Twitter’s thin blue line: a velvet rope to connect the riff-raff to the elite

The latest update to the social network is simply a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. In reality, it will mean that the clubby little chats of the great and good will be even more difficult to avoid.

How Barack Obama got elected I’ll never know. With rhetoric centred around the repeated use of the word ‘change’ he somehow appealed to the Social Media generation. And if we know one thing about them it’s this; they don’t like change.

You only have to wander into Facebook after one of its thrice-monthly makeovers to know that’s true. The kind of wailing and rending of garments you’ll see after a minor alteration of the network’s news feed hasn’t been witnessed since Moses nearly missed his print deadline for The Book Of Job.

Now — setting aside for a moment the possibility that Syrian hackers have compromised the network in a peculiarly constructive way — Twitter has a social upheaval of its own.

The principal difference between the two leading social networks is that while Facebook is unapologetically a platform for closed friendship groups, Twitter aspires to be The National Conversation.

The latest update to the Twitter web client introduces a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.

The thinking behind the (by default) blue line is to promote conversation. To encourage people to butt in to the conversations they see going on around them. To promote tweets that are engendering conversations over random shouts in the darkness. .  In essence, Twitter wants some of Facebook’s action.

But of course the blue line is also a velvet rope. There’s an élite on Twitter as there is everywhere else. And, as they do everywhere else, they all know each other.

Unless you regularly consult Wikipedia you can often forget that an awful lot of politicians, actors and broadsheet columnists — no matter how egalitarian their standpoint, are either descended from someone famous, married to someone famous, or used to fag for someone famous at Eton.

On Twitter, it’s all too obvious that the cool kids all know each other. The national conversation is shot through with a skein of the great and the good chatting about meeting up later at one anothers’ book launches, or commiserating with one another about the hangovers they’re suffering after last night’s première.

Those conversations could be taking place via email, or in direct messages, rather than constituting a virtual Mean Girls lunch table to which the rest of us aren’t invited. But let’s be charitable. Maybe all those cool kids are just too hungover to send emails. There are an awful lot of book launches every week.

Twitter happily tells us that  “great conversations happen on Twitter every day” and that “they’re now easier to find and enjoy.” What they have become, in fact, is harder to avoid. The great school cafeteria of Twitter has been arranged to that we’re all in earshot of the cool kids table, all the time.

There is scope, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, to exploit Twitter’s new conversation lines. For commercial interests to link tweets to give them more conversational ‘weight’ and float them to the top of more timelines.

So, in summation. Ordinary people don’t like the blue lines because they don’t like change of any kind. The cool kids won’t notice the blue lines because they’ve always used Twitter as a conversational medium anyway. And unless Twitter are getting a kickback from the commercial operators that will swoop in to exploit the new opportunity, they won’t derive much benefit from it.

If we were rational about social networking, the blue line would soon become so ubiquitous as to become effectively invisible.

As we’re not, I doubt if it’ll last until the end of the Obama administration.

A still from Twitter's video introducing the update to its web client.

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times