The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 6
The kinds of connections we make on these platforms really intrigue me. You say after your friends' loss: "I regretted that I could not offer more than my own string of text in support." This makes me recall an essay from one of my students, in which, upon her grandfather's death, she shared the news on her preferred social media network (not Twitter). She wrote that almost immediately upon sharing this, she began to doubt her own intentions. Was she using her grandfather's death to garner sympathy and attention for herself? The experience tainted (her word) her grieving process, and made her feel that she'd betrayed her grandfather in some way. It seems to me that all too often the connections we make with these strings of text or photos or video do feel meaningful to us, but are inevitably undermined by feelings of regret, guilt, self-doubt, and so on, and that the cause of these negative feelings is the mode of the medium. Can I lament a loved one's death ON TWITTER without exploiting my loved one for attentional gain? Is the "support" that I receive there really support, or is it quantitative affirmation of my own attention-value? I guess what I'm suggesting is that even the items that fall into the "positive" side of the social media ledger are not as positive as they may seem, and that the same grieving person, were they spending less time on Twitter and more time among physically present friends, would be better comforted and in a way that does not make us doubt our own motives. The metrics are not just "a hell of a drug," they change the nature of our connections to our fellows and make them less authentic more performative and part of a "game" unrelated to the love we feel for our families and the loss we feel when they die.
As an individual who, albeit in a small fairly insignificant way, contributed to where the internet is today, I am constantly warring with myself over the value of any of this. I find myself pining for the days of mimeograph newsletters by mail. As a result I send few texts or emails, and invest the time and money in writing letters. It brings up many questions of validity. Are we only fooling ourselves with "social media" as public square, or even local pub?
On #5: the Lord of the Rings comparison is an outstanding comparison, and your description of how using Twitter eventually makes you feel "weary, thin, exposed, morally compromised, divided, etc., while deeply distorting one’s view of reality" is exactly how I feel as well.
But I think you can go further here with this connection, using another Ring and one of Tolkien's closest friends: C.S. Lewis. One of Lewis' lesser known ideas is the idea of the "inner Ring", which shows up in his Space Trilogy and some of his letters and lectures. In an essay collection aimed at aspiring pastors/ministers, Andrew Cameron and Brian Rosner summarize Lewis’ “Inner Ring” idea as “our passion to belong to some ‘inner circle’ of people who hover temptingly beyond our reach. When gripped by this passion, to be excluded from these circles drives us slightly mad, and to enter them leaves us smugly exultant. This very personal and subjective experience can drive dozens of our daily decisions. C.S. Lewis calls this ‘the quest for the Inner Ring.'"
What makes Twitter unique among most social media platforms are that the various "inner rings" of society and its various subgroups are out in the open and in full display. The fluidity of engaging with others on Twitter can create the impression that one can move up and into these rings fluidly. If one's heart is set on getting into those rings at all costs, Lewis tells us that “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things." Lewis warns us that:
"...This desire [to belong to an Inner Ring] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it - this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, great, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing - the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an ‘inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in - one way or another you will be that kind of man. I have already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that kind of man.”
I don't know if Lewis' ring is the ground for Tolkein's ring or vice versa, but they seem to co-exist together and mutually reinforce each other, especially in the context of Twitter.
This isn't meant to be a slight, but I thought you /were/ off Twitter? I swear I remember reading something from The Frailest Thing that said you were. Again, not a slight. I've done the whole song and dance before. I'm about a year removed from the site currently; only social media I'm on is LinkedIn, and I might be lucky to put 30 minutes on there a week.
(I also have Twitter perpetually blocked, so even if I was curious to see if anyone was on Twitter, I'd be unable to do so, ha!)
However, I also disagree with Jack re: "global consciousness," because that would mean we all partake in the dialogue, when we clearly don't. What minor percentage of users actually produce the majority of the tweets? Have we not all finally accepted that the majority opinions on Twitter don't actually reflect how the average person feels?
Anyway, I just can't find a good reason to be on Twitter, or any of the major sites anymore. With LinkedIn, at least I'm using it to help keep an eye on jobs and building connections as I transition into a new career-field. Otherwise, I know what these sites do to me, the allure of broadcasting my opinions in the (not so secret) hope I will be affirmed and praised. It took me a long time to admit that's the person I had become, and I absolutely hated it. No longer.
Interesting. Never been on it. Same thoughts and feelings about posting on FB. I see much social media as better facilitating and incentivizing anti-social discussion. I use instaG to post pics of my art and to connect with artists. There is obvious utility for small businesses to connect with geographically dispersed customers. Still, it's not for me. And I'm not convinced the public benefits outweigh the public costs, though it's clear that private monetary benefits are enormous and will justify the public costs, regardless of type or magnitude. At bottom, though beneficial in certain narrow dimensions, in general, it makes money for the technicians by bringing out the worst in people. I hope it will all stop one day.
fwiw, there's at least one reader who was looking forward to hearing your thoughts :) Klein's remarks remind me of Justin Smith's diagnosis of social media as a "debate-themed video game"--it's been harder lately for me to see past that overlay, especially where it connects for me with work I've read on addiction. I'm hoping to get some writing done this summer, and I may have to turn the birdsite down to zero to really dig in--like you, I don't think it has a particularly healthy effect on my ability to think and write...cheers! -cgb
Your last line says it all really. I’m not on it (was briefly years ago, until I got trolled by my own brother, whom I love, but it kind of showed up the weird unpleasantness of the thing). I’m interested in what happens to it under its new owner, because everyone seems to care so much about it, and I think it’s become a net force for badness (not evil, just not very good) - if he does anything to improve it, I think that would be a net positive for humanity, in a small way.
I would invite you to check out, and reflect upon, the Mastodon service. This is a Twitter-like service defined by computer protocols rather than ownership. It works akin to email, where each instance can communicate with any other instance. There is no algorithm involved in hiding or promoting content, just chronological order and the reach of your instance. The experience is only trivially like Twitter.
In particular, there is a two tiered system of moderation which seems remarkably effective against bad actors. Users may block other users, but they may also block and report entire instances. Instance administrators will block other instances that allow terrible content, starving them of attention. It's possible, of course, that effective strategies have simply not evolved yet. There is some inevitable drama around admins using instance blocking in anger, but for the most part it works well.
Mastodon will not replace Twitter, nor will it "win" against a well-funded corporation designed to maximize engagement. But it offers a glimpse into how a civil society can exist online when not focused on profits or growth. I recommend https://scholar.social/ over one of the larger instances.
The part of these sorts of analyses that bugs me is that fact that most people on Twitter don't post often or even have many followers. Since they don't get the reward of validation offered by metrics, what's the impetus for them to stay logged on? Most thought towards social media is focused on the minority of people who get a lot of engagement (such as yourself, Michael), rather than on the majority who get little engagement. It seems plausible that the reward of engagement could still be a motivator to stay on; however the thrill would be getting noticed by a bigger account. Hence, the phenomenon of reply guys. My analysis of small accounts seems obvious, which is why I wonder what else is going on.