The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No.
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. Writing about technology at all, even in the rather loose sense that I sometimes do, comes with a certain pressure to keep up with “things.” If you’ve been reading along for a while, you know I do just fine resisting this pressure! Nonetheless, for the past couple of weeks I’ve finally been writing an installment about AI generated images. It’s almost there … just in time for the moment to have passed (although, of course, it hasn’t really). Now the drama surrounding Twitter is what everyone is writing about and what I am being asked about. Well, fine. Here are a few thoughts, although at a slant from what I suspect most are interested in.
What is there to say about Twitter that has not already been said? What begrudging homage to the platform could be paid that has not already been paid as so many bid farewell to the site? I won’t add to any of that here.1 Neither have I parted with the site myself even though the timeline has become a mess. Like many others, I’ve created an account on Mastodon, but I’m uncertain about whether I’ll ever make an earnest effort to establish a presence there.
To be clear, I don’t have any special insights about how things will go with Twitter. It certainly doesn’t look good. As Robin Sloan put it earlier this year, “Arguing about the future of Twitter is a loser’s game; a dead end. The platform’s only conclusion can be abandonment: an overdue MySpace-ification.” I’ve written before about my own conflicted relationship with Twitter, the devil’s bargain that I’ve uneasily struck. My current passing thoughts on its present travails are few and not particularly profound.
I’ve thought, for example, about the place of Twitter in relation to older media. Twitter is jammed with images and gifs and reaction emojis and video clips, etc. But the written word remains central to the experience of the platform. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons that professionals of the word—academics, writers, and journalists, for instance—gravitated to Twitter. (Consider this thread by Alexis Madrigal which opens with “Something I’ve been thinking about Twitter: for those of us who are word people, this was once our place.”) In retrospect, maybe Twitter will appear as the last gasp, admittedly hybrid and possibly monstrous, of the old print culture in the new digital age. And I suspect this accounts for many of the derangements and absurdities that characterize the platform. It’s hybridity—a volatile scrambling of the psychodynamics of orality and print—tempts certain users to navigate its waters by the old norms of print culture, norms which are inadequate to its digital nature.
I’ve also noted with a certain fascination that what is now happening to the company can only be imagined in the world Twitter created. Elon Musk, whatever else you might want to say about the man, is the ideal subject of the Twitter regime. His motives and actions seem to be coupled to the experience of being a Twitter user of the first order. Whatever else he ought to be working on, managing, or attending to, he can be found on Twitter with, it seems, increasing frequency. It’s very relatable, really. As I wrote of Donald Trump in 2016, Twitter is the man’s ring of power. With it he commands the extraordinary powers of attention at scale, using this power to move markets, troll his enemies, and entertain his acolytes. But as everyone knows, rings of power corrupt their users and eventually occasion their downfall.
Relatedly, it is impossible to overstate the degree to which the petty, narcissistic type is naturally equipped to command the heights of the attention economy. Or, lest we be tempted to take comfort in that observation, the degree to which the platform’s dynamics can bend any of us toward petty narcissism and shamelessness. I certainly don’t think I’m immune to the effect.
Twitter is, among other things, a machine for harvesting the attention of users, but it functions in this way partly by exploiting the human desire for attention—an acute desire that, if not channeled or pursued with care, can become the fulcrum on which any one of us might be bent grotesquely out of shape.2 Twitter strikes me as being particularly well engineered in this respect, but most social media platforms can do the job well enough. To be clear, the dynamic is simply human and characterizes all social life. But social media harnessed this dynamic by making its tacit and organic structures explicit, quantifiable, and programmable.
Which leads me to this …
A few days ago, a friend relayed an interesting experience to me. They had, rather spontaneously, done a “good deed.” It was, they explained, a small, rather creative act of kindness that brought a small measure of joy to someone. It felt good, and in a rather earnest, uncomplicated way. What made the whole affair rather curious is that while the act was not done in secret—in fact, it happened in a public space—no one had witnessed it. The group of people he had been with had, for that moment, gone on their way. His first instinct was to share the story of what he had done with his friends when he rejoined them. But then he had the sudden sense that this would somehow ruin the whole thing.
I don’t think it would have necessarily ruined the whole thing. After all, that small measure of joy he brought to someone else would have been undiminished. But I do understand the feeling that somehow, for him, the goodness of the deed would have been corrupted. While still keeping a partial veil over the particulars, this is what we discussed. What was the source of that intuition? Was he right to feel it? What exactly would be jeopardized? Why did it matter?
It brought to mind the distinction between internal and external goods. The pleasure he felt in doing good, unobserved and unrewarded, was the pleasure appropriate to the deed itself. It was internal or intrinsic to the act. By contrast, deeds done for the sake of the approval or approbation of others are done for the sake of a reward external to the deed. Had he gone on to share the story with others, he might have been commended for it. He might have accumulated some small bit of social capital. But that praise would have been at a remove from the logic of the act. It was not as if he had acted because he would be praised, but to knowingly elicit that praise retroactively was not an altogether different thing.
Relatedly, there was also the matter of pride. Not only would the purity of the deed and the enjoyment of its proper reward be jeopardized, he might invite pride or vanity into the affair by yielding to what he came to understand as not just an impulse, but, more specifically, a temptation.
My friend was chiefly struck by the rarity of what he experienced—the experience, that is, of possessing some small treasure whose value lay precisely in its humble, hidden quality. How odd it felt to have done something and kept it veiled from view. It was a small thing that began to feel as if it had a strangely revolutionary character. I suggested that the revolutionary character of the act was not merely in its performance, but in its private nature and his ultimate refusal to speak of it. By so preserving the integrity of the deed, he enjoyed a taste of a form of life many of us have forgotten.
To play with words a bit, it was as if this small deed acted as an antiviral. It combatted the effects of the attention economy powered by the promise (or threat) of virality. It counteracted the corrupting influence of social media’s reward mechanisms. It was a counter-practice designed to preserve some aspect of the good in itself by refusing to turn all aspects of our experience into standing reserve for the attention economy.
May such deeds proliferate, for the sake of those who receive them and those who perform them. I’m tempted to call it the Auden Option, a life committed to secret acts of generosity. In a 2014 essay, “The Secret Auden,” Edward Mendelson pieced together traces of this secret life:
“I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.”
I’m not suggesting that we conduct the whole of our lives by this principle. But I’m fairly certain that such practices will yield more good for all involved than the form of life that emerges out of the imperative to blur the line between the private, the public, and the publicized.
Hannah Arendt once observed that “everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.” I think about this line all the time. In the era of social media, we have yielded to the strong tendency to thrust more and more of our lives into the light without availing ourselves of the nurturing darkness. In Arendtian terms, we sacrificed both the proper goods of private life and the proper goods of public life by subsuming both into a realm of digital sociality.
It is time, I think, to allow ourselves a respite from the public light, to rediscover the pleasures that attend practices and deeds done for their own sake.
Today, Ian Bogost published an essay titled “The Age of Social Media is Ending.” “To win the soul of social life, we must learn to muzzle it again, across the globe, among billions of people,” Bogost writes. “To speak less, to fewer people and less often–and for them to do the same to you, and everyone else as well.”
But he warns us that “if change is possible, carrying it out will be difficult, because we have adapted our lives to conform to social media’s pleasures and torments.”
My prescription: avail yourself of antivirals—opportunities to rediscover the power of silence, solitude, and goods pursued for their own sake. Do good, and retreat into the darkness.
Robin Sloan once more: “Many people don’t want to quit because they worry: without my Twitter account, who will listen to me? In what way will I matter to the world beyond my apartment, my office, my family? I believe these hesitations reveal something totally unrelated to Twitter, and if you find yourself fretting in this way, I will gently suggest that it’s worth questing a bit to discover what you’re really worried about.”