It’s been interesting watching how the last few weeks have played out on Twitter. Like many people — especially academics and journalists — I’ve been engaged with the platform for quite a while.
I joined in 2009, largely because there was a lot of Digital Humanities activity on the network. In those days it was a place to go and find out what was happening at other labs and on other projects, though this was quite nerve-wracking for all the reasons that following acquaintances on any curated timeline is.
At first, as I remember it (I’m in the process of downloading my archive, so it will be a bit before I can double check), I found the network a lot of fun. Like a kind of salon. The 140 character limit (in those days) encouraged a kind of ironic patter that reminded me a lot of my days in graduate school — quick and funny takes on culture and academia among (an expanded set of) friends.
As I say, even in those days, there was a downside. Because the feeds were curated and because people were using them to put their best professional face forward, I initially found it at times quite dispiriting. everybody was reporting the grants they were receiving, the articles they were publishing, the committees they’d been elected to, the conferences and papers they were attending — even the new followers they were racking up. Like many people in those days (I hope), I wasn’t quite used yet to the sense of scale involved in a social network, and so wasn’t yet able to internalise emotionally the recognition that what I was seeing was the collective success of my community (put forward in the absolutely best possible terms and with all the lack of nuance a 140 character limit requires) rather than the repeated success of individual friends and colleagues. Even though I intellectually knew that I was seeing lots of different people get grants, publish articles, and so on, it still felt emotionally like it was a few people who were just doing so much better than me.
At a certain point — I don’t remember quite when — I decided I wanted to get a 1000 followers: a number that was relatively large for an academic in those days. So I set about carefully gathering them. Return-friending people, writing a lot of posts, adjusting how I communicated in order to get the follows I was chasing. I think it took me about a year to go from around 100 to just over 1k.
I don’t exactly remember when Twitter began to feel more like a cess-pit that a townhall. The first thing was that it began to feel less important in my academic work: partially (I imagine) because my feed became too large for the various reports of success in DH to show up at the top and partially because I began to see Twitter announcements as being more fluff than substance. Why did I actually care that somebody had just received a grant? Why did I care that they’d published an article or a book (I mean the fact that they had, rather than the content of that book, which I often discovered by other means).
But it was also around this time that I began to find the whole thing less about content than opinion, and, in the case of opinion, less about exchanging salon-type bon mots than oneupmanship: censuring people, explaining why they were wrong, laughing at them, and dismissing their opinions.
It was with the rise of Donald Trump that things really seemed to go off the rails at Twitter. Not specifically because of his account, but because of why I experienced as the mainstreaming of Twitter-as-pure-invective. It was around this time (again in my memory, when I download my archive I’ll do some more research on it) that my stream at least began to be dominated by feuds, mobs, and existential criticism. There were now very few bon mots and almost nothing but attacks. Despite my placing the era boundary with Trump, I don’t think that this was a right-wing issue. People across the political spectrum and in both academic and “regular” Twitter seemed to me to be behaving in a similar way.
As I write this, I realise that I have seen something like this before — on listserves. These too had a very similar trajectory — starting out in the 1980s as the wonderful new “salon” and then degenerating in the mid-1990s into flame-wars so bad that at least one academic listserv I was on had to shut down to cool tempers off.
I wonder now as we see people discussing what Twitter was and has become in the aftermath of the Musk takeover, if this might not be Twitter’s mid-1990s moment: the point at which people realise their previous approach was not working and switch to a much more productive interaction with the platform. It’s been a decade or more since I last saw a flamewar on a list-serv. Could this be the start of something new on short-message social networks?