‘Bad twitter’ : exit, voice, and social media

by Sebastian Benthall

I made the mistake in the past couple of days of checking my Twitter feed. I did this because there are some cool people on Twitter and I want to have conversations with them.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I started to read things that made me upset.

I used to think that a benefit of Twitter was that it allowed for exposure to alternative points of view. Of course you should want to see the other side, right?

But then there’s this: if you do that for long enough, you start to see each “side” make the same mistakes over and over again. It’s no longer enlightening. It’s just watching a train wreck in slow motion on repeat.

Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is relevant to this. Presumably, over time, those who want a higher level of conversation Exit social media (and its associated news institutions, such as Salon.com) to more private channels, causing a deterioration in the quality of public discourse. Because social media sites have very strong network effects, they are robust to any revenue loss due to quality-sensitive Exiters, leaving a kind of monopoly-tyranny that Hirschman describes vividly thus:

While of undoubted benefit in the case of the exploitative, profit-maximizing monopolist, the presence of competition could do more harm than good when the main concern is to counteract the monopolist’s tendency toward flaccidity and mediocrity. For, in that case, exit-competition could just fatally weaken voice along the lines of the preceding section, without creating a serious threat to the organization’s survival. This was so for the Nigerian Railway Corporation because of the ease with which it could dip into the public treasury in case of deficit. But there are many other cases where competition does not restrain monopoly as it is supposed to, but comforts and bolsters it by unburdening it of its more troublesome customers. As a result, one can define an important and too little noticed type of monopoly-tyranny: a limited type, an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable. The contrast is stark indeed with totalitarian, expansionist tyrannies or the profit-maximizing, accumulation-minded monopolies which may have captured a disproportionate share of our attention.

It’s interesting to compare a Hirschman-inspired view of the decline of Twitter as a function of exit and voice to a Frankfurt School analysis of it in terms of the culture industry. It’s also interesting to compare this with boyd’s 2009 paper on “White flight in networked publics?” in which she chooses to describe the decline of MySpace in terms of the troubled history of race and housing.*

In particular, there are passages of Hirschman in which he addresses neighborhoods of “declining quality” and the exit and voice dynamics around them. It is interesting to me that the narrative of racialized housing policy and white flight is so salient to me lately that I could not read these passages of Hirschman without raising an eyebrow at the fact that he didn’t mention race in his analysis. Was this color-blind racism? Or am I now so socialized by the media to see racism and sexism everywhere that I assumed there were racial connotations when in fact he was talking about a general mechanism. Perhaps the salience of the white flight narrative to me has made me tacitly racist by making me assume that the perceived decline in neighborhood quality is due to race!

The only way I could know for sure what was causing what would be to conduct a rigorous empirical analysis I don’t have time for. And I’m an academic whose job is to conduct rigorous empirical analyses! I’m forced to conclude that without a more thorough understanding of the facts, any judgment either way will be a waste of time. I’m just doing my best over here and when push comes to shove I’m a pretty nice guy, my friends say. Nevertheless, it’s this kind of lazy baggage-slinging that is the bread and butter of the mass journalist today. Reputations earned and lost on the basis of political tribalism! It’s almost enough to make somebody think that these standards matter, or are the basis of a reasonable public ethics of some kind that must be enforced lest society fall into barbarism!

I would stop here except that I am painfully aware that as much as I know it to be true that there is a portion of the population that has exited the morass of social media and put it to one side, I know that many people have not. In particular, a lot of very smart, accomplished friends of mine are still wrapped up in a lot of stupid shit on the interwebs! (Pardon my language!) This is partly due to the fact that networked publics now mediate academic discourse, and so a lot of aspiring academics now feel they have to be clued in to social media to advance their careers. Suddenly, everybody who is anybody is a content farmer! There’s a generation who are looking up to jerks like us! What the hell?!?!

This has a depressing consequence. Since politically divisive content is popular content, and there is pressure for intellectuals to produce popular content, this means that intellectuals have incentives to propagate politically divisive narratives instead of working towards reconciliation and the greater good. Or, alternatively, there is pressure to aim for the lowest common denominator as an audience.

At this point, I am forced to declare myself an elitist who is simply against provocation of any kind. It’s juvenile, is the problem. (Did I mention I just turned 30? I’m an adult now, swear to god.) I would keep this opinion to myself, but at that point I’m part of the problem by not exercising my Voice option. So here’s to blogging.

* I take a particular interest in danah boyd’s work because in addition to being one of the original Internet-celebrity-academics-talking-about-the-Internet and so aptly doubles as both the foundational researcher and just slightly implicated subject matter for this kind of rambling about social media and intellectualism (see below), she also shares an alma mater with me (Brown) and is the star graduate of my own department (UC Berkeley’s School of Information) and so serves as a kind of role model.

I feel the need to write this footnote because while I am in the scholarly habit of treating all academic writers I’ve never met abstractly as if they are bundles of text subject to detached critique, other people think that academics are real people(!), especially academics themselves. Suddenly the purely intellectual pursuit becomes personal. Multiple simultaneous context collapses create paradoxes on the level of pragmatics that would make certain kinds of communication impossible if they are not ignored. This can be awkward but I get a kind of perverse pleasure out of leaving analytic puzzles to whoever comes next.

I’m having a related but eerier intellectual encounter with an Internet luminary in some other work I’m doing. I’m writing software to analyze a mailing list used by many prominent activists and professionals. Among the emails are some written by the late Aaron Swartz. In the process of working on the software, I accepted a pull request from a Swiss programmer I had never met which has the Python package html2text as a dependency. Who wrote the html2text package? Aaron Swartz. Understand I never met the guy, am trying to map out how on-line communication mediates the emergent structure of the sociotechnical ecosystem of software and the Internet, and obviously am interested reflexively in how my own communication and software production fits into that larger graph. (Or multigraph? Or multihypergraph?) Power law distributions of connectivity on all dimensions make this particular situation not terribly surprising. But it’s just one of many strange loops.