Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World Wide Web

modified-twitter

Fail Whale. (Photo: Daniel Rothamel/Flickr)

Twitter, Modified

• May 01, 2014 • 10:05 AM

Fail Whale. (Photo: Daniel Rothamel/Flickr)

If the beloved platform falls short of our public discourse, can we imagine a more public alternative?

The people I follow on Twitter are an odd bunch. One manufactures cocktail additives—bitters and shrubs—in New York’s Hudson Valley; another once worked as a mailman in Canada’s brisk Yukon Territory. The followed—my followed—tweet about violence and poverty, Antarctica and climate change, city life in Bamako and Juba and San Francisco.

Theirs is a dying art.

So say Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer, two Atlantic technology editors who, earlier this week, published a “eulogy for Twitter.” At the time of this writing, Twitter users had shared the article more than 3,000 times since it was published on Wednesday morning, according to Shared Count, a social analytics site. The eulogy is a commemorative essay on the authors’ extensive history of microblogging. Once promising, Twitter has become “cruel and petty and fake.” Its jokes are no longer funny; its violent trolls, ever-louder. Sometimes, the site’s weariness is gendered, or racialized, or sexualized: For some minority communities, especially those with traumatic pasts, Twitter is far from supportive.

For others, the site is a rare haven of empathy. Mikki Kendall, a Chicago-based writer, defiantly tweeted, “I don’t think #BlackTwitter is necessarily going to appeal to white hipsters or techies or whatever. But it doesn’t have to.” #BlackTwitter is one of the site’s many sub-communities; in their eulogy, LaFrance and Meyer identify with “Media Twitter,” a digital group of journalists generally located between New York City and Washington, D.C., or satellites thereof.

If “fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online,” perhaps we need a new way to think about the purpose of both online communities and the information they provide.

If these communities are cliquish, they are also important forms of communal support. #BlackTwitter, like Media Twitter, drinks together, and writes together, and condemns the persistent inequity of American society together. Each community is a nightly affair, like a digital Cheers. And as in Cheers, each confronts the daily struggles of its members: the break-ups, the hirings, the firings, the feelings of joy and loss and disempowerment. It’s not just that Twitter is cruel and petty and fake; sometimes, our human selves are equally so.

As an application, Twitter does not acknowledge these user-generated “Twitter, modified” communities. In the eight years since its founding, Twitter’s fundamentals haven’t changed much. Its interface is sleeker, and its multimedia functions more friendly, but the basic logic remains: Twitter is a public broadcast. In theory, the public availability of Twitter’s information trickles down. Information is produced openly, and so it is received; the resulting social network—Twitter, unmodified—is open and unfettered. The application’s only native catalog, the hashtag, is purposely ephemeral, intended to capture trends but never the communities that sustain them. The result is an open meritocracy, where the quality of a user’s tweets becomes a social currency.

Of course, Twitter’s publicness is a useful fiction—one of several, as LaFrance and Meyer observe. In reality, the application’s users are part of a prestige economy, a term popularized by Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based writer, anthropologist, and prolific Twitter user herself. On Twitter, meritocracy is a perk, not a feature. A Twitter user’s ideas do not succeed in a vacuum—rather, they advance on the strength of the user’s existing community. As a form of solidarity, these communities are powerfully constructive; as a form of exclusion, they are precisely the opposite.

Like most Twitter users, I have identified a small group of favored colleagues whose tweets I bookmark and retweet, and whose recommendations I follow (admittedly, Meyer is a member of this group). I read what they read; I mimic their jokes; I adopt careful cadences from their short-charactered missives. No objective quality determines these users’ credibility. Instead, their appeal is often social: I see tweet-to-tweet with certain segments of this group’s diverse worldview, and I consume their information accordingly. If this Twitter is public, it’s a very small public indeed.

If “fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online,” as LaFrance and Meyer suggest, perhaps we need a new way to think about the purpose of both online communities and the information they provide. Discord is an essential and natural characteristic of our human lives; its digital forms are a simple copy-cat, amplified. Twitter cannot be our perfect public sphere, quite simply because that perfect public sphere does not exist, offline or otherwise.

The authors’ eulogy concludes, “If Twitter is fading, what’s next?” If Twitter falls short of our public discourse, can we imagine a more public alternative? The prestige economy of digital information will not disappear; prestige sustains the public commons as it ensures its fragility. Many applications create communities that are neither fully private nor public, and which unite open communities along common interests and values. Goodreads, the digital reader’s catalog, comes to mind. What the application lacks in Twitter’s transparency, it permits in discretion. The application allows book enthusiasts to share their recent reads, albeit rudimentarily; fans of Pride and Prejudice may find other Austen admirers, and so on. With a few tweaks, one can imagine a fully-fledged social application, similar to a community book club, beyond the site’s existing consumer role.

As a public sphere, Twitter dilutes our digital selves; as an avenue for pluralism, a more segmented application may prove a more meaningful tool.

Daniel Solomon
Daniel Solomon is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C. He has written for The New York Times, The Awl, The Week, and Nieman Storyboard. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_E_Solo.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.