Foremost amongst the guidance offered about Twitter is the claim that it is fundamentally a conversational platform. One shouldn’t simply ‘broadcast’. It’s for discussion and engagement. There’s an element of truth in this but it’s one which can be lost through repetition, as the status of received wisdom stops us from thinking critically about why everyone agreed with it in first place.

Rather than seeing Twitter as conversational, we should perhaps see it as connective. Connectivity in this sense in something automated, it’s a technology for sorting people in a way that encourages interaction between them. Connectivity in this sense is, as Jose van Dijck puts it, “a quantifiable value, also known as the popularity principle: the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you.”

Connectivity presupposes interaction. Unless people interact on platforms, connectivity is thwarted. In this limited sense, it is true to say that someone is not using Twitter correctly if they are not interacting. The value in the platform simply won’t be realised by them because they won’t make new contacts, they won’t increase the visibility of their action on it and they won’t accumulate ‘popularity’. But why does popularity matter? Unless there’s a clear answer to this question, one possibility for which is simply that “it doesn’t“, it’s likely the platform incentives are substituting for the reflexivity of the user.

My concern is that invocations of Twitter as conversational help naturalise this architecture. They promulgate the idea that one is ‘doing it wrong’ unless they are tweeting hyperactively, precluding the possibility of each user coming to their own assessment about the utility or otherwise of the platform for them. This is important because there are some really profound limitations to Twitter as a platform, as Richard Seymour usefully recounts:

Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.

The ritual incantation that Twitter is for conversation functions as the faith which keeps the great Twittering machine in operation. Unless we’re willing to abandon it entirely, we need to have serious discussions about what Seymour calls ‘coping strategies’ to obviate its more undesirable characteristics from creating problems. Part of this involves recognising pseudo-catharsis and trying to distinguish ranting at someone from something which can provide the basis for a productive discussion, in spite of the profound channel constraints. Otherwise, I think we’ll ultimately be pushed towards something more akin to Seymour’s approach, which is pretty much as far as I think you can go before you’re effectively giving up on the platform.

I don’t want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate ‘timeline’. But the ‘mentions’ column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they’re entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email — meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.

I wrote an overly brief post recently about the Elliot Rodger case (in the process offending some guys who are nice, though not ‘nice guys’) – this article by Richard Seymour, prefixed with a trigger warning, deftly shows how there’s much more to this case than just one person’s contingent hatred and brutality:

This is why it is essential, though not sufficient, to listen to what Rodger says. The killer left a detailed life story, and many video diaries, and his obsessions with gender, class and race, his framework of privilege and entitlement, structure the entirety of his account. The hatred and resentment toward women in particular, and the masculinist fantasies of retribution and cleansing, provide the quilting point, through which he explains his issues to himself: everything can be resolved if only they can be made to pay. And there is no obvious reason why a mental illness should express itself in such a toxic fusion of gendered, classed and raced resentment and rage, leading to the premeditated “slaughter” of seven people (including himself), like “animals”.

Before going any further, I would add that in explaining himself the killer clearly sought to aestheticise his actions, and courted precisely the wide audience for his own gargantuan melodrama that he regarded as befitting his proper status, and which he has now obtained. As he put it, “infamy is better than total obscurity”. To talk about him, to review and punctuate his own words, is to be partially complicit in this. But there is one way in which to avoid being complicit, and that is to categorically reject the demonological approach and to notice the appallingly quotidian, commonplace nature of the ideologies informing this atrocity, and the equally too common systemic and individual violence against women that these ideologies are linked to. Because Rodger is not so unusual among twenty-something males. You’ve met men like him. His issues, his insecurities, the huge burden of resentment and shame, the ideology of violent women-hatred that he gives realisation to, are all too widespread. And this is what is most frightening, and what is missed by the rush to confine this case to a psychological black box.

I think Richard’s point here is really important. The refusal to analyse a case like this in anything other than its own terms, treating it entirely as an expression of the inner strivings of the individual at its centre, entails complicity in that person’s own self-aggrandisement. We have a moral responsibility to analyse cases like this – to not treat them as entirely exempt from history while also avoiding the risk that we reduce them to the banal and everyday (to borrow a distinction from Bauman). In analysing them we refuse Rodger’s aspiration to be a ‘god’ in relation to the ‘animals’, instead showing how his actions reflect much broader trends which, when inflected through his personal cruelty and rage, led to these horrific crimes.

Richard Seymour had a thoughtful and incisive analysis in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, released around the same time as his new book on austerity (see the video above). It addresses what I take to be the questions which the left has to address: how was it that a crisis of finance capital transmuted, as if by magic, into a crisis of sovereign debt? Furthermore, what strategies can be learnt from the sheer efficiency with which this (cultural) agenda was pursued?

How can it be that more than six years since the credit crunch, with austerity under way for more than three years, the left has barely showed signs of life, let alone scored a single significant victory? Particularly when capitalism has been in its deepest crisis in generations. We have been floored by austerity, and above all passive acceptance.

To understand how we got to this impasse, we need to radically rethink many of our core assumptions. The first is the engrained idea that a capitalist crisis necessarily leads to radicalisation. As political theorist Antonio Gramsci pointed out, it is the “traditional ruling class” rather than its opponents who are best positioned to take command of a crisis. Its control over the dominant institutions, its loyal cadres of supporters in thinktanks and the media, and its economic and political strength, all enable it to adapt and propose its own solutions. Proactively, it seeks to meet the crisis on every level on which it manifests itself by changing strategies, winning over popular layers with “demagogic promises”, and pre-empting and isolating opponents.

It’s really worth reading the article in full. I happened to stumble across it via his website a few hours after I’d been listening to yesterday’s Thinking Allowed at the gym*. It had two of my favourite political thinkers: David Harvey and Colin Crouch. I’ve interviewed Colin Crouch on two occasions: here and here. He remarked to Chris Mullin once that his current position as a critic from the left was a consequence of shifting political ground. As a student he had been on the right of the Labour party and he feels he’s stayed in the same place while party politics has shifted. Whatever truth there is to that, I think his critique of the institutional trajectory of representative democracy is an important one. Post-Democracy seems like a very prescient book in retrospect, one heralding changes which are really beginning to become apparent seven years on from the onset of the financial crisis. Here’s a video of him talking briefly about post-democracy:

*Does anyone else listen to podcasts at the gym or is it just me?