What Medium is Twitter?

Or: is vegetarianism Marxist?

The effects of the internet and social media are inevitably generational, both because media effects are cumulative and because the platform/network structure of most of contemporary internet experience is highly age-segregated.

I’m increasingly interested in studying the way that younger generations experience, engage with and perform politics. On TikTok, for example, the latter verb is most salient, as politics becomes another culture for cosplay. For other young TikTokers, fierce political debates about over policy issues and political tactics are raging through the use of the app’s “duet” feature.

But Twitter remains the locus of political discussion. What is it about the platform that is so compelling? The speed and the possibility of immediate connection to an incredible range of powerful people certainly attracts electoral politics junkies. But it has also enabled an explosion of ideological and aesthetic dynamism, primarily among pseudonymous accounts run, as far as I can tell, by young people.

This “dynamism” is not what I would describe as generally positive. One example: a small group of esoteric Hindu-ish accelerationists who claim that we are currently in the Kali Yuga, a lengthy period of strife and discord.

This is frankly ridiculous; here’s what Wikipedia says defines the Kali Yuga:

  • Avarice and wrath will be common. Humans will openly display animosity towards each other. Ignorance of dharma will occur.

  • Religiontruthfulnesscleanlinesstolerancemercyphysical strength and memory diminish with each passing day.

  • People will have thoughts of murder with no justification and will see nothing wrong in that.

  • Lust will be viewed as socially acceptable and sexual intercourse will be seen as the central requirement of life.

  • Sin will increase exponentially, while virtue will fade and cease to flourish.

  • People will become addicted to intoxicating drinks and drugs.

  • Gurus will no longer be respected and their students will attempt to injure them. Their teachings will be insulted, and followers of Kama will wrest control of the mind from all human beings.

  • All the human beings will declare themselves as gods or boon given by gods and make it as a business instead of teachings.

  • People will no longer get married and live with each other just for sexual pleasure.

  • Weather and environment will degrade with time and frequent and unpredictable rainfalls will happen.

  • Earthquakes will be common.

  • Maximum age of humans will be 50 years by the end of Kali Yuga.

  • Many fake ideologies will spread throughout the world.

  • The powerful people will dominate the poor people.

  • Many diseases will spread.

As I say, hard to imagine why a young person in 2021 would find points of resonance in esoteric accounts of apocalypse.

Technological determinism is stupid, but still underrated. Technology determines the possibility frontier; society determines how people use the technology, within that frontier. And the ideology of the young is the search for extremes, to push their experiences to the limit.

Older people experience Twitter primarily through the lenses (or perhaps frames? some component of metaphorical spectacles) they developed for decoding other media; they (…we 😅) are focused primarily on the content, which is in fact only a small subset of the information encoded in medium of Twitter.

How should we understand Twitter as a medium?

  • 280 character micro-blogs

  • The feed: informational overload

  • Thin social endorsements (likes, RTs) encoded into each post

  • Relational information (comments, quote tweets) attached to each post

  • Pseudonymity, with a “thin” and infinitely mutable bio page for each account

  • The follower/following graph

I want to focus on everything but the first part: the combination of information overload and the scale of social cues/network structure means that Twitter isn’t just delivering short text snippets; to a younger audience plastic enough to engage with the technological frontier of Twitter as a medium, the platform enables direct contact with a dense network of free-floating signs and the easily-mutable personae who use them.

This person is definitely all of these things

To break that down. A Twitter (or Instagram, or TikTok) feed is simply too much information for a human to handle. We cannot process it all — it works alright for creating a feeling of shared experience while tracking a given hashtag during the Super Bowl, but for something as complex and rapidly evolving as subcultural aesthetics there’s no way to keep up.

As the kids at one point said: HUGE MOOD

The first wave of social platforms — including Twitter, in the early days — needed to kickstart the construction of their all-important account networks, and they tended to piggyback on the already-existing social networks of their users. These psuedonymous accounts, however, can relate to each other only through the Twitter-native networks or through the system of signs that other accounts endorse or reject.

In the context of art, aesthetics, etc — areas of endeavor where humans can communicate at a high level of intensity, without needing to funnel that communication through the narrow channel of written language — this medium may be profoundly productive.

For politics, however, this medium is guaranteed to be batshit.

The commodification of ideology, ideas and images places them in a state of equivalence and exchange — esoteric ideologies or anarcho-primivitism flourish not because they help people understand the world or mount a coherent political program, but because of their sign value in relation to the other ideologies on offer in the Twitter System.

Rather than starting from first principles (or, more realistically, starting from the ideologies on offer in mainstream society) and discussing policy or praxis, the young Twitter user experiences politics as but one more system of signs with which to play. Although teens have been playing around with ideology long before Twitter, the latter’s torrent of information and density of relational network data accelerates this process and pushes people to previously-inaccessible places.

Written language itself becomes a hindrance. The social data from the platform tell you everything you need to know, if you know where to look.

There is no deliberation or persuasion; there is only the cultivation of the vibe.

The poster is correct that you cannot learn that vegetarianism is Marxist from Das Kapital, but you can apparently learn it from Twitter.