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We Lived in a Society
Conviviality is a Commons
The public choice literature argues that the state tends to provide legislation with diffuse harms and specific benefits. The harms are difficult for anyone to detect, and the recipients of the specialized handout are willing to pay for it (through campaign donations, etc).
The incentives on Twitter are different. Twitter isn't producing policy, of course, but it is a powerful tool for setting the normative agenda. The structure and culture of Twitter encourage the identification and condemnation of practices with *specific harms*, sometimes at the cost of *diffuse benefits*.
In 2022, Americans have never felt lonelier. Many public intellectuals have decried the erosion of community, a legion of footnotes to Putnam's Bowling Alone, and they were all correct. There is considerable disagreement about the relative contribution of different causes, but widespread agreement on the effect.
These two paragraphs are connected; "conviviality" is an example of the kind of diffuse benefits which Twitter has encouraged us to trade off on to address specific harms. The term may be unfamiliar. The English word just means "friendliness," but what I mean is the definition used by the theorist Ivan Illich, translated from the Spanish "convivencia" as living together. For more on these lines, read LM Sacasas over at The Convivial Society. Illich advocated for the adoption of technologies and social institutions that encourage conviviality, the flourishing of humans living with other humans. Twitter is not such a technology. It is useful for transmitting knowledge and for direction attention, absolutely. But the metaphysics of Web 2.0 (platforms, algorithms, personal accounts) are intrinsically individualistic. The user sits by herself, connected to the feed via a personal screen, and makes binary decisions. The social world constructed by this network is strictly divided into individual accounts, individual posts, likes; the fluidity of real human social life is constrained into these little boxes with aesthetically optimized round corners. In this environment, we really are alone, together.
Given these constraints, what is the "best" thing that can be done on Twitter? Creation is impossible; the affordances are too constrained. Weird Twitter poetry had a moment, but that's about it in terms of creation. But short text and embedded links can call attention to a specific social harm, and images and videos can even provide their own evidence.
The decontextualized sociality we find on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit illustrates the asymmetry of pleasure and pain, of construction and destruction, human flourishing and human cruelty. We can be truly and genuinely outraged by a variety of harms; a short video of violent white privilege enacted by calling the police on a birdwatcher, say, tells the whole story. Viral videos or verbal accounts of harms can be taken so far out of context as to be deceptive, but sometimes they aren't, and we can experience enough of what is going on. Pain, fear and violence are evil and instantly recognizable, they create some amount of genuine empathy.
Viral posts of *the good* are much worse; virtual, decontextualized pleasure can only be pornographic, in the sense of "food porn" or "eyebleach," or unsatisfying videos of other people having sex. They also tend to be insipid and insanely cynical. Videos of babies or cute animals are nice but hollow. The good is complex, contextual, embodied and social; it is created by conviviality.
Consider the Twitter conversations around COVID.1 The implementation of restrictions and guidelines during COVID represented a sacrifice by the young and healthy on behalf of the old and vulnerable. Throughout, the liberal side of Twitter has adamantly pointed out the specific harms (including many thousands of deaths) which were/could have been prevented with more COVID-related restrictions.
Beyond government regulations, though, there have been many Twitter conversations about norms of behavior. The ethical debates were biased by the asymmetry I've described above. A thread describing someone else dying from COVID evokes empathy and inspires action; a video of someone else hanging out unmasked with their friends evokes only envy and condemnation. Communication on Twitter is structurally incapable of expressing the value of conviviality.
"Conviviality is a commons" means that a sufficiently empowered technocratic society is tempted to "overfish," to sacrifice some conviviality for other (often worthy!) goals more often than the fishery can sustain. Humans are social animals. We naturally produce conviviality unless prevented by some oppression or privation. Because society is a dynamic system, any given intervention that harms the production of conviviality can be at least partially offset; we can't meet up with friends after work, but we can do a zoom happy hour with old friends we might otherwise not have talked to. Society is robust, in that it can absorb a shock like this, adapt, and eventually return to something like its original state.
All such complex systems can only absorb shocks of a certain magnitude or duration. A fishery that is overfished for a few years can recover if given time; after decades, however, the rubber band has lost its elasticity. Our social world could persist at some tolerably high percentage of its ideal state for a while, but the toll of crucial sub-processes begins to show. It was almost impossible for many to make new friendships, for example; as existing friendships meet their end, there's nothing replacing them.
Whatever your personal view on these tradeoffs, my claim is that Twitter structurally amplifies the visibility of specific costs and suppresses the visibility of diffuse benefits. Convivial social life is full of minor joys and pleasures like bumping into old friends on the street, meandering debates after dinner, embodied sensuality. (Indeed, I struggle to find the right words…what I mean is valuable precisely because it can’t be captured in a sentence). It would be weird, however, to make an impassioned tweet about these things --- and more importantly, it'd be really weird for a tweet about these things to go viral and get thousands of retweets.
Social media is social. The primary information it conveys is social; the primary reason people use it is to get social information. And a tweet with accreted social endorsements contains a lot more social information. This is particularly relevant for questions around norms. A tweet with 10k RTs advocating for a specific behavioral modification (Stay. The Fuck. Home.) bundles the literal text of the tweet with an avalanche of social cues. Thus the sense that many others agree with the tweet and that you will face social sanction for not accepting the behavioral modification.2
Conversely, no one is going to get equivalent social endorsement by making a full-throated injunction to go chill with the homies. This isn't about selfishness or isolation per se; you might well see encouragements to check in with a friend who is feeling sad, or to patronize struggling local restaurants and tip well. These are concrete, individual actions, and thus legible to the moral logic of Twitter. It's the contributions to a diffuse collective, real lived sociality---friends, community---that cannot be reduced to concrete individual actions and thus cannot be communicated on Twitter.
"There is no such thing as society" says the emergent process of the Twitter mind. There are concrete, separate posts, Likes, RTs, ratios—all rationalized, chopped up, inhuman. The litany of specific, individualized harms identified by people purporting to be other-regarding is nothing but inverted Thatcherism. The Twitter activists who invoke the "systemic" nature of the injustices they seek to correct doth protest too much; the platform is ideally designed to amplify the human tendency to focus on individual harms and harmers.
To be clear: these injustices are absolutely systemic. As a social scientist, I'd love to be able to develop a parsimonious causal model identified specific points of intervention, but these are complex problems that have evolved in path-dependent ways for centuries. One reason these injustices are described as systemic is to suggest (rightly) that it is absurd to suggest that specific individuals can address them, but as we see, specific individuals certainly face punishment for perpetuating them.
The right long ago abandoned the idea of "society "in public discourse except for the specific, authoritarian-leaning forms of the family and the church. They are correct that these are important forms of conviviality for many people and that both are becoming weaker, but these cannot be the only convivial forms. Worse, these legitimate concerns motivate only a small minority of the American right; more common are the "Barstool Republicans," petty reactionaries clinging to a shallow conviviality based on hedonism and bigotry.
The right's abandonment of communitarian values leaves only the liberal forms based on free association. (The leftist forms, unions and party cadres, were never that strong in the US and have been eroded through other processes). The flexibility of free association is generally a strength, but is a weakness in the context of a pandemic. Unless you're seventeen (and god bless seventeen-year-olds for this...), the bonds of a friend group or volunteer organization are just not that strong. The increased salience of harms based on racism, sexism or other oppressions makes these harms lexicographically above other social problems in the contemporary liberal moral calculus: there is no amount of generalized benefit that can offset these specific harms.
In the course of the pandemic, COVID harms came to receive elevated moral weight. It is now clear that school closures harmed childhood development and that these harms disproportionately affected the poor and racial minorities. These decisions did not entail conscious deliberations about the relative costs of each option. Part of the problem is that Twitter-logic moral absolutes cannot be traded off. When tradeoffs are unavoidable, decisions are still made and things still happen, we just give up any control over the process.
Twitter-emergent norms, combined with the general climate of risk aversion driven by economic precarity and the increasing quality of solipsistic technological pleasure, has produced a (normatively bad) positive feedback loop. To borrow the climate change metaphor, we are past a "tipping point" of sustainable sociality.
Each passing day, our social worlds decay. It becomes harder to make an effort, to find time, to even set up a one-on-one hangout. The less we get invited by others, the less inviting we do. Organizing a new group of co-workers out for happy hour drinks is newly fraught. Will we be considered irresponsible for even asking? The less we socialize the higher the costs of social rejection become. Safer to stay home, work on our side hustles and save up money for a yearly trip with old friends who live across the country.
Formerly sacrosanct family obligations have been eclipsed by, say, political or public health concerns. We calculate individually that it’d be more fun to stay home with bae, order takeout and return to the Netflix womb than to deal with dinner at the Trumpy uncle’s house.
“Trumpy uncle” is a Twitter-endorsed human box, an unambiguous signal that someone else is at fault for this unravelling of the social fabric. Meanwhile, the real person in question stews silently in his living room with the news on, feeling lonely and miserable and being fed a constant diet of people to blame for why.
The forces of technocapitalism make us more internally divided and conquerable each day. The pressure to become a more frictionless cog in the machine of commodity circulation---to be better workers and consumers---is winning. The medium is the message, so regardless of the words you encounter on Twitter, the effect is to reify a politics and a society where everything is divisible, classifiable, individual. From a pure information theory perspective, the Twitter API lets us see like the machine learner that ultimate profits from our online activities: the entirety of our online lives condensed into only a few lines in a CSV. Our abundant, overflowing humanness is capable of incredible complexity but we now voluntarily rush towards the rationalized safety of a low-dimensional space.
Conviviality is necessary to counter-act this trend.
This is the kind of problem that capitalism cannot solve; conviviality is not commodifiable, no matter how much a legion of salivating venture capitalists and app developers wish that it were. Humans spending time together freely, enjoying our humanity, is what produces conviviality, both in terms of specific social gatherings and as the persistent bonds between among members of a community.
In considering the tradeoffs of taking social risks, remember that Twitter is not representative—both in the usual senses of eg age and partisan skew, but in the structural sense that the most avid Twitter users have selected to do so rather than to do anything else, often for many years. Introverts-are-sad-but-okay memes abound, and discussion of TV shows is vigorous, but the dominant conversation is always about Twitter itself, about The Discourse. The purpose of Twitter is to make Twitter important, and the people who use Twitter the most ensure that it succeeds.
Personally, I really just want to hang out. Political Scientists going to MPSA in Chicago next month: let’s hang out. This job is so much better with a vibrant social and intellectual community, and contributing to the conviviality that renews and fuels that community is a public good. Even our colleagues who can’t make it this year—for whatever reason!—will benefit.
The past seven years, ever since Trump won the primary, has felt like a nonstop crisis, emergency actions taken to prevent novel threats. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the ascendence of Twitter to unavoidable locus of The Discourse. It’s always going to be like this. We need to figure out how to live through it.
Lord knows I'm not about to start arguing about the facts of the matter; this is meta-science blog, not a science blog.
As time passes, the relationship between the words and concepts we think with changes. Time is passing faster now than ever. Part of the dysfunction of our informational systems is the erosion of mutual understanding through language. What do I mean by "talking"? Is my body near my acquaintance, the sound waves created by my throat tickling their ear drums? Is this happening in the awkward minutes before a faculty meeting or in a private corner of a bar? Or is this a tweet? An email? Did we record a podcast? Each of these contexts carries with it a vastly different set of social implications and yet we use the same signifier "talking." My solution, here, is to advocate for the use of more specific language surrounding the medium of human communication.