Guest Notes

Cultural notes

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

Swimming in the Twitterverse

What even is Twitter? Speaking as a creature who evolved in its depths, I feel a primordial need to explain – if not defend – its honour. I’ll admit that this position presents overtones of Stockholm Syndrome. Twitterers are captives of their chosen social media platform and like most I have had my fins clipped with a bit of casual shadow-banning. When I sustained what should have been the fatal flesh wound of a suspension, I found myself with some time to consider the truth beneath this haphazard monster.

On the surface, Twitter occupies the social media market somewhere between a school noticeboard and a radio broadcast. Its deliberate brevity causes information and emotion to layer in a relentless stream that is picked over by our professional class of press who then repackage the day’s highlights. For all the height a legacy perch affords, good luck beating Twitter to the worm. While not always accurate, it is first and it will have hacked to death any story long before the nearest flutter of wings.

I guarantee, if the public want to know what the press keeps coy, they’ll immerse themselves in a hashtag. That is the strength of Twitter; it preys on our unshakeable lust for immediacy. Mock its unhinged outrage and illiterate trolls all you like, but its existence is remarkable. Indulge me. Take a few steps back from the mayhem and try to appreciate what has been created by accident.

Twitter is the closest the human race has come to a real-time record of thought. By its very nature, the platform is a largely unmoderated entity where anonymity mimics the subconscious. Aside from the idle musings that carry on day-in, day-out, when global events erupt Twitter creates a log of our unfiltered reaction. It reveals the intimacy of crowds and the mechanism behind their tendency to converge.

Yes, Twitter is not the only platform keeping tabs on human opinion, but the constraints of its design have shaped expression into outbursts rather than meditation. This difference is crucial. Up until this point, history has arrived in the form of sobriety. Our story is the product of kings, scribes and poets with individuals disconnected from each other. Never have we had millions of people publishing in synchronicity.

I hear you peck holes in this theory. Twitter is not factually accurate. No, neither are humans. The soul of civilisation has never been about a perfect reflection of truth but rather what it chooses to project about itself. In this case, there is no editor keeping track and history’s victor hasn’t been decided to anchor an approved version. Instead, we are glimpsing raw data and that is fascinating.

Its political power is rarely appreciated. Forget using Twitter as electoral advertising. When a significant portion of your nation is freely offering anonymous opinion, you have become privy to dinner table conversation. This speech can be ugly and at times confronting but private thoughts are the whispers that cast votes. Only foolish politicians approach this entity and feel the urge to gaffer-tape its mouth shut.

Imagine the powerful rulers of our twilight. They would have ransomed the stars to glimpse the mind of their country lurking beneath the entrenched lies of civility. Instead of embracing this unintentional gift, politicians err on the side of censorship, striking at the suspicion of power. That’s all it is. Instinctual jealousy dressed up as virtue because they know that liberty cuts deeper than spin.

Twitter is hostile to exploration. Those who wander in unprepared are often left bewildered and anyone with a shred of fame experiences the worst of the platform’s offering. That is easily explained. Water is the element most akin to the human mind. It is predictable chaos governed by order – and so too are we. Twitter is a collection of minds. Together they fall to the depth of an ocean with waves corrupting the surface. Unruly headwinds transform them into a storm. The chop creates an abusive crust of foam which inevitably washes up along the beach and sticks to the tide line. Celebrities play in the shallows, collecting the worst of it.

If this is you and you possess a measure of fame, lift your gaze over the muck to the curve of blue. It is out there that the real war of ideas takes place. Some of us are deliberately submerged in those waters. Although Twitter is an uneven cross-section of the population, it can be used to predict seismic activity and like all minds it is open to the power of suggestion.

None of this is to say that everything Twitter sets into motion is permanent. It is in the business of recklessly dumping ideas upon the shore. The passage of time and the recurring swell will determine if any have substance enough to impale themselves into the historical record. Perhaps this is what John Stuart Mill meant when he mused at a society driven by, ‘collective mediocrity’.

Authoritarian politicians are correct on one account. Words have meaning – sometimes they even hold weight. Last year I wrote three eulogies and came to understand that writing is not simply an indulgence, it carries responsibility. When it falls on you to have the last word on someone’s life, you are confronted with the inescapable reality that we are all reduced to stories. This is no different to the soul of our country, which is itself a memory of words.

There will come a time when our cities lie forgotten, usurped by silence. Twitter is part of that story, albeit a rough draft of consciousness. While it rages through imperfection and passion as all living things do, it remains the task of chaste print to stand as the final markers of this tide. This is the difference between impermanent flesh and bleached bone. I wonder then, is Twitter simply the tally of our social crimes meeting their demise along the shore – or are its waves an inscrutable impression left in the rock?

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