Twitter May Not Be Dead Yet. But ‘Social Media’ Is

Johann Rudolf Feyerabend, Stillleben, c.1814. Public domain

At a time of prosperity for TikTok and turbulence for Twitter and Meta, the function, modality and power of social media is being redrawn

The regime change at Twitter has come at a particular vulnerable time for the idea of ‘social media’, which in some quarters is being declared ‘dead’ or ‘over’. With pandemic restrictions waning, a life lived entirely within digital platforms no longer seems desirable, let alone inevitable, and the overinflated share prices of companies like Meta have suffered accordingly. At the same time, social media companies’ dependence on advertising has made them vulnerable both to marketing-budget cutbacks and to operating-system tweaks like Apple’s recent changes that have made it harder to track users.

But perhaps most importantly, the rise of TikTok (whose ad business is currently thriving according to a New York Times report) has recast the function and modality of social media: where social media platforms were once understood as extensions of social networking, as Ian Bogost points out in an essay for The Atlantic, now they are seen primarily as content-delivery mechanisms. The point is no longer to concretize and extend one’s set of social connections with a view to making them potentially useful as ‘social capital’; one turns to TikTok to be passively entertained by spontaneously customized reality TV.

As tech analyst Eugene Wei put it, TikTok replaces the ‘social graph’ of interpersonal connection and communication with an ‘interest graph’ derived from data surveillance to populate users’ feeds with content made by ‘creators’ and not friends. TikTok’s approach to engagement doesn’t depend on ordinary users having to try to constantly recapture the interest of the people they know; rather it invites users to regard whatever content they are shown, no matter who it is made by, as a reflection of themselves and their own unique personality, as deduced by the platform’s oracular algorithms. On TikTok – and increasingly, on the other big social media platforms that have rushed to copy it – users can enjoy a sense of their identity without having to bother with self-expression or intentional interaction with anyone.

As platforms retrench with conventional TV-like business models, ‘social’ and ‘media’ are splitting apart. On the ‘media’ side are platforms that deliver proprietary entertainment to a mass of users, variously divided into ‘audience commodities’ (to use Dallas Smythe’s term) for sale to advertisers. On the other side are chat-oriented apps like Discord, Twitch, Snap, or Whatsapp, where people typically speak to specific small groups rather than to indiscriminate audiences. Tangential to both of these are the emerging low-stakes gimmick apps, like Gas and BeReal, that are more like Wordle or Farmville than media platforms. When their gimmicks lose their novelty, they will either become more like existing platforms (with advertising, influencer culture, algorithmic sorting and engagement-chasing posting) or blink out of existence.

What seems to have no viable economic model right now is what Twitter once purported to be: a platform that mediates an idea of society itself, in all its fractiousness. On apps like Facebook and Instagram, most users posted ‘updates’ of a sort with an audience of friends in mind and only ever accidently went viral. The ‘influencer’, who professionalized the attainment of ‘reach’ within these networks, is the exception in the process of becoming the rule. Within these platforms, ‘context collapse’ – when posts migrated beyond their expected audiences – was often discussed or experienced as problematic.

But on Twitter, context collapse was always the implicit context. Even though Twitter has never been especially popular or influential relative to other platforms, it monopolized the particular stakes of operating between the personal and the public. Anyone who chose to post there was in a broadcasting mode, potentially speaking to audiences of unknown scale and composition, despite whatever impression they may have had from their list of followers and their notifications feed. Information was broken down into small, readily circulated pieces, which simultaneously made them more likely to spread – and more likely to be misunderstood. The reward system of likes and retweets seemed to speak both to one’s personal vanity and social significance; the imposition of ‘trending topics’ on users was at once both objective-seeming and essentially arbitrary. Sociality and parasociality could abruptly become indistinguishable.

In short, of all social media platforms, Twitter offered the most convincing illusion of access to a consolidated experience of ‘the social’ that manifested in the inescapable tensions between individual and collective perspectives, between commercial and noncommercial incentives, between facts and rumors, between overtness and insinuation, between inclusion and exclusion. It could be compelling, but not mainly because it was entertaining or convivial. Rather, its conviviality was inseparable from the frustration and futility it often inspired alongside occasional solidarity and insight. Without it, it will be harder for users accustomed to it to grasp and retain a sense of how they are embedded in society, or feel, rightly or wrongly, like they have any hold on a means of intervening in it.

If one accepts the premise that tech companies can be said to have metaphorically colonized people’s everyday lives – that they are a disruptive and reorganizing power that has operated through invasive surveillance, compulsory connectivity and access to powerful means of ideological manipulation and control – it may not be wildly inappropriate to apply to platforms some of Achille Mbembe’s analysis of postcolonial governance in On the Postcolony (2005). To account for ‘both the mind-set and the effectiveness of postcolonial relations of power’ in the corruption and confusion left in colonialism’s wake, he argues, ‘we need to go beyond the binary categories used in standard interpretations of domination, such as resistance vs. passivity, autonomy vs. subjection’. Instead, he identifies a kind of ‘conviviality’ between subjects and the ruling forces that is invested with the ‘dynamics of domesticity and familiarity’ and inscribe ‘the dominant and the dominated within the same episteme’. That is, they share an interest in the ‘social networks, cults and secret societies, culinary practices, leisure activities, modes of consumption, styles of dress, rhetorical devices, and the whole political economy of the body’ that are part of that episteme. Without these ‘ludic resources’, subjects would experience a sort of loss of self, of the ‘possibility of multiplying their identities’.

A similar conviviality still characterizes certain kinds of participation on Twitter – imposing power through misinformation, or making fun of power, or flamboyantly trying to serve it, or overreacting to it, or misconstruing it, often within a discourse of memes and allusive asides and absurd fabrications – and made it so compulsive for some of its most powerful users and for those who merely follow them. It acted as a form of domination – the omnipresent ‘discourse’ – but was also experienced as possibility, as involvement with power.

From this perspective, people use Twitter not so much to ‘express themselves’ but to experience domination in a seemingly locatable way, to know it as concretely real and thereby have a chance at making a kind of vicarious peace with it. The platform offers a field for participating in an authoritarian epistemology, a way of knowing that made supporting its protocols prerequisite for experiencing a sense of relevance. Twitter’s disappearance will not make for the end of this kind of power, only some of the compensations for it.

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