In the days and weeks since early November, Twitter has never felt more vital to me. I’ve been writing there for over ten years now (oh god), and it still feels like the best platform to quickly connect with diverse perspectives across the planet, and to watch humans, well, try to be human.
But at the same time, Twitter’s also never felt more difficult to visit.
Just to be clear: amidst everything else that’s happening, this is the least pressing issue I can think of, and possibly the most privileged thing to gripe about. But given how much I rely on Twitter for news, information, and plain old social connections, it’s something I have been thinking about. As vital as it is to me, using Twitter often feels so draining, especially in times of crisis. And given the challenges we’re facing in the next two years, stamina feels like something I’ll need. So if I can improve how I use Twitter (or a replacement) to read, to organize, and to stay informed, I’d like to.
Speaking just for myself, much of my stress on Twitter boils down to a problem of weight. While updates arrive as soon as they possibly can, the result is that each update feels like a first-order priority. It’s difficult to distinguish the importance of one call-to-action from another — “Should I sign this petition about
X, call my senator about
Y, or call my mayor about
Z?” As a reader, I often feel overwhelmed, which is difficult to translate into action. (Mind you, I’m doing this as a cishet white male — which means I’m doing this without any of the online harassment routinely faced by friends and colleagues who aren’t cishet white males.)
In a way, Mandy Brown touched on this problem a few years back, at a conference called dConstruct. Her session was titled “Hypertext as an Agent of Change,” and some three years on I’m still thinking about it. Now, if you weren’t there, an audio recording of her talk is available, as is a transcript on Mandy’s own site. If you have a minute or ten, I’d strongly recommend checking out her talk.
(Hi. Welcome back.)
Mandy’s talk is a meditation on how the ways we understand and share information have changed — and how they’ve primarily been changed by the speed of information delivery. And for me, this is a key part:
I read thousands of tweets about Ferguson, many from people on the ground, and many others from people elsewhere who nonetheless reflected on and contributed to the story as it happened. For that first week, I and others felt like Twitter was solely a place to discuss Ferguson: my timeline was taken over by it, and talking about anything else felt petty and inappropriate.
Those dispatches gradually built into larger stories, measured in paragraphs and pages instead of 140 characters. I think this was a kind of real-time, collaborative drafting of a narrative. As people witnessed and absorbed information, they collectively fit it into a story as a way of making sense of it all. Those quick dispatches and ideas become material from which whole narratives would be created, and those narratives would themselves fit into larger narratives, many of which preceded [Michael Brown Jr.]’s death and will, tragically and otherwise, outlive him.
Mandy is talking about Twitter in the context of a different national tragedy, and through that, she’s touching on another, older story: a story of inequalities woven into the history of our country and, by extension, into the digital systems and products we design today. And key to understanding those unequal systems is that image of sentences transitioning into paragraphs: of taking these fragmented ideas, giving them space, and letting them develop into larger, more complex narratives, and understanding their broader context. That space is what’s sorely missing from Twitter, and feels critical to the difficult transition our country is facing. (And that the world is facing.)
Historically, this kind of careful, methodical work has been an ideal task for newsrooms, who excel at assembling a narrative from rough, imperfect components. Of course, the American news industry is facing more than its fair share of uncertainty, targeted harrassment, and not a few economic challenges. Many regional and local news networks have shuttered, leaving much of the media landscape consolidated on the coasts, leaving large swaths of the country served by more
problematic algorithmic outlets.
There are, it should be noted, heartening attempts to correct this consolidation, and many voices are still speaking up for the future of media. (Also, Teen Vogue is likely going to save us all.) But in the meantime, I suppose it’s on me. I need to figure out how to translate what I read online into action, even if it means using Twitter a little less. Heck, I’d be lying if this wasn’t a goal of getting this little blog online: to place words next to each other, and write a few paragraphs of my own.
This is difficult but it is important: either we and the technology that we build work against the systems that prolong inequality or we perpetuate them.
There is no neutral ground.
There is no safe place to stand.
My thanks to Sara Wachter-Boettcher for reviewing parts of this entry.