“I’m working through a line of thought, a feeling and an instinct. Not an original one but not one I’ve fully internalized or understood yet. But the way that a need to profit runs counter to the value of the internet. A need for money broke Twitter, long before the billionaire decided to do… whatever it is he’s doing with it. Twitter has been aging, I think, into obsolescence for a very long time. Because the internet is evolving and shifting away from what it once was.” — DongWon Song, Literary agent
For a while now since Twitter’s takeover by Musk, its users have been sensing the ship sink, not sure when or how to jump ship. One reason for this is that each social media platform has its own affordances and structures, and this importantly structures our engagement with them. I take the notion of affordances from Gibson’s affordance theory (explainer here). Briefly, affordances are the way our environment shapes to behave in a certain way. The environment offers us promises (positive affordances) and threats (negative affordances). A simple example is a couch, which invites us to engage us to sit in it in a certain way, different from a hard chair without a cushion. You’ll slouch in the couch due to its affordances, in a way you would never in a chair. In a similar vein, Twitter encourages a different sort of engagement compared to TikTok or Instagram, or Facebook.
In the same way, different social media shape our engagement with others. They allow us interactions that aren’t possible or a lot harder to realize in other environments.
How does the death spiral of one or more social media platforms impact philosophy? The slow death of Twitter is not a new phenomenon. DongWon Song’s observations resonate with a lot of its users. Like them, I have sensed the decline already a while ago, long before Musk bought the platform. For example, Twitter’s own research had noticed that its algorithms substantially favor right-wing politicians and news outlets.
Just speaking from my own user experience, I had noticed over the past few months that small philosophy accounts with maybe a few hundred followers that I enjoy following had become obscured by the algorithm. I went to check if they were still there. They were. I just didn’t see them anymore. So already months ago, I changed my viewing preferences so Twitter would show me the latest tweets, as more and more the same duplicate stories began to show up. I hoped this would give me again that sense of engagement and serendipitous discovery I had before. But to no avail. The platform feels hollowed out, impersonal. The capacity for thoughtful philosophical discussion dries up.
Many philosophers, of course, are totally fine without any social media. During a reception at a departmental talk last month, the topic came up and one of my colleagues, a tenured professor said “Oh I’ve never had any social media account, I’m glad I’m not part of it!” It seems that social media is optional.
For about two decades now, I’ve tried to reach a wide range of people through various platforms. First it was blogs (from around 2010 to about 2014 or so). At the time, it was not unusual to have dozens of comments on one post (recall NewApps in its glory days? Or the Philosophy Smoker for early career people)? The comment section was frequently filled with vitriol in spite of the lack of monetization of outrage posts (you can occasionally still witness that on Daily Nous). Then, as FaceBook rose to prominence from about (in my experience 2012-2015 or so) the comments sections mostly dwindled.
The era of FaceBook had promising affordances. Notably, its closed groups on specialist topics or ideas offered some sense of fellowship and space for serious discussion. But my hopes on that score were dashed. Groups were often awash in misogynist, racist and ableist comments. Moderation was poor or non-existent. There were other aspects of FaceBook I didn’t like, such as how the algorithm showed political ads to certain segments of the population, for instance, to convince black people not to vote or to some British (often older) voters to vote for Brexit, breaching privacy laws.
I left FB and began to appreciate Twitter more for its ephemerality. The brevity of the statements encouraged clarity and economy of expression (yes, even when you write threads, as each part of a thread still had to be understandable on its own). It was a public square that had a lot of engagement by philosophers. You could not go back and alter the text (at most, you could delete it, but screenshots prevented that from some tweets their authors regretted going viral). However, I didn’t like the drama but I liked Twitter especially for the way it enabled me to serendipitously discover new ideas/papers/books.
Of course, there are many other serendipitous channels for discovery such as just looking at e.g., book reviews or browsing through journal issues (does anyone still do this?), or attending conferences. I also expect that the New Works in Philosophy newsletter would allow for such discoveries. But what I particularly appreciate about Twitter (prior to its slow and steady erosion) is you would not learn just about the books or papers everyone was talking about, or at the major presses, but also from work from more junior or less well known authors. Once an aggregator becomes too homogenous (as e.g., Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews seems to mainly review books from Oxford University Press), I find it less useful for my purposes.
Twitter was a low-key and low-effort way to occasionally see what the philosophy world was up to. I will miss that and it’s not entirely certain we will get a good replacement. With the loss of social media you lose connections, even friendships. This Friday I’ll skype with a friend and fellow philosopher I mainly know (and actually got to know) through Facebook some years ago. I only met him in person once, in 2019.
But this is rare, and mostly, once you leave a platform or it falls apart, the connections fall apart too. In this respect, social media can help foster connections not dissimilar to conferences. A lot of recent discussion on the value of in-person conferences has focused on how they can enable unstructured, low-key social interaction. With the way social media enable this, it’s clear that this is not so much due to them being in person as it is due to the specific affordances of these conferences (plenty of time to socialize, the fact that the conference often takes place in the hotel where everyone stays etc).
When we think of how we do philosophy in channels that allow for some socializing, such as conferences, colloquium talks, and social media, it is therefore important to think about how the infrastructure brings some affordances into existence. I’m curious for what will come next.
Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More