Assumed audience: Users of social media (especially Twitter), especially those thinking about its ethical conditions.
Epistemic status: Reflective. Recognizing that doing better about social media has many mechanics.
I have been considering Twitter again recently for two reasons:
- the degree to which the platform just is the medium where software developers congregate
- many conversations about it in “private” social media, including the goods that some people find on the platform
The first is the thing that would motivate me to return in some careful, limited, non-personal way to the platform. I am doing work in the year ahead which could use the audience that Twitter affords. The simple reality is that, whatever Twitter’s many ridiculous follies and dangerous ills, if you want to get attention on a software project, careful and effective use of Twitter go a very long way. I am not yet committed to such a return, and if I were to return it would be with the help of a friend as an actual social media manager, because of those follies and ills.1
For the rest of this post, though, I’m more concerned with the second of those points. Talking today with an acquaintance who does enjoy Twitter, and who puts it to good use, I wrote up the following summary of how and why I’m both sympathetic to his use of the platform and remain committed to remaining off of it personally (even if I were to engage professionally as suggested above) —
For my part, the debates and flame wars were never really the problem. I moderated a Star Wars books and comics forum in college and let me tell you: those flame wars were as hot as any on Twitter (if thankfully less likely to have any impact on real life: no one got fired for having the wrong opinion on Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando novels). Rather, the problems are the social costs of Twitter I see playing out more generally, and the specific ways I find it disruptive to my own ability to think clearly, to spend my energies where I want.
I do not from that latter most point take it to be the case that everyone else experiences it the same way.
I think there’s value in some people taking on public roles on Twitter in careful ways, and in others taking a position of intentional absence. That absence can function as what Sacasas once described as a kind of “social media monasticism”: being off of social media both for the good of their own souls and as a witness to others of alternative ways of living in the modern world. Monastics can mistake their own vocation as being universal (“NEVER TWEET”). At their best, though, they serve as a reminder that the ways-of-being others take to be essential are not.
For me, being off of social media is a necessity due to my own weaknesses. I can barely manage to write essays when I’m not on Twitter; it’s impossible when I am. But being off social media is also a way I can remind others that even if Twitter is a good, it is not a necessary good.
The question of Twitter’s goodness or perversity — both for individuals and structurally — matters, of course. Me, I think it’s deeply perverse. But I also think it is not only permissible but (sometimes, and for some people) good and right to model acting well in a perverse context.
Indeed, we all live in more or less perverse contexts, and must consider how to respond well to life in those contexts. (This is one of the key themes of Augustine’s City of God, written a millennium and a half ago!) That does not mean we must engage in more perverse activities. To put a fine point on it: that we live in a broadly pornographic culture does not mean we should all give up and go watch porn. Twitter is not porn, though, and so the decision is more complicated. It may well be that some are called to use Twitter carefully and wisely for the sake of others in an age where its influence is very significant.
That goes doubly because not everyone can escape Twitter — even in the mundane but deeply important sense of paying the bills. And so a witness to charity, forbearance, good humor, kindness, grace, peaceable speech, and so on can be good in that context — no less than something like Crown Financial Ministries’ approach to managing debt and building a good credit score and so on can be genuine goods even if the entire system in which they exist (and indeed which necessitates their existence) is deeply perverse.
Which is to say: grace and peace to those of you who continue doing good work in that space — and praise God that there are people like you there doing what you do.
The fact that I can do this is an enormous privilege, and one I do not take lightly. Most people — even well-placed and much-respected people — do not have the ability to do this, even if it would be helpful to them. This is one of the structural problems of Twitter which make it so frustrating to me. ↩︎