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.