Twitter and the Social Archipelago
The following was written one weekend a few weeks ago (with some later editing) more or less in the moment, so to speak, after several conversations about Twitter, about my experience with it, about the experiences others have had with it, and about the events of a Friday evening after the now infamous Justine Sacco tweet, and what those events say about Twitter more generally. These are, then, still largely unformed thoughts that owe a great deal of their admittedly larval form to people more knowledgeable and more experienced than I. Whatever flaws you find in them, however, are almost certainly attributable to me.
I do not spend a lot of time on Twitter, certainly a great deal less time than some of my friends, who seem to have their Twitter apps attached to their fingers, but the more time I spend on it, the more amazed I become by it. I have been a traveler on the internet for 20 years, and in that time I have seen a lot of communities pop up here and there, first on BBSes and message boards, then chat rooms, and later blogs, Facebook, and a whole host of other “social media” platforms. In each phase of the evolution of internet communication, I have come across communities of people who, in the larger world (both online and off), are largely unheard, if not entirely voiceless, communities within which those people have been able to speak their minds and be heard by other people who have experienced the world from a similar sociocultural perspective. These communities of the voiceless have, however, been limited in how much they can amplify their members’ voices once those voices leave the narrow confines of the community. People on the outside rarely har what is said within; the barriers in “traditional” internet communities — which would include blogs and even whole segments of the blogosphere — may exist further out from the center of the individual than the walls that surround the voiceless individual on his or her own, but they still exist, and they are difficult to scale.
Unlike those “traditional” communities, however, Twitter doesn’t merely push the walls further out: it breaks the down completely, or nearly so. What makes Twitter different from earlier forms of internet communication? The most obvious difference is the way in which comments on Twitter are spread. Traditional blog communities are sort of like archipelagos: communication between islands is relatively easy when the islands are adjacent to each other, or in direct conflict with each other, but the more distance there is between islands the fewer connections there tend to be, and the less people on different islands hear from and about each other. There are, for example, radical feminist blogs, and they have some connections to less radical feminist blogs, which in turn have connections to mainstream liberal blogs, which are in direct conflict with mainstream conservative blogs, all of which taken together means that occasionally radical feminist ideas will make their way from the radical feminist island to the mainstream conservative one, though usually in extremely watered down or incomplete form. For the most part though, the mainstream conservative blog community isn’t interacting much with radical feminists, and certainly isn’t doing so on the feminists’ own turf.
On Twitter, the distances between communities still exist, of course, but those distances are quickly, easily, and frequently bridged. It is as though portals through which one can instantly communicate have opened up between all of the islands of the larger archipelago. All it takes is an @ or a #, read by a handful of people, or tens of people, or hundreds or thousand of people, some of whom read it directly from the person @ing or #ing, some of whom catch it because they’re monitoring a #, or because they read a person who was @ed, some of whom catch it because those initial tens or hundreds of thousands retweeted, replied, and re-@ed or re-#ed. Within hours, even minutes, distances are spanned, conversations, often contentious but still conversations, are joined, debates play out in real time, and walls are broken into pieces that scatter across the ground to be easily stepped over.
While this is the most obvious difference, merely facilitating inter-island communication is not what makes Twitter truly different. What makes it so is that the support, the amplification, and the safety that comes with speaking within a community of the otherwise voiceless still exists, even when one’s voice carries well beyond that community. The people who share important parts of your life experience, who see the world in much the same way that you do because they, too, have been repeatedly silenced for the same reasons, are right there with you, ready to lend the weight of their voices to your own; ready to call out and quash any attempt to silence you here as you have been so often silenced elsewhere. It is unspeakably beautiful to watch as people who have been shouted down by the collective voice of privilege and power virtually everywhere else, are owning large spaces of Twitter. Once you enter the world of Twitter, which is their world as much as it is yours, they are instantly present, and the only way you can avoid them is to disengage entirely.
It is no surprise, then, that black people, particularly young black people, have flocked to Twitter in a way, and in numbers, that they haven’t taken to any other form of internet communication. The same goes for other racial and ethnic minorities, as well as LGBTs. Twitter may be the first internet space that is not and will never be largely dominated by straight white people, at least in this country. No matter how much we may try to appropriate it, as we have appropriated so many things that originated elsewhere, we will never fully own Twitter. There everyone has a voice should they choose to use it, a voice that can and will be heard, and there’s not a damned thing the people who have drowned out those voices in the past, consciously or unconsciously, can do about it.
Don’t get me wrong, Twitter is not perfect. Communities can and often do remain insular, purposefully separate, refusing to interact with out-groups. And sometimes, even when out-group members are engaged, the methods of engagement can be problematic. I, and many, many others, watched one Friday evening as a woman on an international flight was demonized, turned into a source of sadistic entertainment, and ultimately fired from her job (if not officially, then at least inevitably) as a result of one tweet, all before she could log on and defend herself. It was disturbing to watch as people of many races, genders, ethnicities, and nationalities pilloried her in absentia.
Even here, though, there were signs of something important. The person being pilloried was an extremely wealthy, highly privileged white person who had expressed what was, at best, a racially insensitive joke (and at worst, extremely gross racism). Once a mob was formed, it went too far, way too far, and became something ugly, largely, I believe, because without the person there to defend herself it became extremely difficult for those caught up in the frenzy to feel even the slightest bit of empathy for her as a fellow human being. This is one of the limits of speed-of-light communication: large-scale gatherings and movements happen so rapidly that, unless those whom it targets can keep up, their humanity can get lost in the din. Humans are still human, and we’ve been forming mobs with pitchforks and torches since the beginning of time. Twitter is not and will never be a cure for our flaws; it can even magnify them, just as it magnifies the better parts of our nature.
However, that Friday’s events also served as another indication of something important: we have reached a day when privilege cannot merely exert itself, either in the form of overt discrimination or in the form of myopic ignorance of what lies beyond one’s limited experience of the world. When remarks travel so quickly between islands, such privilege will be called out, even when the privileged think they are unseen by those less privileged than they, and I have hope that as we become more fully aware of the power that Twitter and other media afford them, we will all together develop better, more precise, and more proportional ways of calling out and undermining privilege. Mobs will form, but voices that do not feel silenced will feel less compelled to join them. Where positive social change is possible, Twitter or something like it will be one of the most effective tools for achieving it.
So if you are not on Twitter, if you think it exists only for the masses to express limited thoughts in a limited number of characters, if you think it’s only for the young, if you think it is alienating, that it is making us less literate and more ADHD, or any other negative thing about Twitter without having really experienced it, I recommend that you create an account, or log onto one that you’ve already created, and give it a try. You don’t even have to do much talking; just explore, look, listen, and learn. It may be disorienting at first, because of its speed, and because there are so many new and perhaps alien voices, but once you begin to get the hang of it I think that you, too, may find the beauty in it.
If you’d like, I can give you some suggestions of people to follow, people whose views many of us here might not have heard often or loud enough. I can even give you some tips on how to communicate at the speed of Twitter. Just let me know in comments, or shoot me an email or an IM: mixingmemory on gmail. I’ll help you get started.