Why do we tweet?

This thoughtful reflection from Rob Horning resonated with me as someone who deactivated Twitter after the Musk takeover, unsure about whether I will return. He describes the strangeness which results from being jolted out of your digital habits, newly aware of what has become second nature and prone to question why we ever did it in the first place:

Why did it ever seem important to share links and add editorializing comments to them? What did I get out of pontificating to no one in particular, other than the occasional reward of equally abstract attention metrics? Did I really once make friends that way? Why would anyone “follow” me now, especially since I have no idea where I am going? In his case this was from joining Mastodon and suddenly finding himself presented with digital tumbleweeds in the absence of an existing network or familiar interface. It draws attention to the way in which our digital habits have become enmeshed with each others, in familiar routines of claiming attention and responding to the claims of others which can feel like a natural part of how we think at this stage.

In my case I find myself thinking in tweets in the sense that a concise observation occurs to me which I have the inclination to share. What pleasure I’ve found in this sharing comes from seeing what other people make of it. However in practice this is an outcome mediated by (though irreducible to) metrics and the broad direction of travel is to find that ‘good’ observations become ones which receive a broad response and ‘bad’ observations become those which receive little response. It’s an odd experience to go from having an account with 16k+ followers to one with 2k because on some level it does feel like my observations are worse in some sense, revealing how metrics insinuate themselves into our evaluative outlooks even if we reject this association on a narrowly intellectual level.

Interestingly, I only dimly sense this dynamic when I’m blogging. If I’ve put time and effort into writing a piece then I like to check how widely it has circulated but for the most part I’m writing for my own self-clarification rather than to make a claim on the attention of others. It makes me wonder therefore what is foreclosed when I have this inclination to ‘throw a thought out into the world to see what other people make of it’? Could this bring a process of self-clarification to an artificial end by rendering it social at a much earlier stage than would otherwise be the case?

I’ve often suggested that social media provides occasions for writing, in the sense of providing reasons to express ourselves in ways which are orientated towards readers. It’s clear to me the most salient characteristic of Twitter for academic audiences is how intensely textual it as a medium, closely following by the rapidity of communication. The intensity of the textuality matters because it involves compressing more into less, finding ways to condense complex ideas into concise and pleasing expressions. There is a cognitive discipline to it which I would go so far as to describe as an art form, analogous to the aphorism.

However I wonder increasingly if this has an intellectual laziness as its corollary. An unwillingness to sit with thoughts, mull them over, nurturing what C Wright Mills called the ‘feel of an idea’ in order to see what grows from it. It subordinates this conceptual labour to the reactions of others, leaving us looking outwards in a way which diminishes the interior experience of working with ideas. If you’ve been doing it for a long time then this kind of intensely social and consciously aphoristic way of working with ideas feels entirely natural. But why do we do it, really? What does it stop us doing instead?

I should stress that this is far from the only use of Twitter. I hope it remains as an information network within higher education which we can use to share news within networks which are sufficiently porous that they grow and change organically over time, allowing people who might have an interest in something to stumble across it even without existing social connections. But there’s a whole superstructure of (often quasi-addicted) use which academics make of it which is built on top of those more consciously transactional forms of exchange; calling to mind Paul Klee’s image (1922) of birds caught on a wire, locked into a cycle of compulsive expression. As Dominic Pettman describes it in his book Infinite Distraction

“This painting depicts largely featherless avian creatures, attached to a thin wire, which is itself connected to a hand crank. The legs and torsos of these highly abstract birds are as thin as the wire they are perched upon, and could even conceivably be extensions of it. Their provenance seems neither entirely organic nor completely mechanical. These are cyborg creatures that apparently sing at the turning of a handle (although no guiding hand comes into the picture). Some kind of pit or coffin, lit soft pink from within, seems to await beneath them, patient for the moment they drop off the perch. One art critic has described the painting as allegorically depicting mechanically captured animals, “their heads flopping in exhaustion and pathos.” Furthermore, “one bird’s tongue flies up out of its beak, an exclamation point punctuating its grim fate — to chirp under compulsion.”

It is time for us to leave the Twittering Machine in the sense of no longer inhabiting it. But that doesn’t mean we must avoid using it all together, it just means we do so as we would with a less ‘sticky’ and habituating platform. Perhaps we should all try to approach Twitter much more as we would something like Linkedin? In writing this I’m aware of an observation someone made to me yesterday about how Twitter can be a lifeline for some people and that this might require ‘inhabiting’ it in the sense I was describing above. This is what I was gesturing towards earlier by pointing to the porousness of the network, the capacity to build connections without being reliant on an existing ‘social graph’. This is a point I’ll try to think about in more detail over the coming days before I write a more careful long-form piece about the future of academic twitter following Musk’s takeover.

3 thoughts on “Why do we tweet?”

  1. Interesting thoughts and I had the same as Rob’s thoughts. I’ve been social media free since June 2022 deciding once and for all, to delete the entire lot (probably a big mistake but I’m using it as an experiment). After being on it for over a decade, it was the biggest step I did with a massive fear hanging over my head about it being professional suicide.However, I only kept my blog (I moved all my 60+ client testimonials and CV from LinkedIn to my website – and my CV only has my website address – no social media links) Then there’s my YouTube channel (this was also locked down completely and all my work videos made private and only book reviews made public). In a sense, this entire process has me reflecting on exactly what social media does for me now. I have no idea if what I’ve done is right or not – especially after espousing the benefits and value of social media in professional development. I’m now shutting it all down and looking at ways of keeping current and relevant through blog commenting, RSS feeds and direct email/contact with people. Interesting times ahead – or I may end up further behind and considered a luddite. Best thing so far? My brain is calmer.

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