Speaking and listening on social media

What does it mean to speak and listen on social media? It’s a question which might seem to invite a platitudinous response but it’s one which increasingly concerns me. In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly sceptical that a platform like Twitter facilitates meaningful debate given the constraints it imposes on expression. I largely avoid comments discussions on blogs and websites. I won’t go anywhere near YouTube comments threads, even though I sometimes find myself drawn uncontrollably to read them, like a moth to the flame. In short, I’ve largely lost what faith I had in social media as a means to facilitate debate. The constraints of these channels multiply misunderstandings while the culture they have given rise to encourages intemperate reactions.

However debate doesn’t exhaust speaking and listening. I’m aware that much as I increasingly avoid debate, I also spend less time listening on social media than I used to. In part this is down to abundance. When I dip into my Twitter feed, I can usually find 10 strands I want to follow up within a few minutes. When I do follow these up, I immediately find even more strands to follow. The escalation dynamics of social media, if your use is calibrated to maximise access to variety, constitute a recipe for productive distraction that can at times be overwhelming. My means of processing this productive distraction is largely through writing, hence social media sends me from listening to speaking.

There’s more to it than this though. The architecture of social media rewards speaking but doesn’t reward listening. To speak and win attention for those speech acts, either positively or negatively, increases the visibility of subsequent speech acts. To listen carefully can be akin to invisibility. Hence perhaps the almost apologetic tones in which people who prefer to listen describe themselves as lurking. But what happens if ever fewer people are listening? My increasing fear is that social media too often facilitates only the pseudo-catharsis described by Winlow and Hall:

The political protest ends up continuing only for a short time as an online blog or a Twitter post, offering nothing more than a cathartic opportunity to vent one’s spleen accompanied by the sad recognition that in all likelihood no one is listening, and no one really cares.

Rethinking Social Exclusion, Pg 73

What does this mean in the context of the university? In a thoughtful essay, Jana Bacevic argues that by “sticking to critique on social media, intellectuals are, essentially, doing what they have always been good at – engaging with audiences and in ways they feel comfortable with.” But to what extent are those audiences imagined? To what extent are they ‘external’ or ‘internal’? They register numerically as ‘followers’ but the metrics of engagement often tell another story. Is this even engagement? To what extent is anyone listening? Are we simply talking amongst ourselves? Or even simply talking to ourselves and occasionally overhearing each other’s chatter?

There are many responses to these concerns. One might be to call for more organisation of this space, to provide platforms for robust and productive debate. I this would be a mistake. But we do need to think seriously about what the public expression of academics and intellectuals means in an age of social media. I found this section of Lambros Fatsis’ PhD thesis rather inspiring (pg 246):

The fourth precondition here offered for the rejuvenation of public-spirited citizenship, as opposed to self-interested demagoguery, rests on a fundamental change of approach in the way we understand public expression, suggesting that a shift from the acclamation and assertiveness of speaking to the compromise and attentiveness of listening is as vital, as it is systematically sidelined. Making our thoughts known and conveying them successfully in conversation so that they come to mean something to us depends not only on what and how something is being said, but also on what and how something is being heard, listened to and understood. Public expression therefore does not rely solely on speaking our minds, but also involves the manner in which information is taken in, and it is precisely the balance between those two communicative faculties that allows for dialogic negotiation as opposed to monologic recitation.

If we move away from ‘speaking our minds’, seeing social media as a window to the world through which we can channel our many discontents into an imagined public sphere, we can begin to preserve social media as a space for speaking and listening. It encourages us to examine our assumptions about our audience, something which can be done quantitatively (through metrics provided by platforms) and qualitatively (through assumptions we make about them and its congruence with our prior knowledge).

In fact, it can move us away from thinking in terms of ‘audience’ at all, rejecting a view of social media as a platform for speech in which we ‘earn’ visibility, instead seeking technologies for interlocution. Such technologies offer powerful affordances for what Lambros describes as a shift from intellectuals-as-speakers (“an exclusive class of spokespeople who give voice to our grievances and concerns”) to intellectuals-as-listeners.


4 responses to “Speaking and listening on social media”

  1. Thank you. I’m listening and this is a rare find. I wonder about these dynamics again and again. In some ways I suppose every new post that I write, each new tweet confirms the ongoing experiment. Overwhelm hits more and more often but so, too, does my sense of definitive communities which I actively seek to cultivate. Recently I thought about how my reasons for staying on Twitter, for example, have to do with both gaining and contributing. As a woman of color, I have thought frequently about what it means to achieve a certain degree of public visibility based on my writing on social media. How might that differ from your experience as a male, as an academic, as white? It would be an interesting conversation to have.
    In the meantime, thank you for sharing these thoughts. This is the kind of post that makes me want to be sure that my archiving systems are reliable enough to insure that I don’t lose it two clicks later.

  2. Thank you for your blog post. I like the shift in thinking you created in my thinking by simply linking the idea of lurkers to listeners.

    I think it is important when thinking about social to bare in mind that the various algorithms are there to make it the best experience from the social networks point of view. So, every time you log in, Facebook wants it to be the most engaging experience possible. Our stories are being distributed for us, but with an agenda. Most people’s earned visibility is only around 3%. If you think that one of your friends is oversharing, according the the Edgerank Algorythm logic, it is because you keep clicking on their stuff. I keep telling my students to keep looking out for the human in the timeline. Listening and talking in the most human way possible.

    I enclose a link to a fun guide I wrote for artists and cultural entrepreneurs. It is a marketing guide that tries to stop the whole experience being toxic.

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