Contra the Peninsula Panglossians

It’s easy, and somewhat unfair, to dismiss social networks and people who work for them as time wasters. Because since the rise of the middle class we have known that people are willing to pay substantial sums in money and/or opportunity cost to have their time wasted. Non-cynical people call this “leisure.” People who facilitate that shouldn’t be dismissed per se.

But one’s impulse to tolerance and understanding is deeply tested by living in the Bay Area, where people spend long hours working hard so other people can evade productivity, and tell themselves it’s worth it because a) their work place is like a never ending carnival and b) because they are “connecting the world” or some other such empty technoptimistic tripe.

But social media’s strength is the flaw in the “connecting the world” hypothesis – it tends mostly to bring people together who know and like each other already and who are predisposed to each other’s ideas. So yes, connecting the world, but kind of like how I’m connected to Kevin Bacon: through degrees of separation – not togetherness. Freddie DeBoer’s critique of Twitter always sticks with me:

My criticisms of Twitter as its used are multiple, but largely they boil down to this: Twitter is used as a kind of consensus machine where the like-minded band together to dismiss opinions or criticism they don’t like, by creating the illusion of consensus. If a particular group of socially or professionally connected people don’t like a story or post or whatever, someone will tweet something disparaging about it, some other people will retweet it, some people will give an attaboy…. So you can easily create the impression of consensus. Now, you might say that Twitter is an open medium, and anybody can join. And that’s true. But not everybody can actually get into the conversation. The system of followers means that rebuttals or responses are only broadcast if the people making them also have a big audience, or if an individual tweeter is principled enough to reply to criticism from people who aren’t well connected. It can be kind of a closed loop in that sense. And one of the funny things about it is that people often behave exactly this way when I complain about it– they prove the point in trying to refute it.

This makes me skeptical when technoptimists tell me that Twitter has started revolutions. And even if it has – it isn’t clear to me that it started revolutions that have led to anything more in the flavor of enduring democratic renaissance rather than new, networked insiders agitating and usurping power. It certainly is powerful that digitally networked people can use modern information technology to agitate in the physical world, but that fact need not be positive and my feeling has been for some time contra the Peninsula Panglossians.

Which is why I found this post on the Monkey Cage blog particularly intriguing:

Though scholars have long warned about the attempts of authoritarian leaders to influence the internet, little empirical evidence has been brought forth about the effects of these efforts on politics at the micro-level. In a forthcoming article, we used survey data from the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia to examine how usage of different social networks affected users’ awareness of electoral fraud. Our results indicate that users of Western networks like Facebook and Twitter are about five percentage points more likely to believe that there was significant electoral fraud during the elections. Usage of Russian networks, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, meanwhile had no effect on awareness of electoral fraud.

We argue that the reason for this discrepancy lies in the type of information being spread on these networks. During the election season, local networks’ vulnerability to state pressure seems to have led many opposition activists to focus their social media strategy on Western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are much harder to monitor and pressure. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular political blogger, maintained an active public Facebook page and Twitter account, which he used to spread hundreds of YouTube videos, photographs, and anecdotes documenting electoral fraud, and yet Navalny maintained only a token presence on Vkontakte and no presence on Odnoklassniki. This strategy is at odds with the goal of reaching a mass audience since Odnoklassniki and VKontakte each have five times as many users as Facebook (only 5% of Russian internet users are on Facebook).

Emphasis mine. The point being that shepherds will stick with their flocks. Not that people are sheep or anything.

There are billions of other people in the world and Twitter is nowhere near the most populated or popular social network, and this is especially true in some key nation states where the neoliberal project is failing. Even where Twitter is popular, like most social networks, its function is more palliative: an echo chamber, an apparatus for affirmation, a platform from which to preach to a pious choir.

PS I use Twitter, unlike DeBoer who seems more principled than I am. I readily admit to following mostly white neoliberals, although I try my best to be open to those I disagree with and use the platform for genuine discourse. While that is my aim, I readily admit it’s much easier to just follow and retweet what I like to the people around me like myself. There’s utility in that – but it’s hardly revolutionary.