Baltimore Twitter: Are local users staying on the embattled app?

Elon Musk’s ownership has shaken up the social media giant, and for many, it’s just not the same experience

Published on: November 17, 2022 6:00 AM EST

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 13: Elon Musk attends TIME Person of the Year on December 13, 2021 in New York City.

Once upon a time, a young Baltimore writer named D. Watkins happened upon a magical place called Twitter.

“It was a space where you could learn, exchange ideas and have a healthy debate,” said Watkins, now a New York Times bestselling author, academic, TV writer and creative in residence at The Baltimore Banner. “There were a whole lot of writers and journalists on there, so many brand new artists. You could get book deals. I saw dudes from the streets educated on things like LGBTQ issues. These things were happening before your eyes.”

But for Watkins, “Twitter hasn’t been that place for a long time.” In fact, the social media giant has become “a filthy pool of disgusting negativity,” he said, where people fight for the sake of fighting, even before the recent purchase of the site by billionaire Elon Musk. And for the writer, who has lately curtailed his usage to mostly promoting his own projects, that hasn’t been beneficial.

“I’m trying to think who my Elon Musk would be,” he said. “If Oprah bought Twitter, I would still Tweet.”

But our former Baltimore homegirl does not own Twitter. Elon Musk does, and that fact has made many users, including me and s other denizens of Baltimore Twitter, rethink our once-fervent participation. The Charm City corner of the app focuses on local concerns, from City Hall to where to get crabs, and “like the city itself, it’s not boring,” said Kim Washington, a city government veteran who is now equity inclusion officer for the Baltimore City Fire Department.

For some, Baltimore Twitter has been about defending a city that “has always been the underdog,” said Bob Spicer, a Baltimore native and ride-share driver whose has used the app for about 11 years. “There’s a lot of people on Twitter who embrace that, so when people say bad things about Baltimore, people get defensive. I understand that. I am, too.”

Spicer is committed to the community he’s found on the app. But the experience since Musk took over has changed, and trolls, abuse and spam are making many tap out. According to MIT Technology Review, the watchdog firm Bot Sentinel estimates that between Oct. 27, the day Musk took over, and Nov. 1, about 877,000 Twitter accounts were deactivated. One of those was “The Wire” and “We Own This City” creator and unelected, gloriously cranky mayor of Baltimore Twitter David Simon, who logged off for the last time on Nov. 9.

Almost 500,000 have been suspended. Many users reported losing significant numbers of followers — I lost a few hundred of my almost 16,000 followers within two days. The question for Baltimore Twitter is, to quote The Clash: Should I cool it or should I blow?”

Spicer, for one, is planning to stay because he’s “met a lot of nice people on Twitter, and that’s definitely the best thing, feeling involved and connected to the community.” Even though, since Musk’s tenure, he’s noticed many “right-wing types of people” in his feed he doesn’t follow.

Those parts of Baltimore Twitter are partly the reason that it, and the whole site, work in the first place. Our conversations, musings and random jokes about how we say the words “Aaron earned an iron urn” provide vital content. But changes that Musk has made, like offering blue check verification for $8 a month (discounted from a proposed $30 after Stephen King made him feel bad), have made some people reconsider staying on “the bird app.”

Trolls emboldened by the new boss’ alleged aim to protect free speech sent use of the N-word up 500% literally 12 hours after he took over. Users that have reported offensive or abusive Tweets say the site isn’t responding — perhaps because Musk fired much of the staff. Conventional wisdom holds that some of folks fled Twitter for conservative apps like Parler or Truth Social but found there weren’t enough liberal people to argue with.

Most recently, the paid verification scheme resulted in several notable people being threatened, hacked and impersonated. I have valued my own blue check as a journalist because it proves who I am. I’ve also met amazing friends and mentors on the app, but I’m not inclined to pay for a service to write its content.

The number of racist, nasty trolls has also exploded, and as a Black woman and a journalist, I feel pretty vulnerable. Last week, I deleted a tweet about a music star’s decision to platform a controversial politician because of the immediate vitriol, including someone snitch-tagging Musk himself and asking him what he was going to do about me.

That’s not great.

The negativity you encounter might depend on who you engage with. Washington, the city government veteran, hasn’t seen much change or negativity, “because my timeline is very curated Baltimore and political Twitter, and Black Twitter.”

Author and journalist Baynard Woods initially used Twitter for work, as a reporting tool during the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. “I was talking directly to Baltimore and listening back. I would go out to cover protests and Twitter was how my wife and friends knew where I was. They would check Twitter to see if I was OK,” he said.

But like his friend Watkins, Woods has limited his time investment on Twitter because of negativity. He’s enjoyed watching verified tweets like the one from Eli Lilly, where someone impersonated the pharmaceutical company and declared insulin to be free, only to make the real account counter that it wasn’t, Woods said.

“I find that there is a great irony that he is turning Twitter into an anti-capitalist platform the more he tries to make it capitalist,” Woods said. “It’s delightful to watch.”

So are we staying or going? Spicer said he hasn’t decided: “I’d have to mull it over. I probably would pay for it, because I don’t want to lose the connection. I know other people will leave. I would hate to see it.” Still, he plans to stay “as long as I can. I don’t know where else to go.”

Woods said he’s been off and on Twitter for monthlong stretches but checks in “if I need to get in touch with 10,000 people. I have a MySpace account somewhere, too. I think that the future of Twitter is that it might just fade away.”

While Washington has exchanged phone numbers with Twitter colleagues in case it disappears, she has no intention of leaving.

“I’m gonna be here like the violinists on the Titanic,” she said, laughing. “And if it goes down, I’ll be here cracking jokes.”