The Problem of Twitter: A Rant

Presented at the Inaugural Cool Twitter Conference in Washington DC on 6/11/2009. By “presented” I mean I stuck my head in my notes and never looked up and talked too fast – you’ll see that on the video, if I get a link (you might have to pay to see it, I’m money like that). Below are my notes.

I. I blog. I Twitter. And because of Twitter my subscribers have nearly doubled.

Well, so what? We all know many benefiting from Twitter’s users – the followers I’ve made are happy to use Digg, Reddit, Mixx, Stumbleupon and a host of other social media. Anything given to them tends to end up elsewhere on the web without my asking, but again, this success is true for many.

I’m a bit hesitant to talk about what I blog: I wish I could articulate a general problem all of you have directly experienced. The blog entry I’m proudest of is on a passage from Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, where he says that progress in philosophy is like organizing a bookshelf in a library. Progress is made when a few of the books are arranged correctly and need not be resorted. That notion of careful progress, where the goal is to avoid questions in philosophy that are pointless traps, stands in contrast to someone like Heidegger, where the question “Why are there beings at all rather than nothing?” is perfectly legitimate for philosophers to pursue.

The other blog entry I’m proud of is on the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln says that “all men are created equal” is a proposition; Jefferson calls it, in the Declaration of Independence, a self-evident truth. The difference in how equality is grounded reflects a vision of what values must be pursued more fervently by Americans post-Civil War. All of American history is the tension between liberty and equality; a democracy needs both, yet tends too much to one or the other any given time. When you understand such a tension – that there are no perfect, perhaps not even satisfactory conclusions in politics – you see more clearly how rich American politics can be, how possibility and value are linked. But that is a story for later.

What matters now is that you see how different I think what I’m trying to do is. There are better writers and academics out there, creating posts that are similar to what I write. Given how much I write on poetry, someone might not implausibly claim that I run a poor man’s Sparknotes/Clifff Notes. I am not in a position to define or defend my work; I can only demonstrate to a limited degree its value.

II. In a sense, Twitter is most useful to me because it is truly social media. On Facebook or Myspace, there are status updates, but the ability to find and engage new people seems to be dependent on a static page. People have to go find you, for the most part. My first few minutes on Twitter were the questions “Whom do I follow” and “Whom do I want to follow?” It it true you can set up a fairly private network on Twitter, but it seems to me that no matter what you do on Twitter, you’re broadcasting for the most part. Some have wondered aloud why some journalists love Twitter. Part of it I suspect is instantly being mass media, even while working a niche, networking, talking to friends and thus demonstrating the foundations of a thesis about how our society could entirely be mass media.

For me, Twitter is a bit different. I need truly social media to meet like-minded friends who would be interested in my work and open to the notion that I might have something interesting to say. My current crop of real friends is mixed on this score: a very good friend of mine listens to Alex Jones and is convinced the US government attacked its own people and covered it up. He naturally has no patience for my blog’s discussion of Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner in “The Case of Wagner:” Nietzsche blasts Wagner for Wagner’s promotion of the Reich, anti-Semitism, and shallow critique of Christianity. Along the way, Nietzsche makes a number of points important to understanding where conspiracy theory comes from. They can be summed up thus: people get it in their heads that they can write their own myths, nothing less, and they use a lot of ironic departures from traditional modes to construct what is less-than-rigorous in terms of truth.

III. The problem of Twitter is perhaps the problem of all new media. I suspect media centralization/decentralization goes in cycles: it seems around the time of the American Revolution everyone and their mother had a printing press and was creating pamphlets. This part of the cycle we’re in is strange, as you can tell by the issues I’ve alluded to; it isn’t clear that we can get clear on what questions are worth asking, which values truly are debatable, and whether we know enough to make the most of media. A small example will suffice: I’ve followed enough political tweeters to see thoughtful articles – i.e. in Mother Jones, not exactly a rightist publication, analysis and slight criticism of Sonia Sotomayor’s judicial writings, or’s dispatches about states prosecutors thinking medical examiners employed by the state shouldn’t give an impartial opinion but always serve the prosecution only – I’ve seen those articles tweeted and buried under a host of comments about politics that are, at best, people venting.

But don’t people have the right to vent? And isn’t that self-expression crucial to media and politics in a democratic society? Right now, political science works from the assumptions that human behavior is predictable in the aggregate, and that politics exists to enable satisfactory outcomes for all actors involved. Those assumptions make it very difficult for me to differentiate politics – where we send our fellow citizens to fight and die routinely – from marketing any given product. They lead to the reasoning articulated by a very intelligent, thoughtful blogger and political scientist, where a party doesn’t exist to change minds but only mobilize its base and conduct politics within the context of established institutions. Inasmuch as Hamilton in Federalist 1 declares that the whole point of the United States of America is to establish that people can govern themselves through “reflection and choice,” this state of affairs in political reasoning is unacceptable to me. Inasmuch as Twitter is representative of how we want to communicate with each other,  how we want to establish influence and receive information, I am dependent – not merely a user – of Twitter.

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