Want to know how clueless I am? When twitter came onto the scene, I scoffed. Back in 2008, the blawgosphere was in full swing, vibrant and, for the most part, pretty darn thoughtful. Posts were a fraction of the length of a law review article, informal and, for the most part, sound. Sure, there were some bad actors in the blawgosphere, and some less-than-good actors, but at least there was good stuff to balance it out.
But I was wrong, and twitter became a thing. I refused to accept this for a while, and even now refuse to discuss my blawg posts on twitter, as twits are transitory and thus fail to contribute to the discussion here. It doesn’t stop anyone from commenting about a post on twitter, but I won’t engage with it. One law student chastised me for it, impugning my motives because she demanded I do things her way. Aren’t law students adorable?
Today, however, my posts are too long and require too much effort, and they aren’t read by enough people to make a difference. David French explains why.
One of the first things you learn when you start your professional life is that the people who care the most have the most influence.
It’s true in every business, from entertainment to the law to politics. In fact, given our extreme levels of public apathy and civic ignorance, it’s remarkable how few people it takes to transform a political debate.
When one juxtaposes the influence of people who care versus people who are apathetic, this assertion is sound. But caring alone isn’t enough. There are tons of folks who care, and I mean really care, who have no influence at all. It may be because their passion is offset by their ignorance or their attitude, such that they can care all day long but nobody cares back.
And that brings us to Twitter. By measure of active users, it’s a lightweight. Facebook is the behemoth, with more than 2.2 billion people on the platform. YouTube has 1.9 billion, Instagram 1 billion. Twitter is all the way down below China’s Qzone and TikTok at a mere 335 million. But in public influence it punches far above its weight. Why? Because it’s where cultural kingmakers congregate, and thus where conventional wisdom is formed and shaped — often instantly and thoughtlessly.
In other words, Twitter is where the people who care the most spend their time. The disproportionate influence of microbursts of instant public comments from a curated set of people these influencers follow shapes their writing and thinking and conduct way beyond the platform.
This raises a serious question. What makes someone a “cultural kingmaker”? Why do millions of people follow Kylie Jenner? Why do other people have twelve followers despite tens of thousands of twits? Why do the latter persist in twit-storming the former, when they’re just random people who harbor the mistaken belief that people who don’t know them care deeply about their feelings on a broad array of issues?
Even worse, given the geographic and social sorting that dominates American life, Twitter can present any given activist with a near-exclusive look at the other side of the aisle. Thus, MAGA-Twitter is Trump’s America. Social-Justice Twitter is progressive America. And to the extent that other influencers (CEOs, studio heads, government bureaucrats, etc.) are online themselves, they’re often captured by the same hysteria.
David is, as everyone who twits is aware, absolutely right about the perception created on the twitters. There are complete nutjobs spewing utter nonsense to their huge followings who are taken to represent wide swatches of America. While one can question whether they really do, the fact that they have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers can’t be ignored. Nobody forces anyone to follow them. If someone follows (or unfollows), that’s a personal choice. That people follow someone as loony as Amy Siskind or Seth Abramson (who has blocked me) speaks to the influence they wield.
Yet, David continues to write blog-post length articles, just as I continue to write SJ posts (although he does so for a living, while I, purist that I am, do so for love). Why bother? If we’re not reaching enough people to influence the masses, to gather millions of followers and, with a pithy twit, change the course of legal or political discussion, is this anything more than mental masturbation?
It’s tempting, when reading a news feed full of rage and hysteria, to console yourself in the knowledge that it’s “just Twitter.” But behind those angry, hyperbolic tweets (well, the blue-check-marked ones, anyway) are people, and those people are disproportionately the most engaged and most influential men and women in American public life. It’s “just” the American political class putting its rage and intemperance on display, hoping to remake the world in its own irate image. And the surprising success of that attempted makeover should scare you, whatever your own political views are.
It does scare me, but less so for its influence than for its shallowness. My initial reaction to twitter haunts me, that the constraint of a twit, a “microburst” as David calls it, is just enough to fuel the simpletons to fury, but markedly short of achieving any communication of depth. What it’s managed to accomplish, beyond merely spreading misinformation to the confirmation biased, is leave people with the firm belief that all problems, all issues, all positions, are susceptible to a 280 (up from the original 140 character) solution. Anything beyond a twit is requires too much effort to consider.
What twitter has managed to do is create tribes that rally around slogans with neither the knowledge nor experience to grasp what the hell they’re talking about. And yet, we take these tribes seriously as a reflection of what society believes, what people really want. The problem with twitter isn’t just whether it reflects only the loudest, most hyperbolic views, but whether it has managed to replace the expression of any deeper thought with the most simplistic of echo chambers.
What scares me isn’t that twitter rules, but that blawgs, short-form though they may be, are too long and require too much effort to be worth the bother to read. When it comes to law, more than a twit is almost always necessary to address any issue thoughtfully and accurately. But the only thing harder than law is thinking.
There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
–Sir Joshua Reynolds
Who knew the expedient would end up being twitter?