preface what I’m about to say with the self-awareness that I am now a sort of medium-old person, and I’m about to be like, “Back in the good old days…” But, for me, as both a user of these platforms and someone who was a little bit involved in this industry itself, there was this time in the middle to late 2000s when it seemed like there was something new every month. And it was exciting to bop between them and see how they were different and what people were trying, and some of them failed very quickly. It was a ferment; it really had a sense of percolation and fizz. And it was a scene, it was a creative scene in all the ways that there can be a literary scene or a music scene—it was kind of a socio-technical scene. Again, I was young, so everything was more fun and interesting, and everything was new.
But I really do believe it was healthier in a way that any ecosystem ought to kind of bubble and fizz and percolate. And then something happened in the 2010s. We just got locked in and we knew the dramatis personae of the internet of that period. It’s Twitter and it’s Facebook and it’s Google. And that’s sort of it. So I think, if indeed, cracks are forming in the ice, and suddenly we’re going to see a new flourishing of weird experiments and things that might work or not work, I am all for it.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So despite all this social media doomsday talk, as we’re mentioning here, Twitter is somehow not exactly dead yet. And there is an election coming up. I’m curious about your thoughts on all of the ways that Twitter has reinvented itself, some of which I think is for the worse, and can still affect politics.
You had a short story in The Atlantic, “The Conspiracy Museum,” which I really enjoyed. Part of the display of American conspiracies in your fictional museum extends into the exabytes, which seems right to me. These days, more than half the U.S. population gets its news from social media. I’m curious what role you think Twitter can play this time around and how sharper political divisions in social media generally are affecting the spread of news and fake news and conspiracy theories, which seem to be a particular interest of yours.
RS: I think a change that has happened to Twitter under its new administration that many people complain about is actually a healthy one for everyone else, for the body politic, for all the overlapping public squares that we have in this country and in this world. That change has been actually to lock it down, to make it much more difficult for people to access Twitter, just to search for a name, maybe their name, maybe a URL, maybe the title of a book, or even to look at people’s profiles. I’m not on Twitter anymore, but maybe I was curious to know what Whitney is getting up to. I used to be able to go over and check it out and read and read and read. You can’t do that anymore. And I think that’s great. Because it makes the argument or recognizes the truth, that Twitter is just one little thing. It’s not the public square. Like whenever anybody says that, whether it’s the current CEO, or some journalists writing about it, I hope everybody’s got the antibodies in their brain to say, “No, clearly not.”
It is a system, it is a place where people gathered and still gather, but it’s just one little, sort of less public square now, among many, many, many more. And that’s how it ought to be, I think. There ought to be many websites, and they ought to have these little boundaries around them. So you can choose to step inside and become part of that conversation, whatever it is. And if not, it doesn’t have to loom like a storm cloud over your reality. It can actually just be a place you don’t go or a conversation you don’t participate in. I think that’s healthy.
VVG: So it sounds like you think Twitter is not going to have a particular influence on the upcoming election.
RS: Predictions are silly, and anything you say, the opposite will be true and weirder than you could ever have imagined. But I’m pretty confident saying that it’s going to be nothing like the role it has played in the past. Again, part of it is just like how so much in the economy has to do with sort of expectations and the stories that get told around things as much as the things themselves. Twitter was never that popular. It was never particularly successful compared to many of its peers. It’s like, miniscule, I mean, to their great frustration. I think all the engineers and designers at Meta working on Facebook and Instagram would be like, “Shut up about this little also-ran network.” But it was the story around it that created and supported that. That sense of a place in the public sphere. And I do think that that story now has changed. And it’s collapsing in some ways. Again, I think that’s all for the good. It should be what it is, which is a weird, tiny product that fewer and fewer people use all the time.
WT: Here’s some concerns that I have: I feel like if you don’t have centralized platforms, then you have what already may be happening, where you end up with like liberal social media platforms and conservative social media platforms. And those platforms may find it easier to disseminate facts that aren’t fact checked, or are inaccurate. Also these platforms and places like YouTube have made it possible to make a career out of creating disinformation, which used to not be possible.
I, for instance, was having dinner with one of my son’s friends. She’s 18. She said to me, “Well, when is the recession going to be over?” And I’m like, “We’re not having a recession.” She’s like, “Well, that’s what it says on TikTok.” And I thought, godammit, we’re having a boom and this is why Biden’s poll numbers are down, because people hear on TikTok from people who don’t have to be fact-checked that we’re in a recession. I guess that’s not a question. That’s a statement. But it’s a danger, right?
RS: It’s all true. Of course, it’s a danger. But I think that danger has been ever present. I think you could relate similar anecdotes 100 years ago, and 200 years ago, of course, all the media would have been different. I guess I’m just a believer in small pieces loosely joined. Some of them I’m sure will be far weirder and far darker than anything we can imagine from a big mega platform.
To sign so much of our attention over to this one particular algorithm—and I don’t even mean in terms of politics, I think politics is one dimension that people understandably focus on – but I think the way it guides and directs people’s behavior, the way they read, the way they watch things, the kinds of things they watch, I think it’s much deeper than that it has to do with the tone in which things are delivered and the structure of the delivery mechanism. I mean, we see that on YouTube, we see that for sure on TikTok, the platform itself is molding the people on the screen, almost like they’re action figures. They’re Barbie and Ken dolls and TikTok is moving their arms and legs by rewarding them for doing certain things and talking in certain ways at certain speeds.
And that’s fine. You know, there ought to be a TikTok. There ought to just be 50 more TikToks and that way, they can all be a little bit different. It can become an ecosystem instead of, I guess we could say, a monoculture.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Hannah Karau.
“Robin Sloan leaves Twitter’s Media Partnerships team,” The Next Web, November 11, 2011 • “Bay Area author Robin Sloan dishes on ‘Sourdough,’ Twitter and books,” San Jose Mercury-News, May 18, 2019 • “How to Write Science Fiction That Isn’t ‘Useful,’” Robin Sloan interviewed by Ellen Cushing, The Atlantic, May 15, 2020 • “The Age of Social Media Is Ending,” by Ian Bogost, The Atlantic, Nov. 10, 2022 • “Threads users looking for ‘genuine connection’ as Twitter-like social media platform goes back to basics,” ABC News (Australia), July 14, 2023. • “Social Media Is Dead,” by Edward Ongweso Jr., Vice, Nov. 8, 2022. • “Social Media Died When It Stopped Being Social and Became About Making Money,” by Enrique Dans, Forbes, May 13, 2019 • “With the rise of AI, social media platforms could face perfect storm of misinformation in 2024,” CNN Business, July 17, 2023 • “Threads, Twitter, and the Future of Social Media,” by Sriram Krishnan, The New York Times (Opinion), July 15, 2023 • “Zombie Twitter Has Arrived,” by Ian Bogost and Charlie Warzel, The Atlantic, July 6, 2023 • “The Weaponization of Social Media and Real World Consequences,” by Dave Davies, National Public Radio, October 9, 2018 • “Conservative social networks like Gettr and Parler keep making the same mistake,” by Casey Newton, The Verge, Jul 6, 2021 • “Tucker Carlson’s show on Twitter makes ad deal with anti-ESG shopping app” by Brian Schwartz, CNBC, July 16, 2023 • “Taylor Swift Gets Political On Social Media As Nashville Elections Start,” by Aimée Lutkin, Elle, July 15, 2023 • “Despite cries of censorship, conservatives dominate social media,” by Mark Scott, POLITICO, Oct. 26, 2020 • “Robin Sloan’s ‘Sourdough’ Is a Fascinating Riddle” by Andy Newman, The Atlantic, Dec. 5, 2017 • “Book Armageddon is a Myth: Interview with Robin Sloan” by Lex Berko, Vice, April 10, 2013 • “More than eight-in-ten Americans get news from digital devices” Jan. 2021 Study by Elisa Shearer, Pew Research Center, Jan. 12, 2021 • “Conservative Social Media— A New Norm?” by Kayla Morrison, Brown Political Review, Dec. 3, 2022 • “Robin Sloan: Describing the emotions of life online,” by Josh Kramer, New Public, Mar. 13, 2022 • “Computer Stories: A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists—Robin Sloan” by David Streitfeld, The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2018 • “The Infinite Deaths of Social Media” by Jason Parham, WIRED, May 4, 2022 • “Social media is doomed to die” by Ellis Hamburger, The Verge, April 18, 2023 • “The Future of Social Media Is a Lot Less Social” by Brian X. Chen, The New York Times, April 19, 2023 • “Delhi Man Creates Device Which Allows You To Order Pizza With Your Mind,” by Anoushka Sharma, NDTV, July 21, 2023