The thrill of Twitter in 2016 was visceral and habit-forming. It was the show that never stopped, the fireworks display you couldn’t keep your eyes off even as it grew dangerously bright and transfixing, and then set the whole town on fire and invited floods and locusts and plague, too.
But what now? As a business, Twitter had not been having a good run before the presidential election reached its spectacular conclusion. New users aren’t joining the service and longtime denizens have been using it less. When Twitter tried to sell itself this fall, nobody wanted to buy it.
Both potential users and would-be acquirers seem turned off by its complexity, its ugliness (Twitter has become a haven for misogynists, racists and other trolls), and most deeply its apparent uselessness for people who aren’t clustered in the bubbles of tech, politics and media.
All that considered, Twitter had a good week. On election night, as Americans watched this once-in-a-lifetime election happen, they flooded to Twitter to comment and congratulate and commiserate, sending traffic on the service to all-time highs. On Wednesday, while the shares of most technology companies plummeted, Twitter’s stock rose slightly.
Yet it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if this moment turns out to be the peak for Twitter. After the election, a handful of Twitter loyalists confessed to feeling alienation over the role the service played in their lives, and the country, this year.
“At best, it was just quips and outrages — a diet of candy,” wrote Brent Simmons, a well-known software developer who took his feed dark after blaming the service for, among other things, being part of the system that helped elect Mr. Trump.
But it was less partisan outrage and more a feeling of exhaustion that inspired a new round of quitter Twitter last week.
“Twitter is toxic,” tweeted Steve Kovach, a writer at the Business Insider website who likened the service to an unshakable addiction. “I can’t stand it anymore,” he told me in a private message on Twitter. “I started regularly deleting my tweets this summer and unfollowed everyone and started over. It was driving me nuts and making me sad.” Mr. Kovach said he has had trouble sticking with his self-imposed ban, but that the campaign’s end had strengthened his resolve.
As a Twitter binger, I, too, had a similar impulse to question my commitment to the service after the election. It felt so insular, so time-consuming and yet so meaningless, too, in the grand scheme of things. It feels like time for detox. As they might say on Twitter (where people are fond of saying things in weird ways): What even are we doing here? And why can’t we stop?
Though Facebook is by far the larger and more consequential social network, Twitter functioned as this election cycle’s heartbeat. Just about every story that captivated the campaign either began on Twitter or got its viral energy there; a breaking news event wasn’t really a breaking news event until it was a tweet that could be passed around and commented on, and only then would it hit the wider online and television news circuit.
Olivia Nuzzi, who covers politics for The Daily Beast, told me that even though she found Twitter to be “a very upsetting social media platform” that allowed people to bombard her every day with the most ghastly content, she considered it vital to her job. “If I’m not on Twitter for 30 minutes, I miss a story,” she said.
One Friday afternoon near the end of the campaign, exhausted from the constant thrum of news, Ms. Nuzzi said she inadvertently fell asleep at her kitchen table. She woke up to a news release from the Trump campaign defending his words as “locker room talk.”
“It turned out that David Fahrenthold’s story about the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape had blown up and taken over the election,” she said, “and it was because I wasn’t on Twitter for 15 minutes that I didn’t know what Trump was talking about.”
With its short posts and chronological feed, Twitter was perhaps always destined to play this seeding role in the campaign news cycle. But its centrality was cemented on June 16, 2015, the day Mr. Trump descended in the gilded escalator at his Manhattan skyscraper to announce his intention, then quixotic-seeming, to run for president.
The man the world would come to know as @realdonaldtrump joined Twitter in 2009, after a publicist urged him to use the service to promote a new book, “Think Like a Champion.” He took to Twitter instantly, instinctively getting the punchy rhythms of a perfectly crafted tweet.
Mr. Trump also possessed in spades the primary fuel of every successful Twitter account: a bottomless thirst for promoting one’s supposedly necessary ideas on anything and everything, no matter how frivolous the subject or banal the observation.
“Everyone knows I am right that Robert Pattinson should dump Kristen Stewart,” he declared in a typical tweet from 2012. “In a couple of years, he will thank me. Be smart, Robert.”
For much of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, whose staff would spend hours composing her campaign tweets, repeatedly tweaked Mr. Trump on his apparent inability to moderate himself on the service. In the final weeks of the campaign, after Mr. Trump’s staff banned him from tweeting, President Obama also took to the mockery.
“In the last two days, they had so little confidence in his self-control, they said we’re just going to take away your Twitter,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, if somebody can’t handle a Twitter account, they can’t handle the nuclear codes.”
Though many on Twitter got a laugh out of the president’s line, I suspect more than a few were chuckling inwardly. Mr. Obama’s construction — “if somebody can’t handle a Twitter account” — assumed a fact not in evidence: that there are any Twitter users who can actually comport themselves well when presented with the awesome power of an unfiltered text box that instantly goes out to the world.
Anyone who’s halfway decent on Twitter lives in constant fear of saying something wrong, and the frisson of danger, the flirtation with getting fired, is both the peril and the promise of Twitter. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Mr. Obama also does not usually handle his own Twitter account; he has the nuclear codes, but Twitter, that’s just too dangerous.
The inherent danger of Twitter compounds the mystery of why anyone tweets in the first place. People on Twitter aren’t given to introspection about the service; the things one does on Twitter tend not to be discussed outside of Twitter, for much the same reason that heroin addicts don’t talk with friends and family about their favorite methods of mainlining.
When asked in the third presidential debate why he uses the service, Mr. Trump seemed at a loss. “Tweeting happens to be a modern-day form of communication,” he said. (Fact-check: True!) After reveling in his follower count and the effectiveness of his tweets, he added, “I’m not unproud of it, to be honest with you.”
Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter and its chief executive, declined to be interviewed for this article. But he has often spoken in lofty terms about Twitter’s potential to expand democratic discourse, especially for activists, including the #blacklivesmatter protesters, whom Mr. Dorsey joined on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
More recently, he has also acknowledged that Twitter has been too slow in offering ways to curb some of the most terrible parts of the service, including trolling. “Twitter’s a reflection of the world, and it definitely makes it easy to say anything, and sometimes those things aren’t positive — and maybe in some cases it makes it way too easy,” he said at the Recode Conference in June.
Over the last few days, I called a number of people who’ve been hooked to Twitter this year to ask why they kept at it, and whether they may stop after the election. What was striking was how many people, unprompted, floated the idea that their use was a result of some kind of addiction.
Stuart Stevens, the lead strategist of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and the author of the political satire “The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear,” told me he started tweeting a few years ago when social media experts at The Daily Beast, where Mr. Stevens wrote a regular column, told him he had to promote himself. He’s been hooked ever since. “I got a good appreciation of why the first hit of crack is free,” Mr. Stevens said.
Clara Jeffrey, the editor of Mother Jones magazine, said she appreciated Twitter as a source of news, but was troubled by the increasing sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and a general tide of misinformation that swamped the service during the last few weeks of the election. And yet she, too, couldn’t stop using Twitter, even as she wondered about its effects.
“I think everybody has been really anxious about the election, and for any number of good reasons,” Ms. Jeffrey said. “But the question we’re not going to have great perspective on is how much social media is the cause of the anxiety, both in a chemical sense — in the sense of us being addicted to it, like a dopamine drip — but also because it’s the platform for so much disinformation and hate.”
Ms. Jeffrey conceded it’s not all anxiety. There have been many moments during the race in which Twitter was collectively thrilling, sometimes even plain fun.
When Mr. Trump suddenly announced he’d make a trip to Mexico, or when he set up a table of off-brand raw steaks at one of his campaign events, or when a Twitter user discovered that portions of Melania Trump’s convention speech had been cribbed from Michelle Obama — at these moments, Twitter exploded in an orgy of jokes. It functioned as group therapy as much as entertainment, a kind of gallows humor in the face of a campaign gone mad.
“At this point, for people who’ve been following the campaign for the last two years, it’s almost difficult to have conversations with people who haven’t been following it — with ‘normal people,’” said Oliver Darcy, the politics editor of Business Insider. “And so Twitter often feels homier than hanging out with people who aren’t following the election. When you’re not surrounded by people who are always talking about this stuff, it almost feels like you’re out of place.”
I feel that. Twitter, during this campaign, really did become a second home for me. Sure, it was a home strewn with hot garbage, a haunted house that often pushed me to question my sanity. And one that did little to edify our democracy, that turned every campaign story into a moment for a sound bite or a joke, that promoted the soul-destroying notion that campaign news is best experienced as a kind of spectator sport of warring sides rather than something substantial that, you know, matters to the country and stuff.
So it wasn’t a great home. And it’s likely best we all take a break from it for some time. And yet, I’m not unproud of it, to be honest with you.