A few days ago Nathan Jurgenson tweeted a short thread commenting on what Twitter has become. “[I]t feels weird to tweet about things that arent news lately,” Jurgenson noted. A sociologist with an interest in social media and identity, he found that it felt rude to tweet about his interests when his feed seemed only concerned with the latest political news. About this tendency Jurgenson wisely observed, “following the news all day is the opposite of being more informed and it certainly isnt a kind ‘resistance.'”
These observations resonated with me. I’ve had a similar experience when logging in to Twitter, only to find that Twitter is fixated on the political (pseudo-)event of the moment. In those moments it seems if not rude then at least quixotic to link to a post that is not at all related to what everyone happens to be talking about. Sometimes, of course, it is not only political news that has this effect, it is also the all to frequent tragedy that can consume Twitter’s collective attention or the frivolous faux-controversy, etc.
In moments like these Twitter — and the same is true to some degree of other platforms — demands something of us, but it is not thought. It demands a reaction, one that is swift, emotionally charged, and in keeping with the affective tenor of the platform. In many respects, this entails not only an absence of thought but conditions that are overtly hostile to thought.
Even apart from crisis, controversies, and tragedies, however, the effect is consistent: the focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, the future does not come into play. Our time is now, our place is everywhere. Of course, social media has only heightened a tendency critics have noted since at least Kierkegaard’s time. To be well-informed, meaning up with current events, undermines the possibility of serious thinking, mature emotional responses, sound judgment, and wise action.
It is important, in my view, to make clear that this is not merely a problem of information overload. If it were only information we were dealing with, then we might be better able to recognize the nature of the problem and act to correct it. It is also, as I’ve noted briefly before, an affect overload problem. It is the emotional register that accounts for the Pavlovian alacrity with which we attend to our devices and the digital flows for which they are a portal. These devices, then, are, in effect, Skinner boxes we willingly inhabit that condition our cognitive and emotional lives. Twitter says “feel this,” we say “how intensely?” Social media never invites us to step away, to think and reflect, to remain silent, to refuse a response for now or may be indefinitely.
Under these circumstances, there is no place for thought.
For the sake of the world, thought must, at least for a time, take leave of the world, especially the world mediated to us by social media. We must, in other words, by deliberate action, make a place for thought.