There was a time when Twitter was the digital equivalent of the old town square, where people came together to share ideas and information, to have a little fun as a community. For news organizations, Twitter brought to the public’s attention reporters who might not have a mainstream outlet as an amplifier, bringing to the masses the voices of people involved in social movements around the world.
“Unfortunately, those days are far behind us,” says Zainab Shah, director of digital engagement and audience at THE CITY, a nonprofit news outlet in New York City. “There were some really amazing things about this platform. It really was a way for reporters who are traditionally left out of, for whatever reason, traditional newsrooms to reach folks who really cared about this reporting that traditional newsrooms were not reaching. The heyday of Twitter did exist, but it did come and go.”
These days, however, things are very different.
“I think it’s unfortunate when a platform falls into the hands of one person,” Shah says. “Before, it wasn’t like it was a decentralized platform, where it was co-owned or worker-owned to begin with. I want to be mindful of feeling like it’s a doomsday, end of the world scenario. I think the platform has lost a lot of its value for a lot of folks.”
But Shah doesn’t believe Twitter’s end days are nigh. Instead of going out with a bang, Shah thinks it will be more of a whimper, a series of “bursts and sputters, changes to the point where we can’t recognize it or it completely disappears or it becomes irrelevant. I think it’s a matter of time before it happens.”
As someone deeply concerned with or involved in community building and audience engagement, Shah is keeping a watchful and cautious eye on how safe Twitter remains for both her reporting team and her readers.
“Without the safety team, the content moderation team, we are promoting our work there, we are talking to people, engaging with people there. Our reporters are on there. What is our role, what is our responsibility to make sure the environment in which we are convening folks, or communing with folks online, is not a toxic environment, is not an environment in which people feel safe to talk, in which our reporters feel safe to share information and talk openly with folks. That’s what I think about. If it reaches a level of toxicity, we’ve had an internal discussion about this, we will then decide to leave the platform.”
For THE CITY, leaving Twitter — if the time comes — will not be the end of community engagement and audience input.
“We don’t have the reliance on Twitter to meet people the way other newsrooms might have. From the beginning, we had a very direct relationship with our communities and our readers,” she says. “We also meet folks offline. We partner with the public library. That’s why I’m able to be like, it’s not the first time, it’s not the end of the world, we’ve been here before.”