Twitter Selves

Twitter is uncomfortably easy. Like Sunday afternoons, like an unencumbered ego, anything at all can surge forward to fill the empty space, and everything will.

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Nov 14 2013, 1:00pm

Illustration by Penelope Gazin

Twitter, generally and probably temporarily, is uncomfortably easy. Like Sunday afternoons, like an unencumbered ego, anything at all can surge forward to fill the empty space, and everything will. On this particular platform there are fewer rules and better access and bigger fonts, and there is super obvious, super excellent usability and an ever-widening acceptance of Twitter—by adults, I mean, because kiddos prefer Instagram and Snapchat—that make for a looseness, a malleability, a tremulous potential that is realized by a cross section of people matched only by, I don’t know, iTunes?

Twitter, as a platform and product and social network, doesn’t deserve what it usually gets, critically and collective-culturally speaking, which is either the Franzen-panic of people who don’t understand it, and don’t seem to want to understand it (but why? It’s so fun!), or the defensive, sometimes smug-ish ownership of Twitter (this also happens across the internet at large) and its socially mediated meritocracy by people who do.

The most emphatic positions in favor of Twitter, and all that looseness, malleability, and potential, are so singular and insistent; it sometimes feels to me like online self-righteous FOMO-horror, like an inverse of the social-internet suspicious, a self-serving and anxious decision that Twitter is not an but the alternative to a scarily splintering and reforming cultural economy. It also acts as some kind of necessarily profound sociocultural endgame and, at the same time, a venue where existing, maybe-exiting systems of value and rank are disappearing into smoke, where previous ways of having and sharing ideas are second to the specially Twitter-styled. This kind of defense always feels to me, to use an annoying objective-correlative, like a Britney Spears video, one (there are several) that takes place in some apocalyptic bathhouse environment—all dark but shiny, just deeply, teenage-ly satisfied in its big-talk retreat from the established cultural standards.

This kind of stuff, the paradigmatic oppositions, online and print, old and new, whatever, persist even though they are thoroughly ahistorical and don’t really make any kind of sense. They also don’t address the truly important questions and arguments about what different media and cultural spaces offer, and to whom. Like, as a for-instance: regardless of everything it might give or take from writing and thinking and the physical and intellectual space to do it, Twitter is still very much about certain, if implied, hegemonies. That anxious, FOMO-y need to affirm Twitter as our thing leaves out how much of the Twitter experience, in particular when it comes to self-representation, is dictated by our little circles of whoever we do Twitter with, in the same way it always has been.

Take Twitter bios. The Verifieds are more sincere and sanded down in what they say about who they are, yeah, but the preferred mood of the ruling class—whoever gets play, exposure, and rewards on Twitter where they might not in a previous version of collective culture—is to offer little or no information, no location, nothing that reveals the inherent embarrassment of participating or trying or taking it seriously. The second most preferred is to have a lot to say but to do so flatly, arithmetically rather than exponentially, probably because even being on Twitter is initiatory, an insistence of the self, rather than reactionary, which is historically cooler. What is read as “self-promotion” on Twitter is so revealing of the ways in which Twitter behavior is invisibly managed, despite being ostensibly free and open and weird. The attempts made to negotiate the self and the expression of the self within non-normie Twitter circles are cutely tentative, so obviously and Franzen-ishly aware of what it means to include this platform in a cultural identity. “Weird Twitter” and “Black Twitter” are similar, bad attempts to diagram the experience, or to surge forward and fill up what is, and is still supposed to be, a wide-open space. What Twitter can be is still so present—like, the @Horse_ebooks phenomenon of “art” or “bot” got emotions up!—but it’s mostly anxiety, felt and managed collectively. Which, in itself, is kind of sweet: on or off Twitter, what it means, and what it means for who we are, is a pursuit undertaken together.

@KateCarraway

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