What does it take to destroy a nexus — a place, real or virtual, where people go because they expect to find other people with whom they want to interact? How much do you need to degrade their experience before they stop coming, initiating a sort of death spiral?
Elon Musk may be finding out.
Modern technology has, in many ways, drastically reduced the importance of distance — not just physical distance but more abstract kinds of distance too. It has never been as easy to interact with people in different countries, in different professions and in different social strata as it is now.
Yet even in this shrunken world there are nexuses sustained by what economists call network externalities. The world’s great financial centers are nexuses: People do business in New York or London because so many others do the same. In a more abstract sense, the U.S. dollar is a nexus: People make payments in dollars and hold U.S. securities because so much of the world relies on these same assets.
The self-reinforcing nature of nexuses makes them highly durable. New York became America’s leading city largely thanks to the Erie Canal, but it’s still the most populous U.S. metropolis a century and a half after canals became largely irrelevant to the economy, because some companies, especially in finance, see big advantages in being close to other companies in related lines of work.
In a deep sense the international role of the dollar reflects the same kind of logic. The dollar became the premier international currency — basically, becoming to other national currencies what money is to other goods — when America dominated the world economy.
U.S. economic dominance is much less striking these days, but people still use dollars for cross-border business mainly because so many other people do the same. Foreign exchange markets usually involve exchanging currencies for dollars; contracts are invoiced in dollars to minimize risk given the dominance of dollar-denominated borrowing, and companies borrow in dollars because their contracts are also in dollars.
And despite constant hype about the imminent demise of the dollar’s international role, that role appears to be as strong as ever.
While nexuses are highly persistent, however, their durability isn’t unlimited. If New York really became the hellscape Republicans claim it is, its financial dominance would probably collapse. If America defaulted on its debts as a result of political brinkmanship, the dollar could be dethroned.
So far, none of these things are happening. But X, formerly Twitter, may soon offer a lesson in what it takes to make a nexus implode.
Between its founding in 2006 and its takeover by Musk last year, Twitter had evolved into an important public square, a place where people who knew something about a subject could share their knowledge. Like many of my journalistic and academic colleagues, I used Twitter to get a sense of interesting new developments. Twitter was especially important as a source of links, both to serious reporting and to new research.
I don’t want to romanticize pre-Musk Twitter. There was always a lot of misinformation and antisocial behavior on the site. I long ago stopped reading replies from people I don’t follow, partly because anyone with a large number of followers got too many replies to keep up with, but also because the ad hominem hostility of many commenters became tiresome. Still, Twitter, used carefully, was very useful, especially when major events were breaking.
Under Musk, however, the experience has gotten steadily worse. Blue checks, which used to be a form of verification, became something you paid for and are now often a signal that you’re a troll (no, I didn’t pay for mine). Musk has made the platform a safe space for vaccine deniers, antisemites and more. And recently X began stripping headlines from links to news articles, so you can’t easily see what the articles are about — which sounds trivial but I can say from experience is remarkably harmful.
The crisis in the Middle East has provided the first big test of the Muskified platform, and my perception, shared by many, is that it is failing that test with flying colors.
So is this the tipping point? I don’t have hard data, but my sense is that it may well be.
More and more people I follow are posting useful material to other platforms, mainly Threads and Bluesky (which so far is invitation only but is rapidly expanding).
True, people still check X for information, because not everyone is showing up in the other places, and many people are double- or triple-posting, so their stuff still appears on X. But the amount of useful information on X seems to be declining, in part because some of us are reluctant to act as free content providers for a man who promotes white supremacists. And the amount of useful stuff on other platforms is rapidly rising, making X less essential.
This is exactly what you’d expect to see if X were entering a death spiral. It takes a lot to destroy a well-established nexus, but it seems increasingly likely that Elon Musk is up to the job.
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