The latent utopia of Twitter

At least a few readers of this post will realise I have an odd relationship to Twitter. It was a huge part of my working life for a decade but for a number of reasons I deleted my personal account in late 2019. I’ve written a lot in the last few years about what Richard Seymour calls The Twittering Machine: the machinic and compulsive aspects to the platform which made me realise I need to keep a cultivated distance from it. However at the heart of my enthusiasm was a partial and fleeting experience of creative fulfilment through tweeting which was no less profound for those caveats. This passage from Erich Fromm captures something of this, with emphasis added:

He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other—but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness—of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other’s sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness.

Erich Fromm, the Art of Loving, pg 24-25

I think the brevity, speed and informality of the platform encourage such expression. It’s deeply satisfying to take something inchoate within your mind, what C Wright Mills called ‘the feel of an idea’, giving it form as you throw it out into the world and see what others make of it. The aforementioned characteristics of the platform mean that it’s possible to do that with an incredibly wide range of topics, at least compared to other media through one could pursue such an undertaking. There are certainly limitations to this, such as the risk of shallowness, not to mention the engineered compulsivity which characterises the platform as a whole. But the fact that one should ultimately develop these ideas somewhere else, through longer form and less reactive media, doesn’t detract from the creative value which can be found in Twitter as a place for thinking out loud. Furthermore it enables you to gain from others doing the same thing, once described by Les Back as inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer. There are so many factors which mean this doesn’t work in practice but I still think there’s a creative utopia within Twitter which the business model has systematically frustrated.

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