On Twitter, Briefly
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 6
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and society. In this installment you’ll find a series of reflections about Twitter in light of the recent attention given to its role in society.
Maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself, “I wonder what Sacasas makes of all this Twitter business?” In truth, I don’t actually believe any of you have been thinking any such thing. Nonetheless, I have been thinking a bit about Twitter, if for no other reason than to reconsider my own use of the platform. So here you go, in no particular order, a few thoughts … some mine, some not.
1. Twitter is the only social media platform I use, and I’ve long characterized my use of it as a devil’s bargain. The platform has benefitted me in certain ways, but this has come at a cost. The benefits and costs are what you would expect. I’ve made good connections through the platform, my writing has garnered a bit more of an audience, and I’ve encountered the good work of others. On the other hand, I’ve given it too much of my time and energy, and I’m pretty sure my thinking and my writing have, on the whole, suffered as a consequence. Assuming I’m right in my self-assessment, that’s too high of a price, is it not? The problem, as I’ve suggested before, is that the machine requires too much virtue to operate, and, frankly, I’m not always up to the task.
2. And yet, to return to the other side of the ledger, the human connections are real and meaningful. A few months back, someone I’ve known on Twitter for years lost their father. I’ve know this person only as an avatar and occasional strings of text, but I was genuinely saddened by his loss and felt it keenly. Chiefly, I regretted that I could not offer more than my own string of text in support. And, so it is with more than a few others. Over time, occasional interactions and mutual awareness amounts to something. My sense of these Twitter-based friendships, if I may call them that, is not that they are inauthentic or inferior, but only that they are incomplete.
3. During the fidget spinner craze a few years back, a thought came to mind: “Social media are the fidget spinners of the soul.” Maybe this is one of the so-called darlings I’d do best to kill, but, I don’t know, I still think it works. It’s another way of capturing the relationship between social media and sloth or acedia. The self is in disarray, agitated, unsettled, directionless, and the best it can do is fidget with the platforms to keep the unease at bay.
4. Obviously, Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter has been the impetus for the latest round of angst about Twitter, but Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality (1973) made some observations that are worth keeping in mind:
The issue at hand is not the juridical ownership of tools, but rather the discovery of the characteristic of some tools which make it impossible for anybody to “own” them. The concept of ownership cannot be applied to a tool that cannot be controlled.
The issue at hand, therefore, is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. Only secondarily does the question arise whether private control of a potentially useful tool is in the public interest.
Certain tools are destructive no matter who owns them, whether it be the Mafia, stockholders, a foreign company, the state, or even a workers’ commune.
5. I’ve also found it difficult to resist characterizing Twitter as a tool akin to the Ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The analogy first occurred to me with reference to then president-elect Trump’s use of Twitter to master all other forms of media. This remains true, but not only of Trump. Drop the Tolkien reference if you like, but Twitter’s power, as is widely acknowledged, is not in its relative size as a platform but rather in its ability to beckon our collective attention, whether we are on the platform or not, by focusing the attention of journalists, politicians, celebrities, pundits, academics, and other key refractors of our collective attention.
And in the same post in which I described my devil’s bargain, I also noted the following:
I can feel Twitter working on me as I’ve begun to use it more frequently of late and allowed myself to tweet as well as read. I can feel it working on me in much the same way that, in Tolkien’s world, the wearers of the Ring can feel it working on them. It leaves one feeling weary, thin, exposed, morally compromised, divided, etc., while deeply distorting one’s view of reality. And, as far as I’m concerned, in this case there are no Tom Bombadils among us immune to the Ring’s power.
The person who comes to Twitter seeking attention finds that their own capacity to attend to the world is wrecked in the process.
6. But it is also true that my experience of Twitter is not the only possible experience of Twitter. Here I want to especially note and acknowledge André Brock’s work on Black Twitter. The experience of Twitter is not one thing. The platform may have certain tendencies and effects that transcend the particularities of the individual user’s experience, but this should not obscure what Twitter has meant to users who are not situated in this world as I am.
7. From Ezra Klein:
So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.”
Nguyen’s core argument is that games are pleasurable in part because they simplify the complexity of life. They render the rules clear, the score visible. That’s fine when we want to play a game. But sometimes we end up in games, or gamelike systems, where we don’t want to trade our values for those of the designers, and don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Metrics, they’re one hell of a drug.
8. This one’s a bit speculative and maybe a deposit on a longer future post. I’ve been thinking lately about how the challenge Twitter presents to political culture might be framed as an unrelenting hostility to opinion. Perhaps I’ve lost you just now. Bear with me. I have in mind Hannah Arendt’s discussions of fact, opinion, and truth in relation to politics. As I understand her, Arendt argues that claims of truth preempt the deliberation and debate essential to democratic governance. “Every claim in the sphere of human affairs,” she wrote in “Truth and Politics,” “to an absolute truth, whose validity needs not support from the side of opinion, strikes at the very roots of all politics and all governments.” Further on, she adds, “The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.” But facts “must inform opinions,” Arendt grants. On Twitter, facts and truth collapse into one another and opinion gets squeezed. This happens in at least a couple of ways. For example, facts may be elevated to the level of truths to which all must bow rather than serve their more humble role as the foundation of contested opinions. Or, alternatively, the proliferation of information blurs the line between fact and opinion by rendering facts matters of opinion. I’ll leave it at this, but may be more to come on this score.
He says this like its a good thing. More seriously, this is not quite right. On the one hand, it may be better to say that what we have is actually just plain old human consciousness pushed beyond its capacity by the scope, scale, and pace of the medium. Or, we could say that its not really a global consciousness so much as a global unconscious—a force veiled from our full awareness, which nonetheless shapes our experience.
10. If you click through to read just one thing about Twitter, maybe make it Robin Sloan’s series of reflections. Here’s one highlight:
The amount that Twitter omits is breathtaking; more than any other social platform, it is indifferent to huge swaths of human experience and endeavor. I invite you to imagine this omitted content as a vast, bustling city. Scratching at your timeline, you are huddled in a single small tavern with the journalists, the nihilists, and the chaotic neutrals.
As they say … oof.
And here’s another:
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. I don’t have words for it, exactly, but if you find yourself fretting in this way, I will gently suggest that it’s worth questing a bit inside yourself to discover what you’re really worried about.
Just so. Loneliness and the absence of meaning … those are some words for it, I think. I’m sure there are others. We do not enjoy a common world in which people matter, so we turn to online platforms to find what the common world cannot give us.
In truth, I’ve had my own amorphous doubts about quitting Twitter, maybe to some degree they fall into this category Sloan identifies. But Sloan’s pointed reflections have done their good work. It’s time to step back a bit, maybe more than a bit. And, in truth, as obvious as it should’ve seemed, far better to invest my time right here, in this convivial society. Stay tuned.