Of Hegel jokes and hole-walls, or, why Twitter is good actually
hi, how have you been doing
Hello! It has been what we in the business call “a while”. I hope you are doing well.
I’ve been trying to do a bit more writing of late, stretch the muscles a bit. Hence resurrecting this newsletter. Will I write more? Honestly who knows.
I did write a thing for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (what? yeah) about “AI art”, which ended up being more about how art is a weird concept that messes with people's ideas about work and value, and how we need to stop thinking about AI art as a cool ethics thought experiment, and start thinking about it as a tactical problem in the conflict between labour and capital. I thought it came out pretty good! Maybe a bit polemic, but we all need a bit of that in our diet sometimes.
Anyway, Elon Musk owns Twitter now.
That’s probably a bad thing, both for him and for Twitter. I’m not going to get into the details, but v buckenham wrote a good piece outlining what that likely means in the near-to-medium term. The short version is that Twitter now has to produce about a billion dollars a year in profit to service the debt incurred in the purchase. Twitter does not currently produce that much profit, and it is now owned by someone who, despite being the richest man in the world, has never shown any aptitude for actually running companies profitably. It’s unlikely to end well.
As in any moment of crisis, one outcome has been that the space of possibilities has opened up, and lots of people are talking about new ideas for what a social network can be, or where they’d like to move to. Quite a lot of these ideas are incoherent, or unworkable, or just plain bad. That’s fine, although the fact that they’re having these half-baked ideas in public, on Twitter, means that the machinery of the Twitter drama machine has been running at full speed for the last few days. But there’s a sense of excitement in the air, at least among those who like to think about these things, that now might be a turning point towards something better.
In that spirit, it’s probably worth considering what makes Twitter good, at least insofar as it is good at all. For me, at least, the thing that Twitter has over other social networks is how well it handles being on the edge of conversations. For the last few days, I’ve been seeing a steady trickle of jokes about five new boxes of material that have been found by the 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. I am, if I’m honest, a bit of a philosophy dilettante—I have never read any Hegel, but I know enough to get jokes like this one.It’s really nice to be on the edge of a community like this, and to be able to smoothly transition inwards and outwards as time passes. My Twitter timeline is a record of my passing interests and side-projects: I follow archaeologists, linguists, comics artists, podcasters, graphics programmers.
Something in the structure of Twitter makes it ideal for this kind of mixing and matching, a lurker’s paradise. (Have you read Joanne McNeil’s Lurking? You should read Lurking). Most social networks collapse the fuzzy edges of community membership down to a binary choice of in or out. By leaving communities implicit, Twitter allows for a much more nuanced sense of what it means to be part of something.
Twitter does have its own unique problems though, even setting aside the moderation issues that plague every social network. The same features that make it ideal for lurking also mean that any post is potentially viewable by anyone, outside of the context and community norms in which it was produced. Once a tweet goes beyond a certain level of virality, it will be misinterpreted, simply because it’s being presented as an atomic unit of discourse, which of course is nonsense. While I’m not naive enough to imagine that all disagreements are problems of interpretation, I am convinced that this is the driving force behind most of the particular “hellsite” problems of Twitter.
So for the last while, people have been moving from Twitter to other communities, particularly more private chat-based forums, such as Discord. In these, the atomic unit is the community, or at least the conversation. This provides for much more context, but at the expense of making community membership much more of a binary in-out distinction. The potential for lurking is greatly reduced, which seems a shame to me.
Coincidentally, for the book club I run at work, we’ve been looking at Langdon Winner’s 1997 essay Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community. Winner criticises the online replication of “gated communities and architectural barriers that offer the well-to-do freedom from troubles associated with urban underclass”. This too is a problem with these more controlled spaces. The same systems that protect a community from abuse also render it exclusionary. The idea that anyone has access to any community at any time is both beautiful and terrifying.
In some sense what we need is something like Bruno Latour’s famous description of doors as “hole-walls”: permeable but very real boundaries between inside and outside. Latour goes on to describe a litany of complications on the door: a human tasked with opening and closing it, a mechanism that performs this function in an overly abrupt way, and a sign that instructs us in how to behave around it. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and no perfect solution exists. Instead we have a constantly negotiated choice, a sequence of trade-offs. Each is a combination of the human and the non-human, not a technological fix for a social problem, but a technosocial intervention in a technosocial situation.
So what does that mean for Twitter, and the future of things like it? I don’t really know. I’ve been hanging around over on Mastodon a lot—it’s very consciously modelled after Twitter, but definitely has its own culture. One of its quirks is that it’s spread over a range of different servers, each operating fairly autonomously. These do provide some (fairly porous) boundaries between communities, and also allow for some limited technical variation: different servers can run slightly different versions of the underlying software, allowing for different affordances. This honestly isn’t taken as far as it could be, and would probably be extremely confusing if it was, but it means there’s space for experimentation in a way that there can’t really be on a centralised platform like Twitter.
Ultimately, people are going to find ways to communicate, and build communities online, no matter what the details of the tools available. And perhaps when the Fail Whale finally does fall into the ocean for the last time, it can provide the nutrients for a better ecosystem to grow in the depths.
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