Devil’s Bargain

In his most recent newsletter, sociologist Mark Carrigan mused about the question “What does it mean to take Twitter seriously?”

My initial thought, upon reading the titular question, was that we take Twitter seriously when we reckon with its corrosive effects, both on public discourse and on our psyche (to say nothing of our souls).

That was not quite what Carrigan had in mind: “… what I’m really seeking is to take it seriously,” Carrigan explains, “using it as a form of intellectual production while avoiding the mindless distraction it can so easily give rise to.”

I’m tired and my cynicism is acting up just now, so my response was dismissive: “Good luck.” I grant, though, that the question deserves a bit more in response.

Carrigan uses Twitter’s ephemeral character has his foil and so notes that the fact that “people can use Twitter in ways which are far from ephemeral tells us little about how we can do this,” take it seriously as a site of intellectual production, that is.

He goes on to note that there’s a certain artfulness involved in condensing a serious thought into a brief statement, as in the tradition of the aphorism. And he correctly observes that it is not just a matter of Tweeting slowly, as the Slow Scholarship Manifesto would have it, but rather it is best understood as a matter of care.

Carrigan knows, of course, that there are real challenges involved. He is currently taking a break from Twitter, after a long stint managing the social media feed for an academic publication and scheduling 50+ tweets a day (the mere thought exhausts me). He understands that much of Twitter’s content is less than artful and serious. He understands that it can inculcate unfortunate habits. But on the whole he remains hopeful about the possibility of using Twitter meaningfully.

I don’t know. I just took some time off the platform myself, roughly three months or so. In truth, I continued to check in periodically to see if there were any interesting stories or essays circulating and simply refrained from tweeting anything out except links to a couple of pieces that I wrote during that time.

I’ve come back to the platform, if I am honest about it, mostly for the sake of getting my work a little more attention. I have to confess that Twitter has yielded some good relationships and opportunities over the past few years. And there’s a part of me that wants to keep that portal open. It’s just that on most days, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

With regards to Twitter, I’m a convinced McLuhanite: the medium is the message, which is to say that regardless of the well-intentioned uses to which we put it, the medium will, over time, have its effect on users, and most of those effects are toxic. And, I hasten to add, I think this would be the case even if Jack kicked off the Nazis, etc.

Alan Jacobs, whose work you all know I admire and whose opinion I value, remains resolute in his decision to abandon the platform for good:

But here’s why I keep saying it: The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point.

Just give it a try: suspend your Big Social Media accounts and devote some time to the open web, to a blog of your own — maybe to as an easy, simple way in. Give it a try and see if you’re not happier. I know I am.

I don’t disagree, except to say that ditching the platform and going indie, as it were, works better (better, I grant, depends on your purposes) when you’ve already got a large audience that is going to follow you where ever you go or an established community (a convivial society, I’d dare say), online and off, with which to sustain your intellectual life. I’m pretty sure I don’t quite have the former, and I’ve struggled to find that latter, making my way as an independent scholar of sorts these last several years.

But again, this is not to say that Alan is wrong, only that my counting the cost is a more conflicted affair.

In any case, 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, there are no Tom Bombadils, immune to the ring’s power, among us in this case.

So, I don’t know, the present foray into Twitterland may be short-lived.

What I do know is that the newsletter is increasingly where I want to write and what I want to keep developing. It may be that even this fair site, which has served me well for nearly a decade, is entering its twilight. So, anyway, sign up, and, as your final act on Twitter, tell others to do so, too.

3 thoughts on “Devil’s Bargain

  1. My own relationship with Twitter has taken a similar arc of late: after doing a solid round of pruning and promising myself I wouldn’t try to have any sort of “discussion” on the platform, I almost immediately forgot that promise and engaged in a pointless back and forth with someone that demonstrated clearly that neither of us could condense our thoughts into the form required, and further convincing me that even making the attempt left my own thought impoverished.

    I’m not ready to leave entirely, in part because I do see a bunch of interesting things from my (now heavily pruned) list of follows, and while I’ve tried to migrate most of my “reading the internet” to a curated RSS feed I still do see things that I’d miss otherwise. But I think a lot more about what I want to convey by making a comment or Retweeting something, and more often than not I just let it go (or show my wife without bothering to broadcast it to anyone else). I think that leaves me at a net benefit from the platform, but how would I really know? Maybe finishing my side-project of getting a “thoughts on books I’ve been reading” microblog together would be a better use of my time, in part because no one would actually read it?

  2. There’s an incredible, delusional allure of Twitter something along the lines of all the smart and influential people being on Twitter. Filter bubbles, though.

    I have often thought about going back to my old blog more regularly or a newsletter or whatever the mirco-blog thing Alan Jacobs likes is and then thought “Why shout into the void?” Why don’t I ask that question of my 21-follower Twitter account? (Or, more precisely, why persist in tweeting from it despite acknowledging the poignancy of the question?)

    I actually think Twitter serves as an outlet for me for thoughts I can’t or won’t say on facebook (where my actual friends and family are) about topics nobody would ask me about, but I just want to–oh, no–I just want to shout into the void. Having such an outlet helps me focus my “more real” interactions on more meaningful and productive thoughts.

    If you ask me “Why don’t you blog more?” I will answer along the lines of “Because the internet is full of trash and has no arbitration between substance and trash and why should I think my contribution is substantial rather than trash?”

    I do think I learn on Twitter and get exposed to valuable, necessary viewpoints and perspectives that I don’t get anywhere else. I could accomplish that without tweeting, but I’m not sure how I would without Twitter as a platform and without other people tweeting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s