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Twitter, Modified

If the beloved platform falls short of our public discourse, can we imagine a more public alternative?
Fail Whale. (Photo: Daniel Rothamel/Flickr)

Fail Whale. (Photo: Daniel Rothamel/Flickr)

The people I follow on Twitter are an odd bunch. One manufactures cocktail additives—bitters and shrubs—in New York's Hudson Valley; another once worked as a mailman in Canada's brisk Yukon Territory. The followed—my followed—tweet about violence and poverty, Antarctica and climate change, city life in Bamako and Juba and San Francisco.

Theirs is a dying art.

So say Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer, two Atlantic technology editors who, earlier this week, published a "eulogy for Twitter." At the time of this writing, Twitter users had shared the article more than 3,000 times since it was published on Wednesday morning, according to Shared Count, a social analytics site. The eulogy is a commemorative essay on the authors' extensive history of microblogging. Once promising, Twitter has become "cruel and petty and fake." Its jokes are no longer funny; its violent trolls, ever-louder. Sometimes, the site's weariness is gendered, or racialized, or sexualized: For some minority communities, especially those with traumatic pasts, Twitter is far from supportive.

For others, the site is a rare haven of empathy. Mikki Kendall, a Chicago-based writer, defiantly tweeted, "I don't think #BlackTwitter is necessarily going to appeal to white hipsters or techies or whatever. But it doesn't have to." #BlackTwitter is one of the site's many sub-communities; in their eulogy, LaFrance and Meyer identify with "Media Twitter," a digital group of journalists generally located between New York City and Washington, D.C., or satellites thereof.

If “fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online,” perhaps we need a new way to think about the purpose of both online communities and the information they provide.

If these communities are cliquish, they are also important forms of communal support. #BlackTwitter, like Media Twitter, drinks together, and writes together, and condemns the persistent inequity of American society together. Each community is a nightly affair, like a digital Cheers. And as in Cheers, each confronts the daily struggles of its members: the break-ups, the hirings, the firings, the feelings of joy and loss and disempowerment. It's not just that Twitter is cruel and petty and fake; sometimes, our human selves are equally so.

As an application, Twitter does not acknowledge these user-generated “Twitter, modified” communities. In the eight years since its founding, Twitter's fundamentals haven't changed much. Its interface is sleeker, and its multimedia functions more friendly, but the basic logic remains: Twitter is a public broadcast. In theory, the public availability of Twitter's information trickles down. Information is produced openly, and so it is received; the resulting social network—Twitter, unmodified—is open and unfettered. The application’s only native catalog, the hashtag, is purposely ephemeral, intended to capture trends but never the communities that sustain them. The result is an open meritocracy, where the quality of a user’s tweets becomes a social currency.

Of course, Twitter’s publicness is a useful fiction—one of several, as LaFrance and Meyer observe. In reality, the application’s users are part of a prestige economy, a term popularized by Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based writer, anthropologist, and prolific Twitter user herself. On Twitter, meritocracy is a perk, not a feature. A Twitter user’s ideas do not succeed in a vacuum—rather, they advance on the strength of the user’s existing community. As a form of solidarity, these communities are powerfully constructive; as a form of exclusion, they are precisely the opposite.

Like most Twitter users, I have identified a small group of favored colleagues whose tweets I bookmark and retweet, and whose recommendations I follow (admittedly, Meyer is a member of this group). I read what they read; I mimic their jokes; I adopt careful cadences from their short-charactered missives. No objective quality determines these users’ credibility. Instead, their appeal is often social: I see tweet-to-tweet with certain segments of this group’s diverse worldview, and I consume their information accordingly. If this Twitter is public, it’s a very small public indeed.

If “fragmentation is a fundamental part of how people interact with information online,” as LaFrance and Meyer suggest, perhaps we need a new way to think about the purpose of both online communities and the information they provide. Discord is an essential and natural characteristic of our human lives; its digital forms are a simple copy-cat, amplified. Twitter cannot be our perfect public sphere, quite simply because that perfect public sphere does not exist, offline or otherwise.

The authors’ eulogy concludes, “If Twitter is fading, what's next?” If Twitter falls short of our public discourse, can we imagine a more public alternative? The prestige economy of digital information will not disappear; prestige sustains the public commons as it ensures its fragility. Many applications create communities that are neither fully private nor public, and which unite open communities along common interests and values. Goodreads, the digital reader’s catalog, comes to mind. What the application lacks in Twitter’s transparency, it permits in discretion. The application allows book enthusiasts to share their recent reads, albeit rudimentarily; fans of Pride and Prejudice may find other Austen admirers, and so on. With a few tweaks, one can imagine a fully-fledged social application, similar to a community book club, beyond the site’s existing consumer role.

As a public sphere, Twitter dilutes our digital selves; as an avenue for pluralism, a more segmented application may prove a more meaningful tool.