Don’t Stop Tweeting On My Account

Context is everything; while some ideas can be whispered, others deserve a shout.

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 pointed out:

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 takes:

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 themselves1 are leveraging a limited resource2 and thereby externalizing their marketing costs3. Further, this idiom was invented by4, and has extensively been used by people who don’t really need any more attention than they already have.

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 justice.

A final thought before I hopefully stop social-media-ing about social media for a while:

One of the criticisms that I received during this conversation, 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 now5 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.

  1. ... even if they’re not doing it on purpose ... 

  2. the reader’s attention 

  3. interrupting the reader repeatedly to get them to pay attention rather than posting stuff as a finished work, allowing the reader to make efficient use of their attention 

  4. I’m aware that many people outside of the white male tech nerd demographic - particularly women of color and the LGBTQ community - have made extensive use of the twitter thread for discussing substantive issues. But, as far as my limited research has shown (although the difficulty of doing such research is one of the problems with Twitter), Marc Andreessen was by far the earliest pioneer of the technique and by far its most prominent advocate. I’d be happy for a correction on this point, however. 

  5. The draft in progress, which I've been working on for a month, is already one of the longest posts I’ve ever written and it’s barely half done, if that.