Behind “Something is Rotten in the State of…Twitter”

By Bonnie Stewart, Prince Edward Island, Canada

This post emerged from a conversation between Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) and EdConteXts facilitator, Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) following Bonnie’s post “Something is Rotten in the State of…Twitter.” It is an explanation of the thinking – and context – behind that post.

My house is currently infested with fruit flies. I have hidden all the fruit in the refrigerator, but still they come. They are last gasp of summer where I live, the swarm that makes it possible to look ahead to six months of winter as almost a reprieve. They make me think about rot, and what it feeds.

I ended up thinking mostly about Twitter.

I’ve been on Twitter seven years now. Initially, it was a space for real-time banter and discussion within my blogging network: when I started out online, my life was far removed from academia. As my identity has shifted back towards education and career, my Twitter circles have expanded to reflect each new facet: fellow Ph.D students, educators, researchers interested in the socio-cultural implications of technologies, people with something to say about identity in the 21st century. But the bloggers and mombloggers remain, and the para-academics who first walked with me through thinking about what it means to be online, together, in networked environments.

I’m Canadian, and I try to cultivate fairly widespread connections, but an awful lot of the events that drive trending conversations within my Twitter circles – both academic and otherwise – stem from the US context. Critical mass, perhaps.

This past August, my collective circles drew an arc of topical outrage that made both the best and worst of the platform starkly visible. It began with the news – confined largely to academic Twitter – of Stephen Salaita’s firing by the University of Illinois over anti-Zionist tweets. Then Michael Brown was shot and killed with his hands up in #Ferguson, and it was Twitter – particularly Black Twitter – where that groundswell for justice really took hold, spilling out beyond boundaries of medium and nation to speak out powerfully against systemic racism. But as August wore to a halt, my feed slowly turned its collective, hydra-headed focus to other topics…including changes to Twitter itself. And something about those changes and their directionality – the overt alignment with commercial demand for ever-growing numbers of new users over the “hey this matters!” preferences OF those users – rankled.

Then the “death of Twitter” articles started to appear. And between them and the strong sense of shifting zeitgeist that surrounds Twitter right now, the rot metaphor began to take hold. I research Twitter and its use among scholars, and I’ve wondered recently if my extensive ethnographic data – collected between Dec 2013 and May 2014 – is in some way a picture of a bygone era: Twitter before it capitalized entirely.

It isn’t people speaking up and out that I’m referring to: when you force people to speak more loudly in order to be heard, you don’t get to then turn around and criticize them for volume.

What I see is people leaping to accusation and not treating each other as people, stepping on complexities of identity that don’t fit viral narratives. There’s a rush to judgement and a collapsing of people into alignments and objects and things that feed the Attention Economy machine, even if the actual embodied people in the midst are erased or their positions rendered literally unspeakable. The day after my post went live, there was a particularly vivid illustration of this, in all its complexities, that Tressie McMillan Cottom does a brilliant job summing up here.

It’s bigger than Twitter, of course – it’s the 24 hr news cycle and all sorts of media spaces. And Twitter has become a media space. It implicitly enrols participants in the hustle to be media. Yet what are the effects of that? I teach media and technology literacies, among other things…and increasingly, I have to work to scaffold and support the capacity to be critical in my students: not because they’re not willing to think, but because information comes from so many directions now that filtering and synthesizing critical, complex perspectives is EXHAUSTING and more and more, there’s a default to simple black and white. These are our times, folks.

And then there’s the human tendency to protect our own biases and mental constructs…and thus, our privilege(s). As Mike Caulfield points out, in response to my post, the stream mode of discourse is a constant flow of discrete speech acts, with limited context: it collapses the kind of conversational cognitive dissonance that allows for growth and expansion across differing perspectives into ephemeral aphorisms. This reinforces reactive responses and the default to black and white: it makes speech acts into identity performances. And so I watch people get slaughtered discursively every day – sometimes for being ignorant and stupid, often just for not knowing how to speak across perspectives particularly skillfully or politically; for not knowing how to imagine infinite collapsed audiences, or simply for disrupting a deeply-held bias some random stranger may not have even ever acknowledged before, until the trigger came.

But Maha Bali asked where this post came from, and it’s more than just that volatility. The sadness in the post comes from my sense that a particular set of conditions that I *thought* were slowly making gains on the status quo, via participatory platforms such as Twitter, instead seem increasingly co-opted and enclosed – by a collection of forces that aren’t any particular cabal, or particularly acting together, but still add up to a sea change. Basically, I think somewhere we accidentally sold the farm on networks – we had a foothold into making real change, as a culture, but in the end, it’s likely we won’t.

This has always happened with new media and new tech – I’m not sure why it bothers me so much but it does. I’m still heartbroken by the fact that I grew up vaguely knowing about Edison as an inventor but had never even HEARD of Tesla until I was in my 20s. The idea that capitalism always wins makes me sad. I know. I am a delicate flower. ; )

I feel like we come up against the powers-that-be and perspectives that default to the powers-that-be awfully quickly these days. The institutional Big Brother perspective on faculty Twitter accounts disturbs me. The institutional oligarchal perspectives in ascendancy today disturb me. Capital and its intersections with power and powers-that-be make me wary: edu Twitter is professionalizing, just as the momblog networks mostly monetized and professionalized five years ago. That’s not all bad, but it’s different. I don’t assume all participatory stuff can be volunteer stuff, and if the organizations and funders support methods and ways of being that I’m comfortable with – or are interested in understanding those – I see that as positive, frankly. Because otherwise I see tech in ed defaulting entirely towards the objectivist machine learning logics, and that scares me too.

Like I say, I’m wary of idealizing the participatory networks of some idyllic past. But I was here, across multiple communities, before monetization and institutionalization really hit, and they created constraint. Now, scale has also changed how people talk to each other and that is good & bad, IMO: Twitter post-2010 brought a far more varied group of people and thinkers and ways of interacting in the world across my screen. Some of that I love and have learned a great deal from. But some of it blows up real bad and real fast and has real consequences. And I watch people turn into people who act that way, every day. I watch people dismantle each others’ positions. Nobody learns from that, except not to speak, or how to speak on the side of power, with the kind of attack that will align attention in their favour.

The post was a way of trying to identify and articulate my fears, to face them. I come from the Haraway cyborg school of thought, wherein we are all to find ways to undermine the logics of the system towards connection, and believe that’s possible, still. But maybe less likely than I once thought.

Whether that is rot or only change, I suppose, remains to be seen.
About the Author:
Bonnie 2014
Bonnie Stewart is an educator, writer, and researcher fascinated by who we are when we’re online. Coordinator of Adult Teaching at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Bonnie researches open and online educational practices and their implications for higher education. She does her best thinking aloud, on Twitter.
EdConteXts Facilitators: Bonnie has shared her thoughts about education and related issues in the context of North America. We would like to hear about similar or related issues in your context in other parts of the world. What issues of change, power, money/capitalism in your society or in your educational system makes you concerned or otherwise prompt a strong response? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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