I have a very uneasy relationship with Twitter. I never really enjoyed it. Once upon a time, in 2007, my buddy Arthur heard about it on CBC radio before we were planning a trip to Montreal. He told me that it was all the rage and that I should install it on my BlackBerry. I’m not even sure if I had my BlackBerry at that point, or if it was still my old HTC Dash, running some version of Windows Mobile. In any event, I signed up for the software, tweeted a few stupid things (which in my mind set at the time, probably included racist, sexist trolling), and then proceeded to never use the app again for a decade.
Somewhere along the way, I found out that sports journalists were using it on NHL trade deadline, and I would begrudgingly go on Twitter once or twice a year just so I would get cutting edge sports news a few minutes earlier than when it goes on AM radio.
And then, something weird happened along the way. Bit by bit, it became more and more insidious in my everyday life. What do I mean by this? Well, first you would check it for sports things, and then law professors insisted that everyone in the future was going to use it and managed to incorporate it as part of their bullshit assignments for class. Every single associate or adjunct professor, and secretary in the goddamn law school had a Twitter account overnight. Then, halfway through my legal formation in 2012, there was a presidential election in the United states between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And it was the first time, even among all of the drama and nonsense of Facebook that had already absorbed my life, that I really realized that I don’t need to hear each and every person’s useless fucking opinion.
Now obviously, part of my motivation for talking about this today is the fact that we just had an election here in Canada. I didn’t vote in the last election in 2019, because I don’t especially care about democracy. People love to wax nostalgic about how great democracy is and freedom, blah blah blah. And then, when you point out that countries like India, Russia, and Brazil are democracies, whereas places like Dubai and Japan haven’t really been effective democracies for most of their life, and seem to be a lot more pleasant places to live, people start hurling out “No True Scotsman” arguments or lobbing personal insults.
But anyway, we’re in an election cycle and everyone needs to start cheering for their favorite party or politician. And I got caught in the noise, I think partially because I ran out of activities to do during COVID. And you just hear a lot of stupid things being thrown around. The mental gymnastics that people have to go through, as well as just the generally uninformed and stupid opinions they aren’t going to get rejected because for a large part social media is the “democratization” of ideas. That’s the whole point.
Historically, I think this is a relatively recent phenomenon where everyone, regardless of a lack of income, education, or wherewithal about the things on which they are pontificating, has the freedom to disseminate their ideas to the world. Back in grad school, I remember my old professor John Sheppard telling me that democracy or revolution along the lines of democracy could only have occurred somewhere in Europe, or the Middle East, by virtue of the fact that we had a phonetic alphabet.
That sounds like a lot of mental gymnastics to someone like me, but the underlying point he was making made sense. In order to come up with potentially seditious or revolutionary concepts, you need a common language or terminology to decide them. If I don’t have a word or idea for “democracy,” how can I express it to other people? In languages that did not have a phonetic alphabet, presumably it would be a lot harder to come up with new concepts or ideas unless you were the person or people who controlled the language and the actual script. If you didn’t have the proper characters or letters to express your ideas, how could you devise say, a printing press? It’s a lot easier to create new ideas with the printing press that are going to be widely disseminated. And a printing press is a lot easier thing to do, and it is a lot easier to create new language, when your alphabet has 26 characters, rather than the thousands upon thousands of characters that were found in traditional Chinese script, for example.
Now, I don’t purport to say that his theory is absolutely true, and in the best tradition of the Internet age, some person of vaguely Chinese ancestry is going to come in and tell me what an ill-informed, stupid white racist I am. But I guess what I got from that discussion back ten years ago was that language and writing really did have a generally stultifying effect on people’s ability to convey ideas. Even as far back as say, forty years ago, I remember stories about people’s dads writing “letters to the editor,” in the local newspaper of record. What a quaint concept, that a professional journalist with a particularly incestuous relationship to the political status quo, could be a gatekeeper for the kinds of ideas that are going to be published or not. Could a People’s Party of Canada create as much buzz in 1980 as it did in 2020? Unless it had access to its own printing press, radio station, airtime on television affiliates and the like, then no.
I’m not expounding any new or revolutionary ideas that some better writer hasn’t already talked about in the context of Donald Trump using Twitter. There’s also the fact that I’m publishing this on a free blog on the internet, the irony of which is not lost on me. But it just seems like we went from a period even as late as the 1970s or 1980s where too few voices were being heard, to one now in 2021 where I honestly think too many people’s voices are being heard. It’s all well and good to say that if I don’t like what someone’s expounding, that I should just unfollow them on Twitter or block them on Facebook. Fair enough. But it seems like eventually this had to lead to the cycle of tribalism and factionism which we’re living through right now.
Ultimately, even if I derive some benefit from talking to nerds on Twitter about my chess improvement, I would say that social media by and large has a net negative effect on my life, and yet somehow I don’t seem able to shed it from my world. I would get less riled up by factional or tribal arguments if I was not exposed to them in the first place. And it seems to me that it would lead to a lot more free time being used on other, more important things.
Like this blog, for instance. Or perhaps a better, more useful blog. And even though it’s a pain in the ass to dictate and then carefully edit more than one thousand words about why you dislike a certain social media platform, that’s part of the beauty of it: there is a transactional frustration to having to bash out sentences and paragraphs about a certain subject, that I think serves as a rather nice gatekeeper. Twitter? Not so much. I’d like to think that the things that I put on here are going to be more meaningful than any diarrhea of the thumbs that I would post online.