Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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