The trouble with Twitter

In 2003, in an elaborate joke on New York’s media-savvy, empty-headed hipsters, a journalist called Bill Wasik sent around an anonymous email suggesting that they congregate at a department store at the same time and stare at a rug. The event was an enormous success, and became the world’s first documented example of a “flash mob”. By the end of the decade, however, the joke had turned sour, and was on all of us.
Faced with any kind of group activity, our first response is: do any of them know how to use Twitter?

How did we get here? In the last decade, ideas about how society works have been treated to a glamorous new outing. It all began in the year 2000, with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s beautifully crafted bestseller The Tipping Point. Gladwell argued that, given the right kind of push, ideas or products can suddenly gain traction and pass around from person to person like a virus. In its wake came a slew of new thinking about how information and ideas cascade around the place and gather momentum. Then there was the influential idea that we can raise ourselves to a kind of collective intelligence—the so-called “wisdom of crowds”—by arriving at our decisions independently and punching our best guesses into a computer.

Most of these new ideas took their cue from the time we’ve been spending online. At a time of rapid change in the way we’re communicating, that’s hardly surprising. It helped that many of these new ideas-entrepreneurs made excellent writers and talkers, capable of expressing their theories with more flair and less pomposity than the traditional homme sérieux. It would be churlish not to admit that there was something in their ideas, too. As Rage Against the Machine can now testify, online is a fantastically efficient way of sending a message out, and taking a pop at established industry authorities.

But the hard part is to find a message worth sending—it’s not good enough, as the internet gurus do, just to blow hard about the joys of a new medium. One of the most embarrassing features of recent British political life is the unseemly haste with which our politicians and their wonks have chased after the latest modish ideas book. They have listened rapt as a succession of breathless internet evangelists told them weird and wonderful stories about young people who were using Facebook and Twitter to organise a whole new kind of politics.

It wasn’t long before the same ideas were being used as a lens with which to understand problems in other countries. From Iran to Moldova, it was claimed, a new generation of activists had armed themselves with Twitter and were using it to fight political repression. “You cannot have Rwanda again,” argued Gordon Brown in June, referring to the “Twitter revolution” in Iran. “This week’s events in Iran are a reminder of the way that people are using new technology to come together in new ways to make their views known.”

It all turned out to be wildly overcooked. Among activists and dissidents, Twitter and other social networking sites were useful in getting messages out of the country, but they turned out to be just as handy for the authorities who were trying to track them down. In any case, since only a tiny number of Iranians use Twitter—a mere 0,027%, according to a forthcoming report from the British Council—it was never going to be much use in organising demos. In retrospect, our fascination with Twitter said much more about us than about them.

Now that the American neoconservative idea to export democracy and universal values to the Middle East at the barrel of a gun lies in ruins, all we have to offer the Iranians is Twitter. It might end up doing more harm than good, both abroad and at home. Societies come with their own delicate rhythms and inner workings, and can’t be explained as a virus or a bit of information coursing through a network.

As Britain approaches a general election, middle-aged politicians who hang out with their chums on Twitter instead of knocking on doors are only going to reinforce the distance they have put between them and their public.

Thankfully, there are now the first stirrings of a backlash against the cult of social media. In his forthcoming book, You Are Not a Gadget, the American computer scientist and pioneer of virtual reality Jaron Lanier will defend authorship and individual creativity against the deafening banality of the online crowd. For some time now, the Belarussian blogger Evgeny Morozov has been hammering away at the myth that social media is necessarily a good thing for political activism.

The author of The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, admitted that the “decentralised collective intelligence” of bankers staring at computers was worse than useless when confronted with a real crisis in the markets. Even Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, has poured eloquent scorn on the cybernetic clarion call that all information wants to be free.

A popular thirst for understanding how society works is one of the promising developments of the decade just gone. But in the absence of anything more solid to work with, we’ve been happy to stare at our own narcissistic reflection in a shiny new medium. Maybe in the coming decade we’ll think up some ideas worth passing around. -