Succession, the popular HBO soap opera about a family of hideous media moguls, will come to a close this weekend. It’s a supremely glossy and expensively-made TV show about supremely glossy and expensively-made TV. The in-your-face self-referentiality distinguishes Succession from shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, earlier “prestige” classics that likewise reflected—and shaped—the zeitgeist.
From this angle Succession can be read as a kind of apotheosis of mass media, the ultimate ourobouros that television can make of a superficially gleaming, richly seductive U.S. society. It’s showing us a spectacle of luxury, ease and beauty, and it’s showing us the brokenness, nihilism, and horror underneath.
ATN, the fictional TV network at the center of Succession, and its parent, Waystar Royco, have thousands of fictional employees around the world, virtually all of them scared of losing their jobs. As the Writers Guild strike enters its fifth week in the real world, the story touches raw nerves; in Hollywood, too, precarious employment means that everybody has to work very hard—too hard—to please their bosses, and go half-crazy to give satisfaction at any cost.
“Could we build me a Living+ house?” newly minted Waystar CEO Kendall Roy suddenly asks the team helping him prepare for an investor presentation the next day. “Small… plywood, basic brickwork… nothing crazy.”
“This is for tomorrow?!” replies a startled designer, struggling to keep the incredulity out of his voice. “It’s certainly an exciting vision,” he adds, hastily.
Capricious, haughty, ridiculous, and imperially clueless, the Roy clan continually recalls the unpleasantly familiar antics of billionaires from Musk to Dorsey to Ellison to Thiel. Their treatment of subordinates mirrors the IRL situation of working people all over the U.S., likewise scared of losing their jobs and consequently obligated to submit to every kind of abuse.
And all of that, in its turn, reflects modern consumer society, brought to you, beneath the gloss, by millions of people in some kind of a state of panic and fear. The Amazon shopper’s experience is a patent-protected one-click tap on a surface of glass; the Amazon employee’s experience is to pee in a bottle, faint in the heat, and still risk being sacked for failing to keep up a superhuman pace. The effortless ease we’ve each been conditioned to experience, nay, to demand, every day as a consumer, is paid for in misery by all those who are making it happen.
There’s no getting rid of the misery without getting rid of the gloss—the gloss is made possible by the misery—and U.S. culture is gloss everywhere, gloss for everyone. Let’s consider that we could rid ourselves of this dumb, pointless, immiserating fakery. We could wait an extra day for a package to arrive, wait until summer to eat blueberries, and even work out how to protect ourselves online, by ourselves. We can pay for media produced by real live people, media that we want and need, rather than lying back and expecting good things to come for free to us from out of the blue right this minute. We could make our own good things. They’ll look and feel different from the old ones, and that’s good.
The dangers of the gloss have been painfully exposed at what remains of Twitter, where quite a lot of writers have remained to post despite the site’s clear hard-right political turn. The precarious, every-man-for-himself situation that media professionals have found themselves in makes it difficult to part with the tens or hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that bosses require in order to advance in this business. But the true problem is deeper, and worse; each writer, like each reader, has grown accustomed to the smooth, corporatized online experience, free of charge and low on friction. Hence, the widespread reluctance on the part of media professionals to invest the time and work necessary to build, for example, a meaningful following on the relatively bumpy, complicated Mastodon, or to participate in its building, improvement and fortification. (So far, at least. The change at Twitter is to some degree at least forcing better judgement on participants there; Mastodon signups recently topped 12 million.)
Twitter’s fate was sealed last October, when the company’s new owner, the swindler and apparent fascist Elon Musk, bought the company, fired its board of directors, and installed himself as CEO. He went on to take a wrecking ball to the best social media platform in the Anglophone world, in a cringemakingly capering, shambolic performance that made his SNL turn as Wario look like Olivier’s Hamlet, and he did it all in less than six months.
The murder of Twitter makes a lot of sense, viewed as a deliberate political attack against democracy; despite all the kvetching, Twitter was a cultural force of global power, and a vital safeguard for press freedom. The platform’s demise is a big boon to global authoritarianism. But whether Musk ruined Twitter deliberately or out of plain imbecility is immaterial. He isn’t worth anyone’s attention.
The salient question is, where do we go from here? Is there a new platform for the millions of people who once relied on Twitter for camaraderie, news, research, and scores of other benefits? Or are we merely about to exchange one Waystar Royco for another?
It’s prohibitively expensive to create a huge, well-run, scalable social media platform with an interface glossy enough for your grandma to use—a shiny, stable interface that never breaks down, where you’ll never see violent or sick messages because it’s someone else’s job to remove them, a site that never crashes, because it’s someone else’s job to make sure it never will. A place where your experience is guaranteed to be be pleasant, reliable and friction-free. Only profiteers will interest themselves in sinking the millions required into creating such an experience, and many of them are hard at work doing so.
The most prominent so far is clearly Bluesky, the invitation-only Twitter lookalike that launched in beta just a few weeks ago. It’s a corporate product, a comfortable, ready-built house made of sticks, founded by the libertarian weirdo Jack Dorsey, that emerged right on cue to deliver a glossy, brainlessly Twitter-like experience to people, in and out of media, who’ve grown way too accustomed to Having it All, only to realize way too late how they’re the ones who’ve been had.
With only about 100K users so far, and already melting down in familiar dramas over moderation and the imminent arrival of a cesspool’s worth of Nazis, Bluesky is absolutely not ready for prime time. The questions to ask as replacements for Twitter emerge are the ones we should have been asking all along: Does management have ties to fascists or autocrats? Are there white supremacists involved? Profiteering monopolists? What safeguards have been put in place against the potential incursion of malevolent forces?? These are questions we’ve not been encouraged to ask.
But if you’re willing to trade the gloss for better values, so far Mastodon is the venue of choice. Yes, it is relatively difficult to find your friends on Mastodon; it’s difficult to get the hang of what things like “defederation” mean, and as yet there’s no meaningful way to search, because the global search that makes life so easy when you want to find someone on Twitter makes it easy, also, for bad guys to target marginalized communities. At Mastodon there are multiple groups of devs working out how to implement search safely, how to ensure that privacy and discoverability are balanced in a rational way, and so on. The conversation there, for me, has a pleasing depth and collegiality that I rarely experienced at Twitter, though there is less of the sheer giddiness (and lack of boundaries) that characterized the launch of Bluesky.
Whatever comes, let’s embrace the chaos with both arms, and take part in building new things. We’re facing an existential choice between the false ease provided by authoritarians, and ensuring the survival of press freedom and speech rights, and the safety of people who are just looking to live their lives freely and hang out online.
In case you need a starter Mastodon server, by the way, we are running a small one from the Brick House journalism cooperative. Join us at thelife.boats.