This excellent essay by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books raises an important issue about the forms of political mobilisation facilitated by social media: 

Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’

This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.

What forms of political organisation emerge from such a dynamic? Fleeting and fragile ones, predicated on imagined links with the leader rather than relational bonds between the followers. This gives reason to be hopeful but it also creates dangerous incentives for the leader, inviting them to escalate their rhetoric in order to mobilise a base over whom, at least as a collective, their hold remains unreliable. The problem is, as he puts it later in the essay, “The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.”

This is why it’s so important to refuse the story such populists tell about their own success. They ascribe an outcome with complex origins to their own quasi-magical powers to connect with ‘the people’:

Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. 

This is apparently growing rapidly: why pay staff to do this when you can get desperate graduates to do it for free?

Want to jump start a social media marketing campaign for your business but don’t have the time or social media savvy in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs or similar sites? Try this twist on the traditional summer internship – a “Twinternship.” A Twintern is a newly minted term for a summer intern (paid or unpaid) whose job is to Twitter or handle other social media tasks on behalf of your business. For little cost, you could bring on a young adult (recent college or high school grad or current student) who may already be experienced at using a variety of social media.

There’s a lovely reflection in Les Back’s Academic Diary, released soon by Goldsmiths Press, concerning the role of Twitter in academic life. He suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”.

This is a useful reminder of the value that Twitter can hold for those already using the platforms. But it’s also wise guidance for those who have just started and find the whole thing baffling. No idea what to post? Share what you’re looking at, what you’re reading, what’s gripping you and why. Share the ‘hunches and tips’ which animate you and respond to others when they do the same. These exchanges are the value of Twitter for academics and they’re no different in kind from those which take place within universities each and every day.

In his fascinating book Spam: a Shadow History of the Internet, Finn Brunton offers an example on pg 23-24 of how the early ARPANET was local in a way that is no longer the case.

in September 1973, computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock used his ARPANET connection in Los Angeles to get back the electric razor he’d left at a conference in Brighton. He knew his friend Larry Roberts would probably be online (logged in at a terminal in Brighton to a mainframe in Cambridge) and could retrieve it and hand it off to someone going to Los Angeles. He reached across the transcontinental, trans-Atlantic network as though leaning over a fence, shouting across the street.

I was struck by the thought that I retrieved a laptop charger in precisely the same way via Twitter. Is this platform making the Internet local again? By which I mean that network activity often forms largely around professional networks with a substantial degree of prior face-to-face interaction and the facilitation of further face-to-face interaction through digitally mediated contact?

In a number of books, Nikos Mouzelis offers a really important critique of the tendency to equate ‘micro’ with face-to-face and ‘macro’ with impersonal and international. He cites an international summit, Yalta if I remember correctly, as an example of a face-to-face encounter that is very much macro. I was thinking about this when reading former Labour spin doctor Lance Price’s slightly weird and fawning book about Modi. Reflecting on Modi’s use of Twitter after his election victory, Price writes in The Modi Effect page 240:

Modi had gone from ‘pariah to prime minister’, according to one of his colleagues, who added, ‘This is nothing short of a miracle.’ And this being 2014, to the victor came the tweets. Led by David Cameron, who had told him, ‘It’s great to be talking to someone who just got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,’ world leaders were busy following up their phone calls by finding 140 characters in which to say congratulations. The New York Times read a political snub into the order in which he chose to acknowledge them. First came the UK, then Canada, Russia, Japan, South Africa, France and Germany. ‘As the list of nations grew throughout the India day, the leader of the biggest western power, President Obama, began to look more and more like the kid who was picked last for teams during recess.’ Modi hadn’t forgotten that the United States had been the last, and most begrudging, of the western governments to invite him back into the diplomatic fold. Eventually, after thanking New Zealand and Fiji, Modi tweeted, ‘@ BarackObama & I talked about further strengthening India– USA strategic partnership that will help both nations.’

This suggests to me how conceptual confusions surrounding ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ might have implication for digital sociology. Obviously the ANT tendency within digital sociology will want to dispense with these distinctions  altogether. But in a future post, I’ll try and outline why I think they’re necessary for an adequate digital social science (not just a digital sociology) even though they must be treated very carefully.

This is a very interesting trend, though one I suspect could lead in some unfortunate directions:

Ever been the victim of plagiarism on Twitter—or, dare we say, the shameful purveyor of it? The social network seems to be putting an end to those pirated tweets by cracking down on users who steal jokes to inflate their Twitter cred.

The Twitter account @plagiarismbad reported Saturday that Twitter had taken down five tweets that poached a joke allegedly first posted by freelance writer Olga Lexell:

The tweets were removed at Lexell’s request, and in their place reads text that says they were “withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder.” In a tweet, Lexell explained the rationale behind her appeal, noting that the jokes were her “intellectual property” and copied without attribution

It seems obviously valuable that a mechanism for this is in place, but it’s nonetheless worrying when one considers the potential scale of the contestation that might emerge when this becomes widespread. Will Twitter commit to providing the resources to ensure robust governance? Or will they merely err on the side of caution and take material down unless the arguments given in the counter-notice are overwhelmingly strong? On its own, this would be problematic. But as the article correctly identifies, the potential for such a system to be deliberately misused is vast:

This sounds like good news for writers and comedians who have been victims of joke theft, but as Twitter revealed in a transparency report last year, many organizations cry copyright theft even when the material in question does not meet those requirements. The Verge reports that about one-third of Twitter’s requests are not actually copyright violations—and some, in fact, are just attempts to censor criticism

Some useful resources:

Some live tweeting policies and guides:

Any examples reader could suggest of policies issued by conferences would be much appreciated!

Great hashtag visualisation by Sam Martin:

Really interesting analysis of an event hashtag by Matt Lingard: (quite old now, 2010, but the categories he uses are extremely helpful)

This useful post on the Pickle Jar blog offers some pointers about effective live tweeting. I agree it’s important to remember that most (?) people reading your live tweets won’t be in the room with you and thus will be confused by any features of the context you take for granted in your tweets. In that sense, I think this is excellent advice:

Context is key. If you’re sending a tweet out into the world, assume your audience knows very little. If you hear something interesting, try to share it as if you’re sharing words of wisdom with someone who wasn’t there. Feel free to paraphrase, and take pictures of the slides if there’s just too much amazing stuff on there for 140 characters. Those who aren’t there will get something out of it, and those that are will have a reminder that they can re-tweet or favourite.

But surely live tweeting also serves a purpose for people within the room? The experience of live tweeting has often lived up to the rhetoric of the ‘back channel’: offering an outlet for both exchange with and awareness of other people at the event, many of whom I’ve never previously met. There are obviously risks posed by this (a topic for another post) but it’s also something that can introduce a novel sociality into what might otherwise be a large and impersonal event.

This is why I think it’s important to distinguish between the official live-tweeter (scene setter, context communicator and summariser in chief) and the voluntary live-tweeting of others at the event. Part of the role of the former is to encourage the latter through regular retweets and rapid responses to any questions. But another crucial part is to provide a sufficient sense of the context to ‘outsiders’ for the flurry of activity taking place amongst ‘insiders’ to be comprehensible and engaging. The insider activity isn’t a threat to the quality of the live tweeting, it’s rather what can make a hashtag fascinating to read if there is someone mediating between the two in order to ensure that ‘insiders’ don’t exclude ‘outsiders’ by taking their shared context for granted.

There are numerous ways to establish context: regular reminders of what the hashtag is (e.g. “We’re live tweeting from  @BritSoci conference day 2, #BritSoc15”), taking pictures of the venue itself to convey a sense of place, regular statements of the schedule (e.g. “Our next speaker is @mark_carrigan from @SocioWarwick talking about social ontology of social movements”) and signalling openness to queries (e.g. “If you have any questions about #BritSoc15, whether you’re here or not, please get in touch!”). This kind of activity can help if you’re subsequently using the hashtag as a basis to compile a report of the event by providing way marks to make sense of what can be a vast stream of activity. But more importantly I think it also contributes to the accessibility of the event, structuring what might otherwise be an intimidating mass of communication and doing so in a way which encourages it to grow.

There’s a really important suggestion later in the Pickle Jar post which I’ve only recently started doing myself:

One way to really add some useful background is to start digging up links. Is the person on stage mentioning a project they worked on? Dig up a link to that project (or better still, a video about it), and share that on the conference hashtag. Do they have a personal site, with background detail? Go find it, and share it. It may seem like a bit of a slog, but Google is your friend here.

I prefer to live tweet on a phone but I’m planning in future to always use my laptop for this reason. If someone mentions a paper they’ve written, look it up and tweet the link! Tweet the institutional profile of the speaker and always ensure you link to their personal twitter feed and tag the department as well if they have a twitter presence.  In this sense, the official live tweeter does a large part of the ‘networking’ in order that other people don’t have to.

There’s suggestions later in the post which I’ve experimented with in the past but found people quite reluctant to participate in. Perhaps it’s how I’m phrasing it? But the promise of Audioboom for micro-podcasts with speakers really fascinates me and I’ve love to find a way to suggest this possibility to speakers that doesn’t immediately make them recoil in horror:

While you’re there, how about tracking a few speakers down for an audio interview? We’ve already chatted about the possibilities of platforms such as Audioboom, and you can use these with little more than a smartphone and a quiet sideroom or corridor.

If video’s more your thing, why not provide some great content for curators and your followers by capturing a quick chat or a tech demo using Youtube Capture, Vine, or Instagram Video? Or if you’ve got an audience that isn’t in a wildly-different timezone, why not livestream an interview or a quick event summary using Periscope or Meerkat?

A few years ago when I was running the Twitter feed for the Sociology department at Warwick, I noticed how readily first year undergraduates tweeted practical questions to the account during their first few weeks of the first term. Students tweeted questions intermittently throughout the year but it was particularly marked at the start of their time within the department. As someone who spent 6 years studying the undergraduate experience, it’s not hard for me to understand why this would be so: the organisation the student has joined tends to seem rather large and they often feel they have only a superficial grasp on how it works.

What I find harder to answer is why universities haven’t seized upon social media as tool for improving the ‘student experience’. As well as the aforementioned questions, I noticed a few instances of forthcoming students tagging the department on Twitter prior to starting their degree. As a part-time PhD student with little practical involvement in the department beyond my role maintaining the twitter feed, I often found myself unable to answer the questions undergraduates had and struggling to welcome forthcoming students to the department in any meaningful way.

I find it easy to imagine how this could be done with social media in an effective way: inviting forthcoming students to engage with the department prior to joining it, encouraging them to address any questions they have to the twitter feed and checking in with the students on a semi-regular basis throughout their first year. It would require an investment though not a particular significant one – perhaps it could be factored into the workload allocation of an existing administrator? The work involved would be regular but fairly unsubstantial, necessitating that someone knowledgeable about the day-to-day life of the department were to prioritize twitter as a communications channel alongside e-mail.

My experience of the ‘back channel’ that Twitter provides at conferences is that it makes large and impersonal events feel friendly and accessible. Could the same effect be achieved with the student engagement project I’m outlining?

In four years of using Twitter regularly, I’ve often found others tweeting things that resonate with me and vice versa. In fact one could plausibly suggest that these experiences play an important role in making continued use of the service appealing. What do I mean by ‘resonate’? I mean knowing where someone is coming from, understanding the reaction they’re expressing and sharing it to some extent. I would argue that resonance is an important factor to consider in understanding subjectivity within a changing social world – to understand where someone is coming from necessitates some degree of converging experience and circumstances. If everyone’s experience and circumstances are entirely particularistic then resonance becomes impossible. If everyone’s experience and circumstances tend towards homogeneity then resonance in interaction fades into the background and ceases to become a distinguishable phenomenon.

In this sense, I’d see resonance as an important micro-social mechanism engendering social integration: it helps translate objective commonalities into subjective commonalities. Experiences of resonance leave us with a sense that others understand where we are coming from and vice versa. The new forms of interaction facilitated by social media enable new ways in which objective commonalities can be translated into subjective commonalities. Things that previously couldn’t be a basis for subjective commonalities – because they rarely, if ever, entered into interaction – now can be and this has important social consequences. It would be easy to overlook the way in which something like Twitter can contribute to social integration because it is so empirically different to what we’re used to but I’d argue the same underlying mechanism is at work. It tends to increase the degree to which people feel a sense of commonality with a range of others with whom they interact and it does so because there are real underlying commonalities which facilitate this.

Are you a social researcher who feels this way? Here are some ideas which might help:

  • Have you read any interesting papers recently? Link to them and briefly explain why you liked them.
  • Are you going to any conferences soon? Tweet that you’re going and ask if anyone else is.
  • Are there any new stories which connect to issues you address in your research? Link to them and explain why
  • Working on a presentation or a paper? Take one idea, try and express it succinctly then throw it on to twitter to see what reaction you get.
  • Have you read anything good recently that isn’t related to your research? Tweet about it and explain why.
  • Try to find other people working on similar issues to you. Tweet and ask! (e.g. “Does anyone know other people working on x, y, z?”)
  • Are there any blogs or other websites you follow that are connected to your research? Tweet and tell other people why you like them.
  • Are there policy or political conclusions which follow from your research findings? Explain what they are.
  • For that matter, what are your research findings? Tell people.
  • The most obvious one: link to your publications. Tell people what they’re about and why the work mattered to you.

I usually tend towards the view that there’s no right or wrong way to use social media. These evaluations only make sense relative to some prior purpose and so I’m sceptical when blog posts pronounce on the right way to use Twitter or parallel claims with other platforms. However I realise there are a few things which I do see as intrinsically negative things to do on twitter, at least if you want to build positive connections with others working in your field:

  1. Don’t tweet everything you blog at people. It’s hard to build an audience as a blogger and a sense that no one is reading what you write can erode the enjoyment of blogging. But repeatedly tweeting links to new posts at people (i.e. “@soc_imagination my new blog post”) is the digital equivalent of looking up phone numbers of people in your field and cold calling them to announce that you’ve done some writing. If there’s some particularly pressing reason why this one post needs to gain an audience then that’s fair enough but before you send it directly to scores of people, it’s worth thinking about whether you’d do this ‘offline’.
  2. Don’t tweet requests for people to follow you back once you follow them. Much as with the first point, I’m surprised at how frequently I see people do this and more so they’ve done it with scores of people in quick succession. I understand the impulse to do it in some cases but again consider the ‘offline’ equivalent to this. I can’t quite work out what it would be but I’m sure it would be slightly creepy.
  3. There’s no need to thank people for retweeting you. If you remark something in conversation and someone says “that’s interesting” would you say “thank you for finding my remark interesting”? Retweeting is usually some variant upon affirming that a tweet was interesting or valuable in some way. Thanking people for retweeting (or following for that matter) makes a momentary interaction feel creepily transactional to me.

What would you add to the list? If a certain number of people share an antipathy towards a way of acting on twitter then at what point should we start talking about these as norms?

After a couple of years using Buffer to maintain the @soc_imagination twitter feed and occasionally looking through the analytics, I’ve noticed lots of key words that inevitably lead to a click through rate far higher than usual:

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 11.06.27

Consider this post a crude experiment to test whether what I’m coming to think is true actually is. There are basic claims about writing effective titles that are obviously accurate: the popularity of Upworthy style titles reflects more than the people who work there being slightly irritating. But I also suspect there are domain specific keywords which just don’t translate across different kinds of audiences. If this is true then it means that a large part of social media ‘expertise’ is just a familiarity with the cultural world of the intended audience and an understanding of the incredibly basic techical steps involved in putting that insight into practice.

I just discovered that the Psychology department at Salford University has an innovate approach to maintaining their department twitter feed. Each week a different person tweets from the department, encompassing all students and staff. This has left me interested in the different approaches that departments can take to managing their twitter feeds. These are the ones I know of:

  1. Paying a postgraduate student to manage the department’s social media presence.
  2. Including social media work within the workload allocation for staff within the department.

I imagine these are also possible:

  1. Not paying a postgraduate student but getting them to do this work anyway.
  2. Not formally allocating this work to staff but running it as a voluntary commitment.
  3. Including it within the workload of existing administrative staff.

Does anyone know of any examples of the later three approaches? Are there any ways of managing a departmental feed that I haven’t included? I’m writing a chapter about these issues for my upcoming social media book and any ideas would be much appreciated!

Initially this article irritated me immensely. As clichés go, “it’s not as good as it used to be” is one I find peculiarly obnoxious, at least when it relates to the internet. But I think it actually makes some very interesting points:

Those fictions have proven foolish, one-by-one. The service is filled with spam accounts: The median tweeter has just one measly follower, so how many of your followers are real people? The growth of Twitter, year-over-year, has plunged since 2011. And the tensions of Twitter’s inherent (and explicit) attention market seem to push and pull it in odd, fractal ways: to keep your Twitter timeline slow is to stop following others, to stop following others is to stop exploring the service (and to reduce the number of folks who can find you), to stop exploring the service is to get bored.

Twitter users may just get too good at tweeting, too. When a new user joins Twitter, it takes time for them to figure out what they’re doing. You get to see all the visible seams in their work—the misunderstood conventions and misapplied hashtags—and the service becomes fresher in their naivete. Here’s a new friend to hang out with! The new user, too, gets to interact with new people and establish his or her voice. It’s an exciting thing to watch, but as growth slows, the excitement does, too.

This isn’t just about the platform going mainstream. Many users disliked that the service auto-expanded images or harassed third-party client developers, saying that both discouraged the power users who came to Twitter for a writing platform. But the company has also arguably rewarded early adopters. Twitter’s new profiles prominently showing the month and year you joined the service.

And Twitter remains a meaningful meet-up spot for some conversations. The predictable churn of the outrage cycle can make it hard to remember that the platform still amplifies otherwise underrepresented voices about essential topics. You can attend a protest on Twitter that you can’t attend in real life. Some of the conversations it hosts aren’t happening anywhere else.

Viewed through this lens, the publishing platform might be seen as a microcosm for the power-shift in media from traditional gatekeepers to the rest of us. And this transfer of power is, at times, messy. (Consider the disputes over what different Twitter users consider to be “public” information.) Ultimately, this is a debate over who controls the narrative.

Actually, a lot of Twitter fights are ultimately about this very question.

* * *

So who is Twitter for, anyway?

“Twitter is the new comment section,” our friend Margarita Noriega—you may know her as @Margafret—said. “It’s changed, and unfortunately, it’s gotten a lot worse. It’s too filled with spam and hate speech and unverified content… At some point the Ezra Kleins of the world are leaving Twitter. They’re going to be the first people to leave.”

In fact, the Kleins of the world have somewhat already left. A year ago, Klein lamented that Twitter’s signal-to-noise to ratio was too low. Check his feed today and he’s almost disengaged from the service entirely: Rarely replying or retweeting, he broadcasts Vox stories and nothing more.

The irony about the Klein example is that he’s become the go-to example of media privilege, yet he got his start in journalism as a blogger at a time when established journalists used the word “blogger” as a pejorative.

It has since become common for journalists to get their start on Twitter, in the same way that it no longer seems strange—at least among media types—to have met friends on the platform. But once media types of a certain stripe professionalize their accounts, they become like Klein’s: all scheduled tweets and broadcast links. They care about the writers they’d care about anyway—who often already have their own platform—and reply to them. Otherwise, they seem to ignore the stream.

It’s users like Klein who contribute to the sense that Twitter’s period of openness—this window when people looking to do something other than self-promotion might join—may be ending.

Some women have backed off the service altogether. It’s hard to avoid the ’splain-happy men who feel entitled to rock an otherwise friendly Twitter canoe. For a platform that was once so special, it would be sad and a little condescending to conclude that Twitter is simply something we’ve outgrown. After all, the platform has always been shaped by the people who congregate there. So if it’s no longer any fun, surely we’re at least partly to blame. And why worry about this dynamic anyway? All this attention on a platform that’s not that widely used may feel outsized, but that’s because its influence on publishing is gigantic: Twitter is the platform that led us into the mobile Internet age. It broke our habit of visiting individual news homepages first thing in the morning, and established behaviors built around real-time news consumption and production. It normalized mobile publishing power. It changed our expectations about how we congregate around shared events. Twitter has done for social publishing what AOL did for email. But nobody has AOL accounts anymore.

The paradox is that we academic scribes are not always very sociable. We cling to the library like bookish limpets that, like Kierkegaard, find real human beings too heavy to embrace. We speak a lot about society but all too often listen to the world within limited frequencies. I am proposing an approach to listening that goes beyond this, where listening is not assumed to be a self-evident faculty that needs no training. Somehow the grey books written on sociological method do not help much with this kind of fine tuning. The lacklustre prose of methodological textbooks often turns the life in the research encounter into a corpse fit only for autopsy.

Les Back, The Art of Listening, Pg 163

I think there’s more to this than can be fairly ascribed to the limitations of ‘traditional’ scholarly communication. But I think these nonetheless play a significant role in contributing to the ‘unsociability’ of sociology. In part, it’s a matter of audience, with marginality arising from a turning inwards towards others like ourselves. If we’re communicating with a technical audience, it creates a tendency to drift towards ever more technical language. In doing so, norms surrounding ‘proper’ communication will themselves tend towards the obtuse and, with this, the starting point from which we drift becomes ever more mired in professionalised marginality.

When I say ‘technical language’ I mean specialised vocabulary in the broadest sense, those networks of terms and concepts which emerge in relation to specialised practices, deriving their meaning and purpose from connection to such skilled activity. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with technical language in this sense. It shouldn’t be avoided entirely nor could it be. But to use Les Back’s lovely expression, “we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write”. We should be relentlessly critical of our tendency to slide into jargon while nonetheless recognising the role that jargon can serve. Rather than seeing clarity and complexity as antipathetic, such that we struggle to distinguish between the accessibly simplified and the simplistically accessible, we should focus on the ways that technical vocabulary (complex) can be used to express precise claims succinctly (clarity) in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

What role does it serve beyond this? I can’t see that it serves any intellectual role and, as prone as I am to slipping into it myself, I’m determined to train myself out of the habits that 7 years of postgraduate education have inculcated in me*. It clearly serves a personal role though, as C Wright Mills makes clear in one of my favourite passages from his work**:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In this sense I think we can see ‘academic writing’ as a dispositional complex which has been reinforced in three ways: status anxiety at the level of the person, restrictive norms about ‘proper’ writing at the level of academic culture and a narrow range of available media** at the level of academic institutions. These constraining factors will act in different ways and at different times but their emergent power over time mitigates against the possibility of forms of writing which aim “to document and understand social life without assassinating it”. This is on page 164 of the Art of Listening. There’s an even nicer formulation of this in an interview with Les Back here: “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. I think this expression is an example of precisely the virtues it advocates. It’s a phrase I’m simply not going to forget and it conveys its main claim with an immediacy which would be difficult to accomplish with a less literary mode of expression. 

In my paper about online writing I’m trying to think through the possibilities offered by blogging in terms of this diagnosis. I think there’s a real risk of academic blogging being ‘captured’ by professionalisation in a way which undermines the potentially transformative role it can play in relation to personal practice. But the possibilities for experimentation are hugely significant nonetheless. In an important sense, it’s a uniquely malleable medium, at least compared to monographs, edited books and journal articles etc. I need to figure out more precisely what I mean by ‘malleability’ here. I’m also including ‘micro-blogging’ within this scope, despite it being a term I’ve always hated. Partly to expand the scope of what I’ve been invited to write but also because considering Twitter could help flesh out my overarching argument. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of Nein Quarterly as an example of the innovative modes of expression that the radical brevity of Twitter can help give rise to.

*Including the habit of writing sentences, such as this one and many in the main body of the text, which I believe are called compound-complex sentences. Quite why I feel so compelled to do this, with the strangely undulating character it entails for my prose, continues to elude me but I’d like to know nonetheless.

**I don’t think this can be straight-forwardly applied to our present situation but the main thrust of the argument is still valid.

***Which are themselves narrow in terms of the expression they permit.

There’s a great Brendan O’Neill post on Telegraph blogs* in which he reflects on the self-destruction of Richard Dawkins** online and its roots in the nature of Twitter as a medium. He’s probably correct that, with the exception of a cadre of ‘skeptic’ true believers, Dawkins has through his ill considered anti-religious tweets effectively destroyed a reputation he’d spent a lifetime building. What interests me about O’Neill’s argument is the claim that “we are seeing how Dawkins’s mind works prior to his exercise of thought and self-editing, and it isn’t pretty”. Again, he’s probably correct. His conviction that this is a negative trend, illustrated by the particular case of Dawkins, rests on a set of claims about intellectual expression in public life:

Twitter by its very nature invites its users to express unedited thoughts which in earlier eras would have lingered at the back of our minds or been spoken only to small groups of people, perhaps over a pint. In the past, there was a clearer distinction between private man and public man, between what we thought and what we said, between the inner workings of our brains and the public utterances that later fell from our mouths.

Today, that divide has been muddied almost into oblivion, so that now it is perfectly normal to see people tweet their instant, unformulated feelings about an event, a person, a religion, or whatever. Twitter isn’t single-handedly responsible for the detonation of the dividing line between private thought and public speech, of course, but it is the technological tool that has most explicitly moulded itself around the corrosion of the private/public split, inviting us, cajoling us in fact, to instantly share our half-baked thoughts on just about everything.

The end result is that even someone like Dawkins can now be better known for his late-night blabbing than for his intellectual works. I’m sure that to young people in particular, who don’t remember that time when Dawkins was taken seriously and who get the vast majority of their info via the Twittersphere, Dawkins is now just “that bloke what says weird stuff on Twitter”.

Dawkins’s fate – his self-demotion from serious author to barking tweeter – should be a lesson to everyone: beware Twitter, for it is the technological facilitator of the most backward cultural trend of our age – the Oprahite urge to spill, sputter and speak every thought, idea and feeling that pops into our heads.

He sees this as the apotheosis of a longer term trend in which the valorisation of ‘authenticity’ leads us “to give voice to our every feeling”. The real problem for intellectual life comes because this trend deprives us of “the space in which we once worked out what we really think about other people and world events, and instead encourages us to express our instant feelings about them”. So this isn’t the real Dawkins we see, as opposed to a previously false Dawkins, rather it is an unedited rather than edited encounter with the man.

I never thought I’d find a Brendan O’Neill article so thought provoking but this is a really provocative framing of a question that fascinates me. I’m convinced that iteration is an important aspect of the creative process: clarifying what it is you’re trying to say by recurrently attempting to articulate it. In other words, the space in which we ‘work out what we really think’ can be as dialogical as it is monological. But I think he’s certainly correct that Twitter encourages us to think aloud (this certainly fits with my experience) and that dangers are attached to this. Internal conversation is not a uniform thing, instead varying between people and across times and contexts. I don’t think communications technology can initiate these changes but I think it can (and clearly does) tendentially nudge them in certain directions. What makes this so complex though is that effects are not going to be uniform because mental life is not uniform – the properties and powers of Twitter (or an equivalent) are not the only variable in play here, with existing tendencies towards certain forms of intra-action shaping the inter-active uses people make of social platforms like this.

So I guess what I’m saying is that Twitter probably does inculcate a tendency towards thinking aloud, simply because it so radically minimises the constraints on externalising a thought. But leaving aside compulsive use (which is not a minor issue by any means but a distinct one) it doesn’t create the impulse to share, determine the content of the thought*** or condition its likely reception in anything more than the most formal sense (i.e. the kinds of people one is connected to, the channel constraints involved in their responses etc). In other words: the problem here is not twitter and thinking aloud, it’s Dawkins himself and the culture within which these ‘pre-edited’ views become plausible and coherent.

*Writing this sentence disturbs me on at least two levels.

**What does it say about you if even Brendan O’Neill thinks you’re obnoxious?

***Though it obviously may provoke it. Twitter can be a banal space but it can also be an intensely thought-provoking one.