Twitter and its Discontents

Commonplace Newsletter #004

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A theme is beginning to emerge. First we talked about bread and circuses and the coming erosion of the centralised present. Then we talked about the modern scourge of crushing, crushing boredom. Then we talked about the tyranny of numbers and how metrics have a way of stifling the intuitive and the enchanting.

Mix these three things together and what do you get? 

Well, you get Twitter- the low self-esteem engine for those who are inclined towards the written word. 

Image: Thahn Do

Everyone reading this is a twitter user. And everyone has experienced at least some of the problems of the platform- the compulsion to keep checking notifications, the compulsion to hateshare content that enrages you, the algorithm driven filter bubbles and echo chambers that you suddenly find yourself in, the tedious scrolling, the frustration, the unfulfilled promise to quit and so on.

God knows I have.

I write this not as a moralising temperance pusher but as a dopamine drunk who has lately been experiencing some moments of clarity.

Personal Inventory

‘You know the bottom is approaching when your circumstances are deteriorating faster than you can lower your standards.’
~ David Milch.

The above quotation is a compass for me. Amidst confusion and self-deception it re-orients you towards the right path. Are your circumstances getting worse? Are you lowering the standards for what you expect from yourself? Yes? Then you are about to encounter some problems. Rock bottom slowly approaches.

And so it has proven. This year- an epoch-defining time of pandemics and protests- has seen me spend far, far too much time scrolling through my twitter timeline. At times compulsively so. My two books per week reading habit has plummeted. My perennial novel still remains a red ink covered manuscript. 

Now, my life hasn’t fallen apart but I haven’t exactly ‘levelled up’ as the guru’s on my timeline persistently harangue me about, the same ones who argue that this deficiency is a moral failing such that I will never recover from.

But they’re just lashing out. They’re dopamine junkies too, tied to the wouldn’t-wish-it-on-my-worse-enemy task of browbeating teenagers for clout and possible ebook sales.

We must pity them.

See, we’re all tied into this online mimetic samsara, and we all continue to partake of this hall of mirrors willingly. 

But give that no one is forcing us to participate, why do we?

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything 

~B F Skinner

The title of this section is derived from a book by behavioural psychologist and professional rat botherer B.F. Skinner. The title itself tells you much about the worldview of those who meddle with our lives in the name of science, efficiency and progress. 

Who wants to move beyond freedom and dignity? What does that even mean? Why would that be the goal of anyone who has ever had a friend or a lover or a sibling? Beyond freedom and dignity, only a social media platform owner could nod in agreement to such a disruptive bit of palpable nonsense talk.

And there’s the rub. These Silicon Valley Skinnerites are now the ones who control the spaces where we talk to our friends, where we read the news, where we discover new ‘content’ to ‘consume’§

[§ ‘content’ is a dehumanising and soulless term for what was once called art. I will continue to write it in scornful air quotes in the hope that this practice catches on]

Skinner’s experiments (and those that followed in his wake) dictate the nature of twitter and the other platforms. Pigeons peck buttons for food pellets more rapidly when the reward is variable. Human peck at keyboard keys more rapidly when likes and retweets are variable. 

Thus every post is a pull of the slot machine arm. Why? Because this makes us more addicted and this in turn means more eyeballs for advertisements.

As Tristan Harris has said: [The problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that] ‘there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have’

And I know this. I’ve read all the books on modern tech and it’s discontents, all the titles by Carr and Sullivan and Lanier and such. I’ve made notes. I’ve recited some of the factoids§ in bar room conversation 

[§ Here’s two. 1) humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. 2) every time you are interrupted from a task it takes 25 minutes to get back into it again. Thus you only need 25 evenly spaced email/twitter/instagram check-ins to kill your workflow for the entire day)

So why did I sign up to this rigged game in the first place?

I’ll explain with an analogy.

The Walmart Effect

‘Most of us don’t invent ideas, we take the best ideas of someone else.’

~ Sam Walton

Imagine a town. Smallish, localist, with a shared set of assumptions that are as ever-present as the sky. It may not be perfect, it may be lacking in many things but it has enough little shops to cater to everyone’s need. People don’t feel as if they want for much.

Now imagine that a big box store, a supermarket, a behemoth is built at the edge of town. It touts better prices, more variety, greater convenience§

[§Life advice: nothing is more expensive than cheap, nothing is a greater inconvenience than convenience].

So people start to go there. The price justifies the impersonal nature and the lack of character. The small shops in town begin to struggle. Soon they fold, one by one. And before long the big box store, the behemoth is the only game left in town. It can do what it wants, sell (or not sell) what it wants, charge what it wants.

In fact, over time the memory of the myriad independent local shops fades and becomes more like a myth or a prelapsarian dream. It wouldn’t be practical to have all different shops like that in reality. The behemoth is all we have, all we can have. Maybe it’s for the best.

Of course I am not really talking about groceries here.

Flyers and Gigs

So how do you boycott the behemoth when it is the only shop left?

Simple. You grow your own produce. You make your own entertainment. You create your own art. If you want something done right your gonna have to do it yourself, or at least get a friend to do it based on a localist system of exchange.

And in the catacombs age, the same thing applies to ‘content’

If you want to not be brought down by the Silicon Valley addiction platforms you’re gonna have to approach them like a bank job- get in, do the job, get out, don’t trip the silent alarm. 30 minutes maximum.

If you are a ‘content creator’ (and for the love of God, stop referring to yourself as such) I would recommend the same approach. Twitter is a flyer, it is not the gig. Don’t give them any more than you have to. They won’t thank you. They won’t love you back.

And if you are a consumer, I highly recommend that you sign up to the newsletters of your dozen favourite writers and then leave the platform. For at least six months if not permanently.

Personally, I hope to see my twitter ‘follower’ count plummet as my subscriber count for this newsletter rises. Then I will know that I have persuaded some people to leave the Matrix. Then I know I will have done some good.

And maybe that will make the time that I have wasted on twitter be not such a waste of time after all.

Until next time,

Live well,

Tom. ✍️📖🍾🎉


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