I don’t know how many readers of this blog use Twitter but I certainly do. I have had a fairly long run of using the platform but I believe the fun has come to an end.
Those of you who used the internet from the ‘early days’ would remember or relate to this easily. The web was static pages, email lists, forums, using many search engines, ‘under construction’ icons and pages that looked like this:
Or like this:
The core defining elements however took shape during those days: open interaction and information flow, robust debate, and virtual identities. The political histories of the countries that contributed to the growth of the internet, and the peculiar type of people who would learn to use computers to ‘go online’ gave rise to this culture.
Importantly, the core elements were there before newspapers and agencies, corporations, broadcasters, government agencies, or even blogs, came to the web. Initially the big players tried to merely replicate what they did in the real world, online. News articles would just be pages, for instance, online shopping websites would only allow you to buy stuff. Blogs would just be people’s personal journals.
Soon enough it was evident entities had to do what the internet did, on the internet. It was far more profitable to encapsulate a little piece of the internet inside your product. If you were a company maintaining a ‘presence’ on the web, a static website would be fine. But if you were someone trying to attract users, hold their attention and gain something in the process, you had to play by the rules of the free net.
With the growth of blogs ‘the internet’ moved into these spaces. In a way it can be said the blogs are where it truly still lives. Blogs (more precisely the database architecture behind them) brought the another core defining element: the permalink. User-generated online speech/content had become citable and indexable, like academic papers.
With the growth of social media websites a few things happened. First, a lot of interactivity and debate has moved into these platforms. A lot of the internet has drained into these venues. A second observation that can be made is that social media platforms do not provide anything new in an internet architectural context. Lastly it can be said there are a now substantial number of people who are online, who have only known the net via the prism of social media. In other words they don’t know of an internet apart from and outside of it.
Consider Twitter at this juncture. It is used by millions of people. Yet it offers little new speaking in terms of mechanism: it is a micro-blogging platform and nothing more. The latter point is particularly important.
If a blog user or a news agency prevents you from posting content on their website, there would be nothing you could do – after all the owner controls the venue. But the owner exists inside the larger ecosystem of the internet and there would nothing he could do to prevent you from publishing content elsewhere. Additionally, there is a practical limit on how much censorship one could keep performing at one’s own venue. This is because of the underlying free nature of information flow on the internet. Unlike where brutal governments employing force would absolutely suppress opinion or fact, information suppression cannot be absolute online.
But what happens, or could happen with something like Twitter? First, if much of the internet drained into it there would not be an ecosystem outside, of which Twitter would be a part of.
Second, the individuality and quirkiness of censorship itself, ironically, would disappear. For instance if a climate skeptic visited ATTP’s blog and left a comment critical of him he might delete it. On a microblogging platform like Twitter, the skeptic’s tweet could not be conveniently bumped off by ATTP. The permalinks belong in a single common pool the company controls!
But there would be a hidden downside. The same tweet might become subject to an opaque Orwellian Twitter rule that “scientists cannot be criticized with hatespeak on our platform”. Or more familiarly, a Twitter ‘policy’ might decree that climate skeptics views would not be tolerated on their plaftorm and your tweet would get the boot. Blanket rules made by committees would exert vast but diffuse power.
Now imagine if ATTP, Gavin Schmidt, and Michael Mann were made members of a Twitter ‘Trust and Safety Council’. Picture ATTP translating his ‘comment policy‘ for use by the Twitter on climate skeptics.
The good ol’ days when these stalwarts of climate justice were confined to their own blogs snipping comments would suddenly seem very attractive.
As it happens, social media platforms have not yet swallowed the internet whole. But many millions live in them, and want the rules of the old internet erased or re-written. Unstated rules and arbitrary bans have multiplied on Twitter. Lastly there actually is such a thing as a Twitter Trust and Safety Council that advises the company. Though it doesn’t have climate folk on it like the hypothetical above it has people with an axe to grind on video games. Yesterday a critic of activists who are on this ridiculous abomination of a ‘Council’ was suspended from Twitter.
Twitter has an appealing and intelligent chunk of the internet, of all social media platforms. Of them all it closely recapitulates the conventions of blogging but yet provides for real-time interaction. This unique combination throws up many interesting results: Twitter is unbeatable in topical news and event coverage. It is a great place to set off public mob shaming campaigns, and festivals of moral outrage. Consequently it ends up as a great place to forensically de-construct events and reactions as well, as was performed by Louise Mensch in the Tim Hunt twitter shaming debacle.
I came in contact and made online friends with many people on Twitter and learned many new things because of Twitter. It has some of the good stuff – the surprises and growth that can come with robust emergent interaction.
But delusions of grandeur, arbitrariness, ceding platform control to weird single issue players, mucking about hashtag suppression and ‘shadowbans’ via code (!), and and an itchiness for blanket rule application on what’s essentially a self-balancing, equilibrating process, i.e, on its little slice of the internet, has made Twitter increasingly unattractive and unsavory. An alternative which closely mirrors Twitter but devolves control of content regulation to its users would be a serious competitor.
[edits and updates 2/21/2016]. I archived the earlier version of the post here.