Foremost amongst the guidance offered about Twitter is the claim that it is fundamentally a conversational platform. One shouldn’t simply ‘broadcast’. It’s for discussion and engagement. There’s an element of truth in this but it’s one which can be lost through repetition, as the status of received wisdom stops us from thinking critically about why everyone agreed with it in first place.
Rather than seeing Twitter as conversational, we should perhaps see it as connective. Connectivity in this sense in something automated, it’s a technology for sorting people in a way that encourages interaction between them. Connectivity in this sense is, as Jose van Dijck puts it, “a quantifiable value, also known as the popularity principle: the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you.”
Connectivity presupposes interaction. Unless people interact on platforms, connectivity is thwarted. In this limited sense, it is true to say that someone is not using Twitter correctly if they are not interacting. The value in the platform simply won’t be realised by them because they won’t make new contacts, they won’t increase the visibility of their action on it and they won’t accumulate ‘popularity’. But why does popularity matter? Unless there’s a clear answer to this question, one possibility for which is simply that “it doesn’t“, it’s likely the platform incentives are substituting for the reflexivity of the user.
My concern is that invocations of Twitter as conversational help naturalise this architecture. They promulgate the idea that one is ‘doing it wrong’ unless they are tweeting hyperactively, precluding the possibility of each user coming to their own assessment about the utility or otherwise of the platform for them. This is important because there are some really profound limitations to Twitter as a platform, as Richard Seymour usefully recounts:
Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.
The ritual incantation that Twitter is for conversation functions as the faith which keeps the great Twittering machine in operation. Unless we’re willing to abandon it entirely, we need to have serious discussions about what Seymour calls ‘coping strategies’ to obviate its more undesirable characteristics from creating problems. Part of this involves recognising pseudo-catharsis and trying to distinguish ranting at someone from something which can provide the basis for a productive discussion, in spite of the profound channel constraints. Otherwise, I think we’ll ultimately be pushed towards something more akin to Seymour’s approach, which is pretty much as far as I think you can go before you’re effectively giving up on the platform.
I don’t want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate ‘timeline’. But the ‘mentions’ column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they’re entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email — meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.
Categories: Digital Sociology