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28 March 2023

Stop posting

Elon Musk has killed Twitter – so what should replace it?

By Justin Smith-Ruiu

I do not remember the teacher’s name, nor much else that happened in 1985, but one part of my eighth-grade social studies class that remains vivid to my mind are the occasional “fun days” we were granted, when, instead of learning new material, we played a game called “News Quiz”. With impressive spirit, our teacher adopted the persona of a game-show host, reading from cards questions about arms-reduction treaty negotiations, and the economic consequences of the introduction of New Coke. Most of the questions are lost to my memory, but one of them has stuck with me: “What song has brought Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin back to the top of the charts?” And the answer was that long-forgotten eighties synth gem, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”

To ask who is Zooming whom, today, would mean something quite different. In Aretha’s sense, to “zoom” someone is to check them out with the intention of assaying their attractiveness – yet something about the question seemed to anticipate the inanity that would become our general condition in the era of perpetual social media connectedness. My 13-year-old mind could not fail to detect something spurious about this mixture of registers, of nuclear weapons and Top-40 hits, a mixture concocted on the presumption that these and many other things all belong to the category of “news”, and that it is our civic duty to remain familiar with them.

Eighth-grade News Quiz was followed by another 37 years of non-stop chatter, bluster, trivia, wind, all channeled to me through ever more sophisticated technologies. This was all purportedly a service of state-funded and private media corporations to keep me, and others like me, informed. But as time went on, that conceit grew ever more strained. In 1985 the ultimate expression of civic engagement had been the letter written to an editor to share one’s opinion of things – that we should be driving a harder bargain with the Soviets, that Coke should bring back its classic recipe, that no one belts out hits like Aretha. Over time our new technologies rendered this gesture otiose, as we gained the ability instantly, with little or no editorial oversight, to post comments on news items, and to engage directly with other readers with whom we agreed or disagreed.

The process grew ever more streamlined, as the reading part of the activity grew ever more perfunctory, while the engagement part came to constitute its core. It began to seem that the news – about Aretha Franklin, or New Coke, or nuclear weapons, or whatever – was really just engagement bait, and that if a given news item failed to attract biters, it would be eliminated in favour of something more attractive. Even the most cursory study of the economics of social media bore this suspicion out.  

[See also: The decline of the social media text post]

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I closed my Twitter account about four months ago. If I tell you of the sharp feeling I have now, that I died at that moment and am now dwelling in a sort of afterlife, I hope you will not interpret this as a tragedy. To experience departure from social media as a sort of death is simply to come to see life as a never-ending parade of noise and distraction, and death as liberation from that. I’m doing fine, really. It’s just that I have little idea of what is going on any longer, little clue of what 2023’s equivalents of 1985’s New Coke and Aretha Franklin are. Although this year’s nuclear weapons are of course still nuclear weapons.

I do get occasional hints of what is happening when I walk by the newspaper kiosks of my adoptive city of Paris, or when my spouse reads to me from the internet whenever some bit of news excites her. Much escapes my attention entirely, but I trust that if something is important I will learn about it sooner or later. If something is really important I suppose I will hear the sirens of the Réseau National d’Alerte, tested the first Wednesday of each month in preparation for any gas leak, air-raid or alien invasion that might occur.

I frequently relive in my mind the predictable social-media trajectories of news items from months ago: Meghan’s wardrobe choices, say, for her public appearances during the period of the Queen’s mourning; the first-order critiques and defenses, which give way to the epicyclic takes on the mutual incomprehension of the British and the Americans, and Britain’s implication in the centuries-long legacies of slavery and racism; the tertiary cycle of debate over something Roxane Gay enters into the fray to declaim. In retrospect it is clear that what the designers of this engagement engine are working towards is a condition of universal takesmanship, a world in which all of us not only accept that it is our civic duty to know what Meghan is up to, but also to share our views on the issue, no matter how ill-informed, tangential, self-serving, or imitative.

In early January, I caught a glimpse of the television news about US representative Kevin McCarthy’s difficulty in obtaining the requisite number of votes to become speaker of the House. It dawned on me that at just that moment there were surely legions of people on Twitter, churning out takes on the affair as if American democracy was hanging in the balance. I looked over a friend’s shoulder as he was scrolling through his “feed” (a term that seems intended to remind us of the tubes inserted down the throats of geese in the production of foie gras), and sure enough, there they all were: the takes, all landing in their respective spots like an elegant probability distribution function, all predictable in the aggregate, and each providing its issuer with the small rush of satisfaction that comes with speaking your mind.

[See also: We are all spending too much time online]

Among the several works of classical literature I have read recently, Henry James’s 1886 novel, The Bostonians, is particularly instructive as to the inanity of this modern imperative to stay informed and to adopt public positions on issues. The story unfolds around the beautiful young Verena Tarrant, whose parents have launched her onto the speaking circuit as a gifted orator in defense of the feminist cause. Her father is a mesmeric healer, and early in Verena’s career the public performance begins by his laying hands upon her, which induces a sort of hypnosis in which the girl is better able to traduce her arguments in favour of the cause of women. A patrician by the name of Olive Chancellor, understood by James and all but the most clueless of readers to be a lesbian, attends one of Verena’s performances, falls in love, and pays off the Tarrants in exchange for bringing Verena into her home, in an arrangement known as a “Boston marriage”. But Olive also makes the mistake of bringing along her distant cousin from Mississippi, the smooth lawyer Basil Ransom. Ransom cares not at all for the feminist cause – he finds it ridiculous – but also falls in love with Verena. From the moment they lay eyes on her, Olive and Basil are both “zoomin’” the same girl, and the rest of the story tells of the gripping battle between cousins over their shared love object. As to the substantive issues, James takes the only position worthy of a novelist: chivalry, feminism, the life of the salons, are all just so much human comedy, and the players in this comedy are to be lightly mocked, but also loved. They are human and this is the best they can do.

Social media allows users no opportunity to cultivate a Jamesian disposition to humanity, instead presenting to us the teams captained respectively by Olive and Basil, and acting as if we have all already signed up for the game, and affirmed all of its rules. One compelling reason to decline to play, however, to log off, may be learned from the novel itself: the US cultural wars are best thought of as trench wars, and the trenches have not budged since 1886. Olive and Basil are familiar types, with thousands, perhaps millions, of lesser instances tweeting out their team affiliation each day, except that, in the absence of James’s humane narration, we are given no reason to love them.

[See also: Why are strangers on social media trying to micromanage my life?]

I left Twitter mostly because I would rather aspire to love all of humanity, than take sides with a single segment of it, and Twitter was making it hard to do this. I left at the peak of the frenzy surrounding Elon Musk’s takeover of the social-media company. But I do not believe that Musk could make that site any more inhumane than it already was. Its inhumanity is by design, and reflects the economic model that its owners and investors hope will make it profitable. I have trouble seeing the defections from Musk-era Twitter as having Musk himself as their real cause. Defectors have used Musk as a pretext to get out of something they had already understood to be debasing, inhuman, and out of place in any well-lived life.

So Twitter is out of my life now, just as Facebook and Instagram left it some years before, and just as TikTok never came into it. I had been on Twitter since 2008, but only became active in 2019 when I began working on my book The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is (2022). During those intervening years, most of which unfolded under the miasma of the pandemic and its successive lockdowns, I told myself I was on Twitter in order to do “research”, to better understand extremely-online culture and to see how the mechanisms work that exploit the akrasia of Twitter’s users. But like an undercover agent who tries a sample of the drug he is working to eradicate, I became hooked. I showed all the symptoms of social media addiction: the dopamine rush that comes with some small gesture of affirmation from another user, the withdrawal from proper human contact, the incessant doom-scrolling, the abandonment of reading.

And what of the Meta Corporation, with its Facebook and Instagram properties and its make-or-break bet on virtual reality? I have argued before that the shabby, almost bureaucratic, aesthetics and user experience evidently preferred by Mark Zuckerberg should not be taken as an indication of Meta’s decline, but rather are there by design. Zuckerberg wants his social media sites to look as awful as the rest of our built environment, as the brutalist public housing that sets the dominant aesthetic tone in even the most beautiful cities, as the highways we commute on, get stuck on, fritter away our lives on. By setting it up to be like our actual world, the transition to Zuckerberg’s virtual world, he might hope, will be seamless, almost imperceptible. TikTok strikes me as youthful and dynamic, full of bold expressions of human ingenuity. That this should be the prevailing feel of what also appears to be a Trojan horse for the spread of Chinese spyware, while the American social media company that soared to the top of the market as a testament to the virtues of free enterprise now looks like the dull office of a state functionary in some grim command economy, is noteworthy.

Where I do have a glimpse of an understanding is in the mass exodus from Twitter in late 2022. It seems likely, again, that Musk was only its occasional cause, the yearned-for last straw. And this pretext was hoped for simply because, by late 2022, it finally dawned on a critical mass of people that they deserved better.

[See also: Charging Twitter users for blue ticks would be a disaster]

To say that they deserved better is to say that they deserved virtual connections that complemented their human connections rather than warped them. It says that monetised social interaction is not social interaction in any proper sense of the term, and it says that we already have the technologies to build social networks that are not based on data-extraction and profit-driven algorithms.Where are these social networks? Many defectors are crossing over to Mastodon, a grass-roots, open-source network, occupying a position among social media comparable to that of Firefox among browsers. For whatever reason, it does not yet seem worth my effort to move in that direction.

Rather more interesting to me are the various efforts over the past few years to create social networks that build upon what Facebook, Twitter, and the others have brought into the world, but to anchor these networks in the proper human connections that deserve to be called “social”. One example is Black Elephant, an organisation founded in Paris in 2020 that now has global ramifications, and that, according to the founder, Felix Marquardt, is developing a web-based platform to complement its flesh-and-blood-based component.

The idea is that, within the Black Elephant network, in order to identify someone as your friend or contact, you must first have attended a Black Elephant dinner with that person. During such a dinner, you and the other guests will have had to hold forth on a number of personal questions – revealing things about yourself ordinarily reserved for your intimates – in a context which is very different from the online world, in which others can see you blush, or see your tears of sadness of shame. The online component of the project then maps the history of your dinners and of those who were in attendance, so that your online friend group never grows larger than the set of people in front of whom you may have blushed in the past. (I have been to several of these dinners, and I always dissemble and bullshit, and never blush: there are limits to how intimate others can get with us that are not set by the technologies mediating our interaction.)

One of the funniest memes I recall from Twitter showed a person with a blank-faced, dead-eyed expression, writing at his keyboard: “LMAO”. The joke is that this poor fellow was not laughing his ass off, but no one in his network could tell. People found it funny because they themselves had grown so used to telling others they were currently laughing their own asses off, while in fact sitting motionless and deadened. The motivating idea behind a project like Black Elephant is that if you claim you are laughing, we should really like to see it, or at least to have seen it, so that we may have some better sense of the veracity of your subsequent virtual claims about your current humour.

This is therefore one promising new development: an experiential social network. There will be others seeking to retain elements of the first generation of social media, while doing away with its exploitative elements, its algorithmic hooks, its cheap dopamine rewards. At its best, the online component of a social network should really only be a representation of a network that is anchored in a different sort of reality. The online component cannot be the thing itself, but only a visualisation of it, a record of a life lived elsewhere than through the screen. That elsewhere can be any number of different places – a restaurant, a community garden, a shared bed – but at a minimum it must be a shared phenomenological space where others can read our human faces, and see what we’re really made of. We tried the atomised approach; for a while, during the pandemic, we were even forced into it. We saw how immiserating that was, and we are certain now that we deserve better.

[See also: Why I’d mourn the loss of Twitter]

Olive Chancellor trembled with jealous dread when she learned from an intercepted letter on the entryway table that Basil Ransom was on his way over to take a walk with Verena later that day. Verena held Olive arm in arm, and she could feel her trembling uncontrollably, and it made her sick to her stomach, and made “our struggle” seem like the least of things. There are experiences that throw us back into our humanity, in the face of which any political struggle, or the particular composition of the US House of Representatives, or the composition of the Top-40 charts, or even the chess-moves of nuclear escalation, or even, perhaps, the imminent arrival of the intercontinental ballistic missiles and the end of the world as we know it, all seem like the least of things too. When W. H. Auden said that we must love one another or die, he did not mean that if we do love one another, we will thereby live forever. He only meant that if we do not love each other, but instead seek only ever to overwhelm one another with bluster and takes, when we do die, our death will be a true perdition. I recall last spring, when Putin was trying out various statements to the effect that protection of Russia’s territorial sovereignty gives him the right to end the world, some wise-ass on Twitter observed to his peers that when the moment comes, and the missiles are approaching, “all of you losers are just going to keep posting until the very last second”. This was an indictment, to be sure, but it was also cuttingly true; an equivalent to Auden’s admonition.

Love is the only hope for evading perdition, but poor Olive! And poor Verena, just a girl, already burdened with the infinite weight of Olive’s love. Such are the experiences that literature discloses to us, and that social media have so far conspired to hide from us. But it does not have to be that way, and there are some signs in recent months that this strict division – literature and conversation for truth, social-media for bluster and lies – is breaking down. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ve got plenty more reading to do.

[See also: Can Linda Yaccarino save Twitter?]

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