Tuesday, November 8, 2011

what Twitter is for

One of the unappreciated benefits of the Internet is the way that bloggers and commenters are constantly proving your points. If I critique an argument, and one commenter pops up to say "nobody argues that," another commenter will inevitably show up and prove, quite loudly, that people do in fact argue that. It's helpful and clarifying.

Nowhere is this more perfectly realized than in my complaints about Twitter. Whenever I make my standard critique of Twitter, someone goes on Twitter, says I'm wrong, and basks in the glow of the self-selected echo chamber which reaffirms every thought. It's as regular as clockwork and as self-defeating as possible.

So: they republished a revised version of my essay on the resentment machine in the New Inquiry, for which I'm quite grateful. Ryan Avent, economics guru and reliably "reasonable" correspondent, was apparently stung by it. Unfortunately, he didn't think to articulate an argument. He merely took to Twitter.

Now, I actually think this might be the platonic Tweet. It disparages without content. It dismisses without effort. It denounces without understanding. Its totally artificial length constraints shield it from having to actually express an argument. It is broadcast in an ostensibly public way, but its creator only receives and replies to those who he chooses, and he will only choose those who flatter and support him. And it produced exactly what Twitter is meant to produce, some random figure that emerges only to gently stroke the ego of the user.

I am angry, because Avent didn't just dismiss my essay without argument. He instead decided to attack my field. I'm not interested in defending it; the scholars who are producing knowledge in my discipline, and their work, can stand on their own. I will merely say that Avent has no idea what my field is, couldn't name three people working within it, doesn't have a clue what kind of research comes from it, doesn't even have a context for understanding what he is offhandedly dismissing. He has no idea, and he has the arrogance that can only come from ignorance and a medium that privileges it. This is what Twitter is for, and this is indicative of the entire operation of prominent bloggers: socially and professionally connected people who defend each other no matter what, excluding and marginalizing dissent, ignoring unpalatable arguments that they can't answer, and in every way undermining as illegitimate criticisms that don't operate from a position of privilege and social authority. You know why our media sucks? Why blogging sucks? This is why. Because bad behavior will never be corrected, thanks to the endless corruption of professional patronage.

This, above all else: I'm right here. Everyone who wants to rebut me has only to take to a blog and rebut me, or come into my comments section to argue with me, or send me an email. I fight a lot. I win some. I lose many. But I am willing to fight, and to lose, as long as my critics are willing to fight. But they never do. They take their whinges behind closed doors, or they back channel grief to me through mutual social circles, or they utilize the fake public forum of Twitter to dismiss in 140 characters what they couldn't rebut in 1,000 words. They do everything but have it out. So here is Ryan Avent, without an argument, without any knowledge whatsoever of the field he's critiquing, with nothing but the reliable certainty that some follower would soothe his ego, flatter his pretensions, and indicate assent. This is what Twitter is for: for those too weak to engage in actual antagonistic discourse. And did Avent retweet his useful pal? Oh, of course.

Unlike Avent, I lack the protections of working for establishment media, or institutional authority, or the pleasant cocoon of neoliberal mutual admiration. I don't have a host of paid-up members of the establishment blogosphere using their levers of control to defend me. It's just me, on this free blogging platform, and nobody else. Not a think tank, not a big media magazine, not a foundation or a set of fellow travelers. I have no institution and I ask for no supporters. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ryan Avent can continue to hide in a coward's medium. I, meanwhile, will remain here, ready to fight. It's a small grace for a poor and tired grad student, one lacking all the amenities that Avent has accumulated in the world of privilege that establishment media represents, but in comparison to people who spend their whole lives hiding in a bubble of pleasant assent, I feel like a king.


Donald Pretari said...

He got off a witty remark at your expense. Oscar Wilde often did that to others long before Twitter. The best response is to ignore it. Second best is to laugh at it. Fast forward to worst, which is to write a Treatise about it, which you just did. Of course, I might well have reacted just as you did.

Freddie said...

Oh, you're perfectly right. But this is the deal I made with myself a long time ago.

Dan Miller said...

Was Avent's response snarky? Even disrespectful. Sure, I'll give you that. But this reminds me of Matt Steinglass' discussion of why rich liberals shouldn't voluntarily chip in extra taxes. Did you seriously expect your article to elicit thoughtful and well-reasoned critiques? People don't work that way.

I mean, the basic thesis of your article was that people who disagree with you are people whose lives have no meaning. That they "lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth". Of course, you don't name names; but you don't have to. Everyone knows what kind of person you're talking about in this article, and which individuals you're targeting.

Which, whatever, I'm not going to complain. But an irritated response is pretty much par for the course when you make an argument that someone's life is meaningless unless they agree with you. And to turn around and passive-aggressively yelp that people are being rude to you? I mean, what did you expect?

I hope this doesn't violate the "don't be a jerk" dictum above this comment box. I'm trying to engage here. Avent may have behaved rudely, but he didn't throw the first stone.

Freddie said...

an irritated response is pretty much par for the course when you make an argument that someone's life is meaningless unless they agree with you.

I would reject that reading of my article. And that's the point: you've offered a reading that I can rebut or fail to rebut. There is content there.

Dan Miller said...

Question: would you reject only the part of my reading that involves "agreeing with you"? Because I think my point stands even without that. You seem to be claiming that for a large class of post-college Americans who have consistently won at meritocracy--a group which includes, to varying degrees, you, me, and Avent--life is essentially meaningless, and that people in this group have "little hope for the survival of the fully realized self". If that accurately describes your article, well, those are five-dollar fighting words and you shouldn't be surprised by a prickly reply.

Freddie said...

I just want to point out that a certain kind of superficially entertaining competition can, do to the time-sink properties of ubiquitous Internet access, end up being quietly deadening. I don't mean to say that their lives lack meaning in a real or transcendent sense. I mean to say that due in part to social conditioning the systems with which they attempt to ascribe meaning to their own lives are inadequate to the task.

This is, incidentally, very much a normative, value-laden position, and of course I am guilty of putting my values onto others.

Also: I will 100% cop to the fact that a lot of the way I act here is because I can't help myself. I am one of the world's great self-saboteurs. No argument there.

Dan Miller said...

I have to say, that last comment comes off as a lot less inflammatory than the article does. It's about the system, rather than the people involved in it.

Brendan said...

Ryan Avent has a blog. If he wanted to respond to you, he could have. The existence of Twitter didn't make him respond to your article the way he did. He chose Twitter as a medium because had already chosen to respond that way. People insulted each other before Twitter or the internet.

You're making the same mistake here that you make in the resentment machine piece: asserting, without evidence, that a dynamic that you see reproduced on the internet was somehow created by the internet. But of course taste has been an important part of class distinction since forever, in some cases more important than money. I'm sure you've encountered Bourdieu's Distinction, where he writes about a certain class of people distinguishing themselves with social capital vs. with actual capital, it's the exact same shit in 1970s France.

The other mistake you make in the resentment machine piece is assuming that people are being really serious and have strong feelings when they have arguments about, e.g., the relative merits of Sonic Youth albums. People are just bored at work, no one actually believes that stuff is important.

william randolph brafford said...

I won't say you're wrong, but I think Twitter works pretty well as a sort of hybrid RSS Reader and comment system, with a different visibility system than comment boxes have. I prefer it to blog comments in many cases. I agree it's not a good platform for subtle or detailed arguments.

Basically, I'd agree that the Resentment Machine loves Twitter, but would suggest that you can use Twitter for other things.

matttbastard said...

"The other mistake you make in the resentment machine piece is assuming that people are being really serious and have strong feelings when they have arguments about, e.g., the relative merits of Sonic Youth albums. People are just bored at work, no one actually believes that stuff is important."

Now THEM'S some $5 fightin' words!

(Daydream Nation > everything else. Yeah, I said it. Might even tweet that shit, superficial existential crises be damned.)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Confusion Is Sex > Daydream Nation > Evol > A Thousand Leaves > Sister > Washing Machine > Goo > All the rest

E.D. Kain said...

Freddie - don't blame Twitter. It's just a thing people use to communicate. Like email or blogs or whatever.

Blame people not addressing you directly - and that's just to say people should operate with some common courtesy. Twitter has nothing to do with it. If Avent had addressed you on Twitter, rather than merely talked *about* you on Twitter - well that's entirely different don't you think? It's no different than taking to blogs or comboxes.

Rob Holmes said...

E.D. --

Why should it be either blame or don't blame Twitter?

Isn't it possible that there is some ground between "the medium is the message" and "my message is wholly independent of the medium I use to communicate it"? (Or between "Twitter has nothing to do with it" and "Twitter made me do it"?) Where it is acknowledged that Twitter might be used in a multitude of ways, but it is also understood that, like any other medium, Twitter privileges certain kinds of communications and interactions?

I guess I'm saying I don't find "Twitter is just a thing people use to communicate" wholly exonerative. It's true, but it doesn't indicate that are no biases to be found in the medium.

Curtis Faith said...

For what it is worth. I found the article because Umair Haque retweeted a tweet by @EpicurianDeal

RT @umairh: Very, very sharp. RT @EpicureanDeal: "Every aspect of young adult life is transformed into a status game." http://bit.ly/vkiddj

So Umair Haque thought your post was very, very sharp. That's high praise from him.

Twitter does serve a purpose, you just need to learn who to follow and how to understand their personality and humor.

Freddie said...

Confusion Is Sex > Daydream Nation > Evol > A Thousand Leaves > Sister > Washing Machine > Goo > All the rest

By God, we finally agree about something.

Anonymous said...

"Blame people not addressing you directly - and that's just to say people should operate with some common courtesy."

Common courtesy, I think, is sorely lacking in the Internet age. -K.

kris said...

I always wonder how Socrates had such patience when dealing with the Sophists. He never gets mad or fights rhetorical fire with fire. He just keeps asking questions until the sophist in question admits his ignorance. (I see that patience in you and E.D., Freddie. Please keep it up.)

But that's the interesting thing about how Socrates shows the sophists true nature. He's there, in front of them physically, deploying the elenchi. They have to answer his questions. (Or literally run away, showing their true natture as ignorant anyway.)

They try to cite their qualifications, they try rhetorical tricks and all manner of diversions, but eventually they are exposed as not being able to answer deep questions.

On blogs and twitter the sophists will only interact with each other and only as they see fit. And when new topics come along, the subject changes and no one is shown to be wrong. (This is the problem with breif interviews and televised "debates," too. The sophistry cannot be defused because no one is forced to answer question after question, probing deeper into the issue.)

I have a lot of problems with academia -I'm in it- but we do a better job holding people's feet to the fire than the blogosphere. You have to answer tough questions, often time from people who have done more research than you. And your answers will be scrutinized, and your responses to that scrutiny will be scrutinized. And if you don't admit your mistakes, you won't be able to insult your critics and distract them. It's not perfect in academia, nor was it in Athens, I imagine, but we need more prolonged mutual investigation, honest argument and counter-argument.

Keep up the good fight Freddie. I was just thinking that you and E.D. are the only bloggers I really respect.

Adam said...

I have always thought that one of the best things that happened to me was being on a travelling basketball team in sixth grade that didn't win a game.

Learning how to lose, and realizing that life isn't a competition can not only improve your own happiness and that of people around you, but also improve collaborative output.

Of course, my sincere belief in this makes me better than all of you ;)

banflaw said...

I use Twitter but I never read my @ replies. I think that counts as a virtuous use of Twitter.

Why is there always a conspiratorial tinge to leftwing critique? Because (1) the left is always in the minority and (2) because of the human inclination to pin problems on bad people whose existence is the only thing between us and utopia.

Adam Ozimek said...


I think you're 100% wrong about twitter. You say:

"It is broadcast in an ostensibly public way, but its creator only receives and replies to those who he chooses, and he will only choose those who flatter and support him."

Actually you don't just receive replies from those you choose. Your mentions screen shows you all replies. I don't know why you call it semi-public. You saw Ryan's tweet, and if you were on twitter he would see your reply. Where's the semi part?

Furthermore, I find it much easier to direct a criticism at a blogger on twitter than at their blogs. For some reason it seems harder for people to ignore criticisms on twitter than in comments.

It in part serves for me the exact opposite purpose you seem to think it serves: it's a great place to debate people, and challenge them on their blog posts.

Join us Freddie, join us.

Michael said...

AO is correct. Indeed, Twitter is far more public than most blog comments sections. To take it to one's blog is akin to taking a disagreement into a private room or office. To have it out on Twitter is like having it out in the lunch room.

I do want to push back against E.D.'s notion that it's common decency to never fail take something up directly with the subject you want to discuss if it's a person. People talk about people to other people. It's just human.

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The 2 Girls Teach Sex said...

To be honest, TWITTER rulez in my humble opinion folks.

Tao of Badass 101 said...

I just dont know what is Twitter folks, I dont use it.

Mikes said...

All in all ,what do we all know??

Mikes, Spy Bubble Dude.

Oekrainse vrouwen said...

Twitter works well, use it every day.