something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

I read another article yesterday on The Death of Twitter: they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.

Like fruit flies, these lamentations for Twitter do not spontaneously generate, but are born from a process of decay: they are the visible signs of something left neglected, something rotting quietly out of sight.

Since I’m currently in the extended throes of researching Twitter for my dissertation, I read these articles like I used to read Cosmo back when I was twenty: half-anxious that Enlightenment will be contained in the next paragraph, half-anxious it won’t. When I was twenty, I had Cosmo to make me feel miserable about the gap between what I valued and what I saw reflected and valued by the world. These days, I have The End of Big Twitter.

I wonder about what it means to research something changing so quickly, so drastically. Will my dissertation end up being about the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a person become an historian by accident?

Is this all there is to say, anymore?
Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 2.10.17 PM

Because once there was more, at least for me. Way back in the arcane days of 2006 and 2007, I went to live among another culture – participatory culture, in its heyday – and felt at home for the first time. A particular confluence of privilege and obscurity and the need to speak things I had no place to speak aloud contributed…and the experience was mostly good. Not always ideal, by any means, but networks and Twitter in particular opened for me whole worlds of conversations and ties that I would never – flat-out – otherwise have had access to. And those conversations and ties have shaped my identity, my work, and my trajectory in life dramatically over the last eight years. Yet I sense the conditions that made all that possible shifting, slipping away.

I do not know what comes next, at this strange intersection. This post is My Own Private Fruitfly: its lifespan short and humid. It may be dead or obsolete in fifty days. But it is what I see, here and now, on the heels of a sweltering and disturbing August.

“The Death of Twitter” is Not About Twitter
I’m no great fan of their recent platform changes and even less of the likelihood that they’re about to make what I see in my feed far more algorithmically-determined, a la Facebook. But I don’t think a new platform will arise to save what’s getting lost and lamented about Twitter. The issue all the articles point to is about Twitter As We Knew It (TM) as a representation of an era, a kind of practice. At the core, it is about the ebbing away of networked communications and participatory culture – or at least, first-generation participatory culture as I knew it, as Jenkins is perhaps best-known for describing it.

It is also about the concurrent rise of what I *hope* is peak Attention Economy.

(Of course, the founding premise of the Attention Economy is there’s no such thing as too much Attention Economy, so yeh, I’m probably wrong on the peak front .)

Consolidation of the Status Quo
Some of this is overt hostile takeover – a trifecta of monetization and algorithmic thinking and status quo interests like big brands and big institutions and big privilege pecking away at participatory practices since at least 2008.

Oh, you formed a little unicorn world where you can communicate at scale outside the broadcast media model? Let us sponsor that for you, sisters and brothers. Let us draw you from your domains of your own to mass platforms where networking will, for awhile, come fully into flower while all the while Venture Capital logics tweak and incentivize and boil you slowly in the bosom of your networked connections until you wake up and realize that the way you talk to half the people you talk to doesn’t encourage talking so much as broadcasting anymore. Yeh. Oh hey, *that* went well.

And in academia, with Twitter finally on the radar of major institutions, and universities issuing social media policies and playing damage control over faculty tweets with the Salaita firing and even more recent, deeply disturbing rumours of institutional interventions in employee’s lives, this takeover threatens to choke a messy but powerful set of scholarly practices and approaches it never really got around to understanding. The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.37.25 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong 
But there’s more. The sense of participatory collective – always fraught – has waned as more and more subcultures are crammed and collapsed into a common, traceable, searchable medium. We hang over each other’s heads, more and more heavily, self-appointed swords of Damocles waiting with baited breath to strike. Participation is built on a set of practices that network consumption AND production of media together…so that audiences and producers shift roles and come to share contexts, to an extent. Sure, the whole thing can be gamed by the public and participatory sharing of sensationalism and scandal and sympathy and all the other things that drive eyeballs.

But where there are shared contexts, the big nodes and the smaller nodes are – ideally – still people to each other, with longterm, sustained exposure and impressions formed. In this sense, drawing on Walter Ong’s work on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, Liliana Bounegru has claimed that Twitter is a hybrid: orality is performative and participatory and often repetitive, premised on memory and agonistic struggle and the acceptance of many things happening at once, which sounds like Twitter As We Knew It (TM), while textuality enables subjective and objective stances, transcending of time and space, and collaborative, archivable, analytical knowledge, among other things.

Thomas Pettitt even calls the era of pre-digital print literacy “The Gutenberg Parenthesis;” an anomaly of history that will be superceded by secondary orality via digital media. 

Um…we may want to rethink signing up for that rodeo. Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours. Oh hai, print literacies and related vested interests back in ascendency, creating a competitive, zero-sum arena for interaction. Such fun!

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.57.57 PM

Which is not to say there’s no place for “you’re doing it wrong.” Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times.

Impossible Identities
Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

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Somewhere, Donna Haraway and her partial, ironic, hybrid cyborg weep, I think.

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving Twitter. I’m not leaving Twitter. If this post is a fruit fly signalling rot, it is likewise the testament of a life dependent on the decaying platform for its sustenance. The fruit is still sweet, around the rotten bits. And there is no other fruit in the basket that will do so well.
Perhaps it is not rot. Some would call it inevitable, part of the cycle of change and enclosure that seems to mark the emergence of all new forms of working and thinking together. I’m not so sure: that still smells to me like high modernity. Either way, I will miss Twitter As We Knew It (TM)…but I wonder: what am I not seeing yet? What paths of subversion, connection, hybridity are still open?

I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.

35 Comments something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

  1. Neil

    As someone who now uses Facebook more than Twitter, I’m intrigued by the now accepted narrative that Twitter “got it right” in its response to Ferguson while Facebook “dropped the ball.” That tells me a lot about the expectations of Twitter now, and why the conversation has ended. The conversation is now out of our individual hands. It serves the purpose of the water cooler, but a very controlled one where we fight over the subject of the day, and one wins out, until the next day. This is not to say that our discussion on Ferguson wasn’t important, because it was and this is where Twitter shines, but on other days the topic could be inane, like an awards show, and you either join the fray or be ignored. For all the jokes about Facebook algorithm, I find myself facing a wider range of subjects, including offbeat ones that would never make it to Twitter. The fact that a news event doesn’t overwhelm Facebook is a positive thing. Ferguson eventually reached Facebook, and that is where more of the real, less angry, less superficial discussion occurred on social media. Maybe knowing that your friends and family are watching on Facebook allows for more civilized debate.

    1. bon

      been thinking about this, Neil…i was with you til the last few sentences. the ONLY reasons news events (and *news* events, like awards shows) don’t always overwhelm FB is A) b/c a corporate entity continually pulling surveillance shift and figuring out how to profit DECIDEs which news gets seen and how much in ways we don’t even know and B) an awful lot of us, and i’d venture particularly women, get trolled by our friends and family for unsettling/challenging/remotely discomfiting their dearly-held racist and sexist and heterosexist and capitalist and (insert ism here) beliefs and they suddenly show up after never having once liked a damn photo of our kids being cute to spout off on our link about whatever. and that’s…painful, frankly. sometimes, i’m game for that and often i’m not. especially when my FB page stands as the most-likely-to-be-searched representation of me that a non-network-savvy potential employer is likely to look at and Buddy Who Hasn’t Spoken To Me Since Ninth Grade is spouting all over people right there in black and white and there is no polite way to shut that shit down without making unknown viewer possibly judge me too. THAT is why FB is quieter. it’s not civilized, it’s controlled. which is okay. which i like, sometimes. but let’s not idealize.

  2. Maha Bali

    Hey Bon, the title of this blogpost drew me in and i was thinking, “oh no, here we go, i could see this coming…” In the sense that I felt as soon as people were done with facebook, it would be twitter’s turn, and i was like, “let’s get everyone benefiting from twitter before its downfall begins”. I just wasn’t expecting it so soon.
    And yet most of what you say resonates with me. Some of what is best about twitter is also some of what can go terribly wrong with it. And our (my?) overenthusiasm over twitter while ignoring these power issues (even tho i know them and see them) is something we need to stop and think about.
    I need to re-read this post because i don’t know if i “got” all of it, and I don’t agree with all of it, so i want to unpack it.
    But you’re definitely right about this one: if we can’t talk across differences, it’s ridiculous to think doing so in 140 chars, just because we can co-exist there, will help any.

    1. bon

      Maha, our email conversations about this have gotten HUGE but just wanted to say thank you, for looking at it with fresher eyes than mine and asking questions. ;)

  3. Susan

    Is it possible to prevent the incursion of big businesses and algorithms? Is it inevitable that anything that becomes “popular” or widespread also becomes monetized? Can we create networks that don’t have penetration by big business and that also still allow for diverse participation and heterogeneity? It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

    1. bon

      thanks for the comment, Susan. my knee-jerk response is it doesn’t seem to be possible to prevent the incursion of big business & algorithmic logics in most digital spheres…or frankly, other spheres either, though the digital lends itself easily to the algorithmic. it’s the easiness i object to more than the algorithms themselves…there’s a cultural tendency to take up algorithmic data as objective *fact* that’s actually my concern, and that intersects with the interests and logics of capital, and when we give our networks easily over to these logics i think many other ways of looking at the world get lost.

      that said, lots of things stay under the radar and operate differently. most cMOOCs have been a case in point, at least historically…but at scale, yeh, hard to avoid. and people need to eat. i talk about the creep of monetization first into blogging and then into networked ed here, back in 2012 (scroll down to the Branded Self bit): i am still, apparently, grappling with a lot of the same issues.

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  5. Lou Mycroft

    I’m thinking that what you’re saying here Bon is what I’m also seeing reflected in actual, face-to-face dialogue too, on the radio, on TV, in news media. I live in Rotherham, Yorkshire, England and the whole country is reacting to the ‘uncovering’ (as if people didn’t already know and pretend not to know) of a massive child sexual abuse story. One of the many hearts of this story is a sense that, because the perpetrators were British Pakistani men, no-one dare speak out for fear of being racist. Of course, the analysis is deeper, broader and more nuanced than that, but this sense of being so fearful of saying something that you say nothing, is clearly in there somewhere. What I’m subsequently observing in the post-mortems of all of this (like it’s not still going on) is a discourse almost completely devoid of humility, where every speaker takes up a position and defends it; complexity is referenced everywhere, it seems, and exists literally nowhere. Twitter, for me, is just one head of the hydra. As long as ‘we’ still own the internet (don’t flame me readers, I’m not naive just optimistic) we’ve got the chance to do something about the way we communicate on there. Thank you for helping me make these connections Bonnie.

    1. bon

      yep, Lou…the phenomenon of smug and pointless carnage and the piling on of petty collective reproach seems to be pretty much the zeitgeist of our times, to my chagrin…and it is deeply riddled with a simplistic identity politics that makes many things unspeakable, like you say.

      and when you add in the academy and the always-fraught politics of that, especially for people without privilege of any variety of flavours – this lack of complexity and humility can be really dangerous to their capacity to speak for themselves in these publics, the #BlackTwitter research tweetfest today a case in point. lead researcher @futurephddaynac’s feed is worth reading on it: her work first got erased by her institution, then called out by Black Twitter in part because viral narratives had already taken flight. right now i’m reading @tressiemcphd’s post on how the character of the researcher got largely dropped from the story: she points out all collectivities are “complicated, beautiful, messy, destructive, edifying.” i’m nodding. it’s why i’m still ON Twitter. but i don’t feel like going through the personal experience of being objectified and erased from my own story where i can avoid it (and white privilege affords me that in lots of places…not all)…i dunno. this is where i hit the limits of my capacity for analysis and start just talking my lizard brain flight response down.

      i don’t believe in saying we should be nice. nice is respectability politics where the terms are always raced and gendered and classed and applied differentially, and the consequences fall unfairly on different shoulders. Twitter allows for voice, and voice can’t always equal nice. but erasing or boiling down the people inevitably in our conversations and stories and narratives to single dimensions means we all just end up shouting. //end soapbox. ;)

      (thanks for the comment)

  6. Will Richardson

    Hey Bonnie,

    I think it was you (or maybe Dave?) a while ago who brought up the idea of our Internet conversations evolving toward the idea of salons, that what might work most effectively is not the network at large but small, maybe even vetted subsets of diverse voices, dozens or perhaps hundreds, who engage (hopefully) thoughtfully around a meaningful topic. I’m sure such communities exist already, but it seems that scale tends to dilute what we originally liked about these tools when the nodes were fewer and the connections more focused. Not saying there aren’t problems inherent in smaller communities, but wouldn’t it be nice to be in online places where we knew people weren’t just chasing followers and making sure to promote the “right” causes?

    That said, in the last year or so I’ve reduced my exhaustion significantly by just not caring as much and not allowing myself to do down various rabbit holes. I still find Twitter to be a wonderful filter. It definitely ain’t therapy, as much as some seem to want it to be.

    1. bon

      yeh, i think you’re right about scale being a big part of the difference, Will…the scale of Twitter itself now and perhaps the scale of us ourselves and those we often interact with and what they’re there to do. in one sense, it’s just the vector of professionalization and time…that’s the easy vector. there are others…some of which are great and open me further to perspectives i just don’t otherwise get living on a sandbar in Canada…but many of which are about shutting people and positions down for the sake of whatever narrative seems mostly like to play and gain attention, and i do think that hurts conversation, hurts learning, hurts people.

      but no, it ain’t therapy. it’s public and that’s its joy for me – in all senses of the word.

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  8. Kate Bowles

    Hi Bon

    I think there’s a design issue with Twitter. It’s doing as it should: allowing all manner of things to be passed on quickly, without much reflection, but with status endorsement as a multiplier. The pantheon of “blue check” celebrities, as Tressie calls them, add ramped up credence to any view, however wrong-headed. And within sub communities there are those whose follower count is an effective blue check, and they do the same.

    But I think the real pivot here happened when traditional media organisations took Twitter really seriously, meaning that every other market-sensitive organisation now does the same. So the personal stakes are hiked up in exactly the way you say, and it seems as though no one quite knows how to get back to valuing a more contemplative approach. Because we’re also still drawn to the simultaneity of it — and that’s precisely the cause of the speed.

    I feel optimistic though, because for all the snark and playground cruelty there really is just so much kindness.

    1. bon

      your point, Kate, about the Attention Economy having another side of actually attending to each other strikes me as something that I want to foreground in the rest of my thesis writing, for all much of it will sound more like this, tonally….I think our conversation and your post offer me a way of framing some of the richness that can be part of the network experience, where we are treated as more than capital and narrative objects. my longstanding experience OF that is the only reason I care about any of this…it’s what the study grew out of, along with all these fascinating conversations.

  9. Nate Angell


    Great post. I love the fruit fly and rot metaphor—and yet, I’m attracted to the sweet fermentation ;) As someone who also swam and took pleasure and benefit from Twitter As We Knew It (TM) and worked enabling algorithmic engagement in Twitter, I feel very hailed and called out by what you say.

    I tend to view the whole thing with metaphors drawn from my own bastardized understanding of Deleuze: a global network of flows, with mechanisms to interrupt, augment and harness the flow being continually built and dismantled. And there’s that other set of powerful flows: Capitalism, that no set of practices or technologies should expect to be able to ignore or exclude. Maybe the whole thing isn’t rotten, but we might want to try opening new valves here and there to wash away some of the accreting poo.

  10. Mike Caulfield

    It’s interesting that the problem of Twitter for most people is not the problem of reading, per se, but of posting. I still get a great amount from Twitter as a reader.

    As a poster, though, it’s far different. I could go on about the weird intricacies of Washington State law as it relates to salaried staff and social media, but instead I’ll share this odd nugget.

    A bit ago I stumbled across the YouTube posted version of the 2002 Pixies documentary Gouge Away. This is an incredible documentary which you and Dave should absolutely see. Imagine Dave Bowie talking about the Pixies, for example. Imagine unseen footage of a Surfer Rosa era show.

    I came off of this high and posted a link to Twitter, only to load my feed and realize that Ferguson had descended into chaos again, So weirdly, and without really thinking about it, I deleted the link to the Pixies documentary.

    I mention this incident because of it’s banality. Certainly I’ve said things and gotten into flame wars with people. I’ve found myself on both sides of the #checkyourprivilege pie fights and seen good female friends of mine endure the most horrific misogyny. I suppose I should talk about that.

    But I mention the Pixies link because for the life of me I don’t know why I deleted it. It was such a trivial thing. But “talk about this not about that” culture has grown up around twitter.

    Which is really really odd, because what Twitter did was reinvent the forum to avoid exactly this. Normal forums are prone to trolling and flamewars because there is a single stream, and you can fight to control it. Other people work to get the eyeballs, then trolls and ragers exploit it, in a version of tragedy of the commons.

    In Twitter, there is no single stream, so you shouldn’t be able to game the system. And for the most part that works — it’s not the swill you find in newspaper/youtube comments etc. (or old HackEducation posts for that matter). But it is still a stream — like everything else these days. That actually works really well for things like Ferguson. It works less well for me discovering 2002 works about the Pixies.

    But we’re kind of in a bind. We like Twitter, because the feeling of reading things at the same time as other people energizes us. There’s what some of the old textbooks on education I’ve been reading call a “Sympathy of Numbers” which imbues solitary activity with communal emotion, and makes life intense. That’s why we’re so stream-addicted. That’s why we’ve replaced SiteMode with StreamMode.

    But the StreamMode which makes life intense and social and meaningful also makes us narrow — and occasionally, mob-like. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except that StreamMode has conquered everything. It’s the hammer with which we have been hitting many un-naillike things.

    I think this is part of what you’re looking at when you say we’re at Peak Attention Economy. I remember when Facebook rolled out the proto-lifestream. I remember how mind-blowing that was — what RSS had done for blogs (serialized them into StreamMode) you could do for YOUR LIFE EVENTS. The web moved overnight from being a collection of asynchronous interlinked, iteratively edited documents to being a collection of feed-based speech acts.

    People no longer take photos for collections — they take them for Instagram. People don’t build their Delicious banks of social bookmarks — they post them to Twitter.

    Blogs, the grandfathers of serialization, used to function in a dual mode — an RSS stream of self-contained archived documents. I think What We Miss When We Talk About Missing Blogs is partially that the DocumentMode part of blog culture — that iterative, rigorous attempt to build substantially on work and thought over time — has been replaced by the ThreadMode of Twitter, a cultural communion, which is powerful but far too ephemeral.

    So I do wonder if we are at Peak Attention Economy — but I also wonder if eight years after the idea of the “lifestream” hacked the DNA of the web we might be at Peak StreamMode too. I’m interested in approaches like Pinterest which seem to me an reinvention of an older Stream/Document hybrid (ala Delicious, Diigo), and of course in federated wiki which meshes journal (stream) with page (document) and uses that to dynamically construct ad hoc communities.

    Interested in what you think about all this.

    1. Anthropologing


      I asked myself the same question. There are moments in this debate in which twitter is confronted as if it had life on its own. Twitter is what people make with it. TT is wonderful because one can see our societies through it in ways no other phenomenon allows us to. It is a very peculiar kind of peep show. Since tweets are opinions on many and diverse things that none asked for, they become a valuable source of genuine testimonies that not even the best ethnographical procedures are capable of obtainig.

      In my view, what’s happenig with TT is that lately more and more human forces are entering the timelines, specially the dark ones…but they are long exisitng forces. Technologically, TT is relatively new, but humanly it is still all too modern.

      In other respects, TT is not rottening but gaining life. It is now possible not only to tweet but also to blog about it and do research on it and. This interesting post (together with the others closely related and including these comments) would be difficult to understand few years ago, which shows the creation of totally new ways in which people can interact (for good and for evil) with eachother through technology and virtual networks.

      Anyway, TT may seem to be rottening because “the kind of people” who started it is no longer the only kind of people there is tweeting righ now.

      Twitter is resembling more and more to real, non-virtual life in terms of its conformismo elements.

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  21. Wahid Khan

    hi bonnie,

    thanks for your post. it was rather enlightening. i appreciate hearing from scholars who have alternative views on issues. especially on stuff like twitter.

    your post has been sitting in my window for over a month just waiting to be read. finally i did. it was a challenging read but i definitely got some good thoughts from it. thoughts i need to spend time on, or not.

    do you feel the same feeling of roting applies for facebook?

    Thanks again.

  22. Helen Huh

    I feel picky, oh so picky.
    But since the subject is literacy, I’ll indulge my impulse.
    BATED breath
    “‘Bated’ is simply a shortened form of ‘abated’, meaning ‘to bring down, lower or depress’. ‘Abated breath’ makes perfect sense and that’s where the phrase comes from.”
    “baited” makes no sense

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