Shortly after my previous post, my good
friend David Reid not-so-subtly subtweeted me for apparently yelling at
everyone using a twitter thread to be quiet and stop expressing themselves. He
This is the truth. There are, indeed, important, substantial essays being
written on Twitter, in the form of threads. If I could direct your attention
to one that’s probably a better use of your time than what I have to say here,
this is a great example:
Moreover, although the twitter character limit can inhibit the expression of
nuance, just having a blog is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for clumsy, hot
I screwed this one up. I’m sorry.
The point I was trying to primarily focus on in that post is that a twitter
thread demands a lot of attention, and that publishers exploiting that aspect
of the medium in order to direct more attention to themselves are
leveraging a limited resource and thereby externalizing their marketing
costs. Further, this idiom was invented by, and has extensively been
used by people who don’t really need any more attention than they already
If you’re an activist trying to draw attention to an important cause, or a
writer trying to find your voice, and social media (or twitter threads
specifically) has helped you do that, I am not trying to scold you for
growing an audience on - and deriving creative energy from - your platform of
choice. If you’re leveraging the focus-stealing power of twitter threads to
draw attention to serious social issues, maybe you deserve that attention.
Maybe in the face of such issues my convenience and comfort and focus are not
paramount. And for people who really don’t want that distraction, the
‘unfollow’ button is, obviously, only a click away.
That’s not to say I think that relying on social media exclusively is a good
idea for activists; far from it. I think recent political events have shown
that a social media platform is often a knife that will turn in your hand. So
I would encourage pretty much anyone trying to cultivate an audience to
consider getting an independent web presence where you can host more durable
and substantive collections of your thoughts, not because I don’t want you to
annoy me, but because it gives you a measure of independence, and avoids a
potentially destructive monoculture of social media. Given the mechanics of
the technology, this is true even if you use a big hosted service for your
long-form stuff, like Medium or Blogger; it’s not just about a big company
having a hold on your stuff, but about how your work is presented based on the
goals of the product presenting it.
However, the exact specifics of such a recommendation are an extremely
complex set of topics, and not topics that I’m confident I’ve thought all the
way through. There are dozens more problems with twitter threads for following
long-form discussions and unintentionally misrepresenting complex points.
Maybe they’re really serious, maybe not.
As far as where the long-form stuff should go, there are very good reasons to
want to self-host things, and very good reasons why self-hosting is incredibly
dangerous, especially for high-profile activists and intellectuals. There are
really good reasons to engage with social media platforms and really good
reasons to withdraw.
This is why I didn’t want to address this sort of usage of twitter threading; I
didn’t want to dive into the sociopolitical implications of the social media
ecosystem. At some point, you can expect a far longer post from me about the
dynamics of social media, but it is going to take a serious effort to do it
A final thought before I hopefully stop social-media-ing about social media for
One of the criticisms that I received during this
from David as
well as others who contacted me privately, is that I’m criticizing Twitter from
a level of remove; implying that since I’m not fully engaged with the medium I
don’t really have the right (or perhaps the expertise) to be critical of it. I
object to that.
In addition to
my previously stated reasons for my
reduced engagement - which mostly have to do with personal productivity and
creative energy - I also have serious reservations about the political
structure of social media. There’s a lot that’s good about it, but I think the
incentive structures around it may mean that it is, ultimately, a
fundamentally corrosive and corrupting force in society. At the very least, a
social media platform is a tool which can be corrosive and corrupting and
therefore needs to be used thoughtfully and intentionally to minimize the harm
that it can do while retaining as many of its benefits as possible.
I don’t have time to fully explore the problems that I’m alluding to now
but at this point if I wrote something like “social media platforms are slowly
destroying liberal democracy”, I’m not even sure if I’d be exaggerating.
When I explain that I have these concerns, I’m often asked the obvious
follow-up: if social media is so bad why don’t I just stop using it entirely?
The problem is, social media companies effectively control access to an
enormous audience, which is now difficult to reach without their
intermediation. I have friends, as we all probably do, that are hard for me to
contact via other channels. An individual cannot effectively boycott a
communication tool, and I am not even sure yet that “stop using it” is the
right way to combat its problems.
So, I’m not going to stop communicating with my friends because I have concerns
about the medium they prefer, and I’m also not going to stop thinking or
writing about how to articulate and address those concerns. I think I have as
much a right as anyone to do that.