Allow me to explain something important about Twitter.
This something is obvious to anyone with more than 10,000 followers on the platform but not so readily apparent to those with only 500 or so. My girlfriend is in the latter category, and she struggles to understand my animus for for it. The difference in follower counts partially explains the gap. But she also came to America’s public sphere late, and never really experienced the world before twitter. That was the public sphere of blogs and forum posts, not tweets and retweets. She can be happy with what she has: she knows of nothing of what was lost.
In many ways the twitter experience of the user with a low follower account is somewhat similar to the experience of the old blogosphere. Many of my readers came to the internet in the 2010s; before I proceed with this point it is probably sketching out just what the internet was like in the world before them. That internet was organized differently. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Reddit, and Instagram either did not exist then or were the preserve of teenagers and university age students. Those platforms were for flirting and goofing off and gossiping behind your parents back. People who wanted to discuss bigger things—culture, art, history, science, business, politics, or what have you—went to the blogs. Well, the blogs and the forums.
There were two aspects of this older internet ecology that set it apart from the current get up. The first was its clear division into hundreds of separate communities. This was most explicit in the forums, which usually did not allow users to comment unless they created a log-in and agreed to very specific community rules. But this was true even of the blogs that anyone could view or comment. No blog was island—or if an island, each was part of an archipelago, a constellation of commentators interested in a specific topic or problem. Perhaps you cared a great deal about the Iraq War, or peak oil, or New Atheism. You would find people blogging about it, read their posts, write your own posts in response to what they were typing, and try to leave incisive comments in the threads attached to posts you liked. If you were leaving quality comments and writing up quality posts eventually members of your chosen section of the blogosphere would click on your name, explore what you had been writing, and start linking to it and writing responses to it themselves.
In practical terms, this meant that most communities were siloed off from each other. While a very few people with national prominence might be blogging to the masses, most people were blogging and commenting for a more select community. People thought of themselves as part of a select community. There were many incentives for treating each other as community members should. Because these communities were relatively small and contained, everybody involved was soon familiar with everybody else. There was nothing to be gained but much to be lost by turning disagreements personal. Bloggers and forum moderators had full control over their own sites, and did not shy from banning and censoring people they believed were poisoning the conversation. Each community had its norms, and people were happy to shun those who did not follow them.
This leads to the second big difference between the internet of the aughts and the internet of the 2010s: the standards for participation were different—in some ways the barrier to entry was both higher and lower than on twitter. In the old days people used to say “if you don’t like it, make your own blog!” That directive was easy to follow. It is near impossible for someone de-platformed from twitter to create some new twitter to replace it; in contrast, anybody really could create their own blog (and forums were not hard to stand up either).
But if writers were to have people read their blogs, then their blogs had to be good. This was the price of participation. On twitter, anybody who can think up a snarky 140 characters retort can contribute to the “conversation.” In the blogosphere, you had to create your own blog and write up your thoughts in long-form. For this reason, blog debates were simply more intelligent than today’s twitter debates. Idiot bloggers were ignored and usually did not last. Idiot tweeters cannot be shunted to the side—especially if they have a blue check.
The existence of the blue checks points to the way in which the barriers that a new blogger faced entering a community was far lower than is currently the case on twitter. The start-up costs of blogging were higher, but once somebody integrated themselves into a community and began writing, they were judged on the quality of that writing alone. Very little attention was paid to who that person was outside of the blogosphere. While some prominent and well known individuals blogged, there was nothing like the “blue checks” we see on twitter today. It is not hard to understand why this is. Twitter is an undifferentiated mass of writhing souls trying to inflict their angry opinions on the earth. Figuring out who to listen to in this twist of two-sentences is difficult. We use a tweeter’s offline affiliations to separate the wheat and the chaff.
It was not like this in the old world. One of the remarkable things about the blogosphere was how many people wrote under pseudonyms. The quality of a blogger’s insight and the esteem of other community members was the main metric by which blog-readers divided up those who were worth following from who were not. There was something remarkably democratic about this. A whole host of “citizen reporters” and “citizen bloggers” who had neither special pedigrees nor special connections rose to national prominence between 2000 and 2006 on the strength of their writing alone. I came a little bit later—I started this blog in 2007, and it did not have anything worth reading on it until 2010—but I credit my success to these same dynamics. I was an un-credentialed, pseudonymous nobody when I began this blog. Had I started writing in 2017 instead of 2007 I do not think I would have ever became anything else.
The twitter user with 500~ followers in some ways exists in a world similar to the blogosphere of old. She is part of a small, self-selected community. Her followers chose to follow her because they are sympathetic with her ideas or at least interested in them. It is not difficult to have open and honest exchanges when you swim in safe waters. Most people in her network know her, and she knows most of them, so there is little incentive for mischief.
This changes with scale.
To some extent this was always true, even in the days of the blogs. Bloggers had an adage about comment threads: the more popular a blog, the worse its threads. Much of this is simply a number game. As the number of people who follow you grows, the likelihood you will encounter a troll, asshole, or other internet fiend grows as well. But on twitter something more interesting than this is happening.
See, twitter is not a constellation of carefully moderated communities. The users of twitter are one great mass. The ponds and lakes of the blogosphere have emptied into a heaving sea. In this sea, twitter users are linked together, but linked weakly. They are unmoderated, unorganized, atomized—but stuck all together. A retweet can roll through the lot in a day.
Communities of a sort still exist on twitter, but they are mashed together in an unhealthy way. Many of these communities will be filled with people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than your own. That is fine. It is quite possible to talk honestly to people who don’t share your commitments—but of course the way one does this is very different from how you talk to someone whose world view aligns 85% with your own. On twitter you do not get to refine your message for either group. On twitter you project to everyone at once.
This is the first difficulty that comes with a growing follower count on twitter. As the count grows, the number of different communities you are projecting to grows as well. Soon, large numbers of people start to follow because they see you as a representative of a certain strain of thought, or as a key voice in a particular conversation they care about. They are not are sympathetic to your ideas or even merely intellectually interested in them; instead they follow you to keep tabs on what you and people like you are saying. Many actually despise you and your ideas to their core (in twitterese, they are a “hate follow”).
My friend Matthew Stinson described this shift as that point where “interactions stop being inquisitive and start getting accusatory. “Points for my side-ism” becomes a real thing.” Twitter’s retweet mechanism makes this problem far worse. All one needs is a snarky RT for these people to take what a thought they dislike and BOOM!, project it into communities it was never intended for as the perfect example of what they all should be hating at that moment.
Thus if you have a large follower account your experience on twitter goes like this: you share a thought optimized for Group X. Members of Group Y, Group Z, and Group V automatically start sharing it as the textbook example of why Group X deserves crucifixion.
This is what happens in an online ecosystem where the boundaries between communities are gone, and moderators (by nature of the platform’s universality) cannot exist. To run a high-follower account on twitter is to be constantly exposed to entire communities whose members will treat you as an enemy to be defeated or a buffoon to be humiliated the minute they become aware of you. People with 500 or so followers (e.g. my girlfriend) are rarely trotted out as the example of all that is wrong with the world. Anyone with a higher follower count knows this is the default state of their mentions on any given weekend.
Does any of this matter? If high follower accounts equal fame and influence, all of this may discounted as the sniveling, pathetic complaints of the privileged. Maybe that is all it is. But then I read threads like the one below and start to think otherwise. It was written by Lili Loofbourow, staff writer for Slate, in response to that notorious letter on free speech and civil discourse.
She has 30,000 followers.
I get the longing–I even share it–but the naivete is annoying. Online pundits should know (and factor in) that social media as a “public square” where “good faith debate” happens is a thing of the past. Disagreement here happens through trolling, sea-lioning, ratios, dunks.Does that lead to paranoid readings and meta-debates that seem totally batshit to onlookers who aren’t internet-poisoned? Yup! “All Lives Matter” sounds perfectly reasonable–as a text–unless you know the history of that discourse. (And you’ll sound pretty weird explaining it.)“Why would you refuse to debate someone who’s simply saying that All Lives Matter?” is the kind of question an Enlightenment subject longing for a robust exchange of ideas might ask. Well, the reason is that most of us know, through bitter experience, that it’s a waste of time.It wouldn’t be a true exchange. We know by now what “All Lives Matter” signals and that what it signals is orthogonal to what it says. Your fluency in this garbage means you take shortcuts: you don’t have to refute the text to leap to the subtext, which is the real issue.To outsiders, that leap will look nuts. That’s obviously what all the coded Nazi shit is for and about–the 14 words, the numbers, the OK hand sign that both is and isn’t a white power sign, the Boogaloo junk. They’re all ways to divorce surface meaning from intentional subtext.Yes, this is bad for discourse! Yes, it inhibits intellectual exchange! Yes, it makes productive dissensus almost impossible. But that’s not because of “cancel culture” or “illiberalism.” It’s because in this discourse environment, good faith engagement is actually maladaptive.It’s possible and likely that knowledge gaps between people who are online too much and folks who aren’t are making things worse. If Atwood (or whoever) isn’t online much, she might be shocked to see people accuse a nice-looking boy in a Hawaiian shirt of wanting a 2nd civil war.It might indeed look like cancel culture gone mad. He’s just standing there! Civilly! Offering support to Black Lives Matter protesters, of all things! Can’t we all, whatever our disagreements, come together in support of a good cause?It’s *also* possible that people who’ve learned to read *through* stuff (to whatever bummer of a subtext we’re used to finding there) sometimes overdo it. Some of us might reflexively ignore the actual text–fast-forwarding to the shitty point we “know” is coming even if it isn’t“Free speech defender,” for ex, will mean something different to an idealist than it will to someone who watched reddit hordes viciously defend revenge porn and sites like r/beatingwomen, r/creepshots, and r/Jewmerica while people whose pictures got posted there begged for help.Free speech! they were told.Anyway. Sure, good-faith debate would be nice. Instead, the internet pressure-cooked rhetoric. Again: people can watch the same argument be conducted a million times in slightly different ways, and that’s interesting, and a blessing, and a curseIt produced a kind of argumentative hyperliteracy. If you can predict every step of a controversy (including the backlash), it makes perfect sense to meta-argue instead–over what X *really* means, or implies, or what, down a road we know well, it confirms.This isn’t great. People talk past each other, assume bad faith. But it’s not the fault of “illiberalism” that good faith is in short supply. And if that’s where your analysis begins, I can’t actually tell whether you’re naive or trolling. And I’m no longer sure which is worse.
That is the problem with Twitter and the other aggregator sites. See the beliefs of the next generation of public intellectuals before you! See what happens to those who have only experienced America’s public square through high-follower account on twitter!
Loofburrow is not alone in these beliefs. I suspect an entire class of pundits has internalized the idea that all of this is what public discussion is. Of course they don’t believe in free expression, civil debate, the spirit of liberalism, and all of that jazz. To this generation those things are just words. The public sphere they have known has always been a bare-knuckle brawl.
Welcome to the world that twitter made.
Readers who enjoyed this post might enjoy my other look back at the blogosphere of old, “Requiem for a Strategy Sphere.” Others mights be interested in other posts that assay the state of our new American culture: “On Cultures That Build,” “A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” “The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood,” and “Pining for Democracy.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.