Blogging, Blogs, Bourgeoisie, Capitalism, Democracy, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Financial Meltdown, Freedom of Speech, Jonathan Swift, Liz Truss, Marxism, Opinion, Politics, Social Media, Technocracy, Technology, Twitter
If Jonathan Swift was alive today and he decided to write a grand satire of social democracy, it could not look any less like the current story of Twitter. Certainly Swift would have called his Twitter “Laputa” (i.e. “the whore”). I can imagine Lamuel Gulliver stumbling across Twitter during his far-flung travels. Just as the original flying island of Laputa had been used to satirise the goings on at the Royal Society, Twitter is a closed system that superbly reflects the shape and nature of its satirical target, social democracy, in microcosm.
I here use the term “social democracy” very loosely, to refer to all Western nations with mixed economies. As with today’s social democracies, Twitter is dominated by the (culturally) left-leaning middle classes. On Twitter, academics, administrators, journalists, artists, student activists and environmentalists have come together to put the world to rights. Meanwhile, as with any social democracy, the working class remains generally bewildered and silent.
There has been always a decidedly aristocratic quality to Twitter, in that a tiny minority of aggressive users (10%) generate most of the content (80%). Twitter’s users probably think that the service improves upon social democracy because there is no general election every few years to reconnect opinion-makers with the common sense of ordinary people.
As with Western social democracies, on Twitter self-important people pose and virtue-signal and symbolically atone for their class privilege, whilst behind them the entire system is in inexorable financial decline. It took ten years for Twitter to turn a profit but even then it received only a meagre share of the available advertising revenues. For example, it earned around $4.5 billion from advertisers last year whereas both Google and Meta had taken in over $100 billion. You might think that it requires some measure of genius to design a social-media product expressly for the leisured bourgeoisie and to then fail in extracting any adequate profit from it.
The similarity to social democracy has been only reconfirmed following a quixotic, Trumpian takeover from the billionaire Elon Musk. There is now exactly the same dynamic at play within Twitter as when Washington had set itself against Donald Trump and Westminster had set itself against Liz Truss. Twitter’s managerial class have been fired or they have left in waves. Musk has been typecast as another rude, chaotic, nouveau-riche outsider and the establishment within Twitter are solemnly warning about his lack of expertise. Of course, as with today’s social democracies, the technocratic establishment who are so horrified at any change are the same people whose energylessness and complacency had led to such a disruptive takeover in the first place.
Unlike with Washington and Westminster, however, Twitter is not guaranteed any other side to its recession. This week Musk has conceded that “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” All social media platforms are today embroiled in a far fiercer competition for advertising income, one in which Twitter is at a significant disadvantage since advertisers have grown ever more skittish about its unpredictable leadership.
Musk began by fast-tracking “freedom of speech” but advertisers are apparently distressed over there being too much freedom and the wrong sort of speech. Musk has himself since reneged severely on his commitment to user freedoms. He has decreed, for example, that accounts “engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying “parody” will be permanently suspended.”
The problem here is that both Musk and many of his detractors are working with a fantastical, rather fascist-sounding narrative in which a strongman can take over Twitter and single-handedly force through major changes. In reality, national laws together act as a de-facto constitution within Twitter, whilst the need to work with legislators, advertisers, the tech industry and, most of all, Twitter’s users means that the process of change cannot be anything other than consensual. Musk therefore holds no more actual power over Twitter than Trump or Truss had had over their own political systems.
I personally think that Musk had been right to idealise freedom. Twitter had previously assumed that more users would be attracted to the platform if it was blander, if the content was more controlled, and if extreme opinions were penalised mercilessly. Instead, many ordinary people had probably concluded that Twitter’s overall culture was neurotic and oversensitive. In general I find that working-class people speak about Twitter as if it was akin to spiritualism or a new-aged diet. Namely something too obviously unserious to be worth them really exploring.
When I try to picture a world without Twitter, I find that I am mentally repairing years of egregious damage. I am old enough to remember a time when Scotland had had a “blogosphere.” Wonderful writers such as Andrew Tickell, the Flying Rodent, Jane Carnall and many, many others would post essays and articles, which would use rhetoric and eloquence and give deep consideration to topical subjects. All of these people had eventually decamped to Twitter. I tell myself that the blogosphere had been the glories of Ancient Greece whereas Twitter is Rome. In reality it was more that the blogosphere was like some failed sub-Saharan state and that the exodus was an aspirational one.
I can understand the appeal of microblogging over the blogging of years gone by. In the old days, readers would say things like “well that was a fine article by Mr Tickell” or “my goodness, what a powerful piece of writing from Ms Carnall.” On Twitter, however, these articles could be broken down into bullet points, which could be then each individually liked, retweeted and celebrated. Ten times more acclaim could be thus earned from exactly the same content.
I had joked in relation to this that the feminist Camille Paglia had complained that the best minds of her generation had been wrecked by LSD, whilst with my generation Twitter is responsible for the same damage. If Twitter is scuppered, where will these writers migrate to next? Will they return home chastened, like the Prodigal Son, to the luxuriant prose of blogging? Or will they hurry off to find an even more spurious and anti-intellectual format? I can see them all on TikTok, gyrating away for the NHS, wiggling sensuously for Scottish independence and maximising their virtue-signalling through the splendours of interpretive dance.
Joking aside, the challenge for me is that the democratic culture that blogging had been once such a vivid expression of is clearly rendered even more vivid through microblogging. On Twitter you can read a huge quantity of writing by many people in an amazingly short space of time. It is “a town hall” – to use Musk’s favourite metaphor – that unlike most real-life town-hall meetings allows everyone in the audience to get a word in. The blogosphere had been greatly more elitist, with there being only elements of a rabble encroaching down in the comments sections.
This is indeed the paradox of Twitter. Often its contents seem neurotic, out-of-touch, sanctimonious and estranged from the values of ordinary people, even as the underlying technology remains uniquely and unprecedentedly democratic. For all of its sins, Twitter is still the most reliably exhilarating part of the media.
If the entire population of the planet could be somehow dragooned into using Twitter, rather as some countries have compulsory voting, and if they were forced to tweet, to retweet and to like, then we would be at last breaking through into genuinely utopian circumstances. We would have a media that was worthy of the people because the people were finally the platform. Perhaps instead of reaching a world without Twitter, we should try to ensure that Twitter becomes the world.
[Previously on Tychy: “Join Tychy in the Metaverse!“]