As the Presidential election approaches, the deployment of political messaging on social media platforms will draw more commentary from who else but those very parties responsible for political messaging. The solipsism of journalism is really a variety of well-deserved narcissism. The gulf between private life and journalism is rapidly shrinking, especially as social media empowers non-journalists with the power of public speech. This phenomenon has captivated journalistic attention, because the imminent ontological threat to journalism—as a medium of political discourse, and as a material medium itself—is playing out in the most visible of arenas. Average Joe and Jane, curating their personal Twitter accounts, have become involved, however inadvertently, in the battle for the continued relevancy of conventional journalism in an election year. What else can professional journalists and Joe and Jane do but rubberneck.
Despite the fixed interest on “Twitter politics,” I am not convinced that this fall is unlike any other. Sure, the volume of political messaging on social media platforms has clearly reached new heights. It seems impossible to log on without encountering a barrage, no, slurry, of partisan and polemical utterances. So yes, in terms of usage patterns, in terms of what exactly gets posted when, October promises a decidedly different Twitter landscape. Yet, I would like to argue, provisionally and in an extremely constrained space, that political messaging on Twitter is irrelevant to its joint temporal and historical topology. I am not discussing Facebook for reasons that will become apparent in the course of the argument.
My first proposition is that Twitter does something quite different from Facebook to the divide between private and public life. Of course, I am excluding locked Twitter accounts, which function to a great degree like Facebook statuses denuded of profiles. Ordinary Twitter accounts are great equalizers: they position Average Joe on the same stratum as celebrities, politicians, and journalists. While the currency of Twitter, followers, varies wildly based on personal popularity and exposure, “branding” so-to-speak, in theory, Twitter allows civilians equal access to public fora as their more powerful peers. Thus, again, in theory, Twitter ought to facilitate a more actualized practice of democracy, a “better” kind of political activity, wherein citizens meet and strive for glory in a commons. However—and this is entirely anecdotal—I have observed a curious equalization of messaging itself, regardless of relative follower wealth, regardless of retweets, favorites, etc. That is to say, I grant approximately equal attention to the messages of friends and celebrities alike, which is to say, none at all. Honestly, I find myself not really caring about what people say on Twitter about anything, be it news, politics, or their personal lives. My disaffectation—perhaps, disillusionment—is not a desirable state of mind. I think my detachment is intimately related to the unfulfilled promise of Twitter-ized democracy. Although quarrels, productive conversation, and full-scale rhetorical wars break out on Twitter, they never seem to move towards any discernible conclusion. Tune in to the Twitter chatters, the Twitter news as it were, any day any hour of the week, and it’s the same chatterers chattering the same news. Slight variations, yes, but mere perambulations on a theme. Turn on the Twitter tube and you’ll find impassioned discussion happening around the clock. It’s just the same talk repeating itself on infinite loop.
My second proposition is that Twitter does something quite different from Facebook to the experience of time and history. On Facebook, there is a clear delineation of temporal sequence; heck, the entire Facebook interface is organized around the “Timeline.” Beginning, middle, and end. Facebook has a narrative structure, one not so dissimilar from Jane Austen’s. Twitter, however, is divested of temporal and historical context. There are quotidian and seasonal cycles of Twitter use-patterns. In the morning, people Tweet about coffee and the hot new content hitting the aggregators. In the afternoon, people Tweet about lunch and the hot new content hitting the aggregators. In the evening, well, you get the idea. Extrapolate across the seasons and other recurring periods, like election years, and the banality “history repeats itself” seems true in a sense more than figurative: Twitter actually does repeat itself, and Twitter’s reflection and representation of history thus repeats itself.
To read Twitter is to immerse yourself in a continuous flux of information that constantly changes on a microscopic scale. People do, after all, Tweet different things. But I would suggest that in aggregate, people Tweet the same things. I think reading Twitter is like reading a series of really bad novels. You probably couldn’t even call them novels. Pulp fiction. There’s a semblance of variation, of difference, but it’s all an illusion.
During this election cycle, I think that we will discover the a-historicity of Twitter. Like a theater of the absurd, Twitter has escaped the boundary lines of historical consciousness. Twitter is a solipsistic, narcissistic dream. Political messaging on Twitter happens under the flimsiest of historical parameters. On Twitter, one election is really every election. Different names, different faces, maybe different issues?—but the political discourse stays the same. Insofar as Twitter is kind of boring, I think its long-term potential as a democratic forum is limited.