The Reserve Army of the Un-Verified

Why is everyone on Twitter so afraid?

A note about “representativeness” of different social media platforms.

We now have a suite of mature platforms; in order of % of the US who uses them at least a little:

  1. YouTube

  2. Facebook

  3. Instagram

  4. Pinterest

  5. LinkedIn

  6. Snapchat

  7. Twitter

  8. WhatsApp

  9. Reddit

The two most-studied of these platforms (in terms of quantitative academic research) are Twitter and Reddit. This is obviously because these platforms are the most generous with their data and because academics are over-represented among their users.

This, justifiably, leads to criticisms about “representativeness”: these platforms are indeed non-representative of the US population. This limits the kind of inferences we can draw from studying them.

But these criticisms are based on an older paradigm derived from survey methodology. These criticisms are correct, but even better would be to accept the new paradigm:

None of these platforms are representative of anything outside themselves. They are used by different people for different things. Research and social critique should begin to understand a platform (remember: a platform is the backend architecture + the population of users who create the content) on its own terms.

Always: the users of a platform are non-representative of the broader population. Platforms are worthy of study on their own terms—with the caveat that we have to argue why the platform matters, which is unavoidable if we begin by saying what the platform does.

This throat-clearing is of course motivated by my embarrassment at writing once again about Twitter.

One of the most effective criticisms of US democracy (and, page-for-page, one of the best books written by a political scientist in the 20th century) is EE Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People. He outlines a number of reasons that the idealized version of democratic politics does not in practice result in the majority of citizens getting the policy outcomes they want.

Schattschneider argues that the “pressure system” is responsible for structuring the dimensions and thus the scope of political conflict. He worried that the pressure system dramatically over-represented the wealthy and powerful, preventing the issues of importance to everyone else from ever structuring conflict.

However, Schattschneider was writing in an earlier sociotechnical context: the modernist era where powerful institutions controlled the means of communication. Today, we have social media and smartphones. We still only vote once every two years, and we still can only watch as our elected officials go about passing laws. But the nature of the pressure system has changed considerably—at least, in some dimensions.

Most issues don’t matter to many people. There are often core groups of activists on each side, but everyone else is indifferent. Persuasion is difficult, especially on issues that matter: you can’t convince opposing activists to switch sides. The goal of political activists, in Schattschneider’s model, is to expand the scope of conflict by re-drawing the lines of battle in order to bring these people off the sidelines.

Twitter is the best platform for this conflict because of its speed and openness. It is an excellent tool for calling attention, for connecting with people with whom you are aligned in ways that transcend geography, and for giving testimony. It is not a space for deliberation.

The viewpoints and positions that gain in power on Twitter, then, are those that have more dedicated supporters — not the most popular in a one-person, one-vote sense, but with the highest number of angry-person-hours to spend — who can be mobilized to enter a given small-scale conflict.

And the Vibe Theory of Twitter I advanced earlier suggests that the most effective way to mobilize those people is not through the human language of deliberation but rather through cultivating a denser and more powerful network of associations in the language of the architecture of Twitter.

Every Twitter interaction about contentious issues is fraught with a potential threat: someone might be able to use that interaction to re-orient and expand the conflict such that a large number of users will feel emboldened to join the fray and yell at you. Disagreements can turn into dogpiles when one side calls in thousands or millions of reinforcements. The result is that everyone acts defensively and timidly unless they feel confident that they can invoke a unifying principle or ~mood~ and thus escalate the scope of conflict.

But the scope and contours of Twitter conflicts are determined powerfully by who uses and thus creates Twitter. In the long run, as Twitter’s US userbase stays constant or even declines (Pew data suggests that Twitter usage peaked in 2018) and the vibe networks grow both wider and stronger, the system may reach a kind of meta-stable position. New events will filter in, but they can only be understood through the existing networks. A new issue position can “win” or “lose” on Twitter; a given person might be vilified or celebrated.

The next step for people invested in Twitter conflict must then be to expand the scope beyond Twitter by recruiting more users for the platform. Despite the stated belief of close to 100% of active Twitter users, you cannot use the platform without being invested in it and wanting it grow in importance.

I’m not saying that “Twitter isn’t real life, Twitter doesn’t matter.” That view is exactly wrong, premised on the old paradigm of representativeness.

Instead, I’m saying “Twitter is Twitter: what does it do? How does it do it?”

One answer is that it changes the beliefs, attitudes, and brains of active Twitter users, making them more like Twitter itself: both in terms of the relational, vibe-y structure of information flow and the specific connections between the users who create Twitter and the symbols (concepts, people, cultural objects) that comprise its content.

The spread of Twitter-brained people and thus these associational networks inside of other organizations, especially tech and media organizations with internal messageboards or Slacks, has been an recent and important development that lends the Twitter mind leverage within powerful organizations. Earlier, and more famously, the network of associations around the Democratic primary framed the reception of different candidates on Twitter—but not, obviously, dispositively off of Twitter.

With apologies to Elmer: “the flaw in the Twitter heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong in-group accent.”