Discover more from Never Met a Science
Ultima Ratio Twitterum
I had really hoped that the Musk exodus would stick, that this massive shock would be enough to shake us from our habits. Twitter went from the most open social network, with an API that enabled countless dissertations both substantive and methodological, to crudely and insultingly closed.
But the discussion about the recent APSA debacle suggests that it’s all water under the bridge — everyone was really just looking for an excuse to come back. The nominal argument, about the striking hotel workers, is epiphenomenal.
To be clear: we should be using our status and expertise to do right by labor. Which includes using modern communication technology, intentionally and effectively. Which precludes using Twitter.
Tweeting about what you think the APSA council should do is not political. This is “technological depoliticization,” in Flusser’s terms: “we are being depoliticized precisely because politics pervade almost entirely the world we live in.”
The increased ease of “political” discussions on Twitter reduces “the political” into just one of many fandoms for the identity-conflict machine to weaponize. It is in this sense impossible to send a political tweet.
The responsibility for this problem is not individual. This is institutional failure. How can we not, collectively, produce a fucking webforum that allows us to communicate with each other without empowering people who are actively trying to discredit and destroy us?
My macro-level analysis of contemporary dysfunction is always the same: sclerotic, Boomer-run legacy institutions (like APSA!) are unable to adapt to the internet revolution. Absent technological, institutional reform, strategic action is doomed to failure.
Elon Musk is our political enemy. Every tweet only makes him stronger. It’s not about the money. It’s about the legitimacy. It has long been clear that we are gold mine into which the clown car crashed, people with status and power in legacy institutions.
Another recent social science social media failure concerns the anonymous Econ rumors board (but please don’t click that link), roundly and rightly criticized for hosting vile racism, misogyny and horrific spelling.
This situation, too, is primarily an institutional failure. The AEA should have taken a stronger stance to undercut this platform years ago. Like Tyler Cowen, I’ve never looked at the website — but at least in the abstract, there are many legitimate purposes for both specialized messageboards for people who share common interests and for pseudonymity. The embittered grad students giving free rein to their racism and misogyny deserve blame, of course, but the primary culprit is the most powerful social science professional organization in the world.
Twitter, too, has been roundly and rightly criticized for hosting vile racism, misogyny and horrific spelling. It is now straightforwardly unusable, overrun by bots and spammers, flooded with puerile (and worse—outdated) memes from the CEO.
I cannot figure out which ethical principle which would categorically condemn using EconRumors while still allowing the use of Twitter in 2023. Scholars who have devoted the better part of a decade to studying misinformation are using a platform run by a man who posts things like this.
I *think* that the principle in practice is “do I, personally, see racist/sexist stuff.”
But that’s not right. It’s very common, on Twitter, for people to Quote Tweet racist/sexist stuff in order to condemn it. We have all seen plenty of racist/sexist stuff. Indeed, we have decided that it is righteous to broadcast racist/sexist stuff in order to demonstrate how much we dislike it — to exult in the collective experience of our followers agreeing that the racist/sexist stuff is bad.
So perhaps the “principle” which disallows EconRumors and allows Twitter is “do I, personally, see racist/sexist stuff that appears to have broad support?”
Media theorist Fredrich Kittler is fond of pointing out that Louis XIV had all his cannons inscribed with the phrase Ultima Ratio Regum. “The last argument of kings.” The Ultima Ratio Twitterum is, rather, The Ratio --- a majority vote of the people who have seen and responded to the tweet.
As I wrote in The Reserve Army of the Unverified
The viewpoints and positions that gain power on Twitter 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.
Tabling the question of whether this was ever good (jk it was always bad), it is currently indefensible. Musk understands the situation. His moves have been to expand and empower his fanbase, to turn the tide of social recommendation in his favor. Twitter is a video game; Elon Musk love video games, and he’s currently paying a ton of money to win.
We, on the other hand, are petulantly not paying any money. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in a Twitter bio is the phrase “legacy verified.” But we are paying, dearly, both by failing to use the internet effectively and by empowering our opponents.
As usual, I think that we need more “technological determinism” at the margin. Wordcels rightly push back against this argument, with words, in favor of explanations about how technology is used. There’s obviously some merit to this. But this perspective tends to downplay the importance of changing the technology.
The technical is political. The crucial media-theoretic mistake of the past decade is the view that “we” (political activists, academics, journalists, politicians) can leave the technology to the engineers and focus on how it is used. “Technology is neither good nor bad — nor is it neutral” is all fine and good, but our implicit belief has been that it is at least neutral enough for us to use it successfully for our own ends. Not to have realized this mistake, in 2023, is tragic.
I have zero faith in the APSA or the AEA to address this problem. They’ve barely managed to make any progress in reforming the communication institutions they already own. Instead of leading the way with adapting their peer-reviewed journals to the internet, they have lagged behind smaller journals and independent science activists pushing for a better system.
Bluesky? Mastodon? Threads? This is the sort of thing a functional, modern professional organization would have been on top of. And we can dream bigger. Despite the fact that, technically, it would be trivial to develop a new social media platform that we can use for our own ends, I’d sooner expect APSA to abandon the grossly unjust for-profit publishing model than to pull that off.
To start, though, we don’t need any backend developers. You know who has figured this out? The entire first generation of blogs! Thousands of communities run by teenagers on Discord! You just need friction and moderation! There are a variety of parameters to tweak — anonymity or not, content discoverability/ranking, interoperability with other parts of the web — but the basic format is a solved problem.
We currently spend millions of dollars a year on academic journals and conference travel, and millions of hours a year on Twitter and other para-professional online communication. The latter is important enough that we might consider spending money on it.
One thing we’re all going to have to learn to live with, however, is the existence of bad shit online. You might be hesitant to abandon Twitter because then the Musk and Trump fanboys “will win.” This intuition is incompatible with the contemporary technosocial environment.
The only way to win is to win the audience. This happens through a combination of medium and message, of platform and content.
The Ratio is still the ultimate argument on Twitter, and Musk has bought up all the cannons. But these cannons will become remarkably impotent once he’s just playing with himself.