I. Those who can condense their thoughts into 140 characters or less do not have any thoughts. For the 95% or so of the population who do have thoughts, Twitter does no favours, chopping up any discourse into chunks that the very technical design of the site demands be taken out of context.
II. Twitter is thus a discourse of thoughtlessness. This is most obvious in the periodic storms of outrage that set it ablaze, like the proverbial prairie fire. For there to be a prairie fire, more than a spark – Jan Moir, Jeremy Clarkson, Liam Stacey or whoever – is needed. The prairie has to be dry. These outrages take hold because twitter is thoughtless: and thus it increasingly approaches its ideal form, a seething swamp of busybodies, curtain-twitchers and copper’s narks.
III. Behind thoughtlessness lies the dominant ideology. This is a general point, but it needs particular emphasis here. Ideology abhors a vacuum – what is not said by the subject is said, instead, by the Subject. Chomsky, for all his faults, understands that it is more difficult for him to make a simple point in the accelerated world of bourgeois TV news than a reactionary political opponent, because the latter has all the dead inertia of common sense behind him. Twitter is more accelerated still; it is something like a supercollider, which will maybe allow keen observers to measure the weight and behaviour of a single particle of pure ideology.
IV. On Twitter, no-one can hear you scream – unless you are a celebrity. It is tempting to view the logic of ‘followers’ as a mirror reflection of the market. In truth, the market no longer behaves this way, if indeed it ever did. It is better to think of it as a staging of the ‘pure’ categories of classical political economy, a frictionless world of un-ideas exchanged according to an anarchic but efficient principle of distribution. Of course, Marx has shown that the ‘pure’ categories of political economy do not produce a society of equal petty producers, as perhaps Adam Smith imagined, but lead instead to the concentration of capital; and, more importantly, that capitalist society was and is constantly shaped by factors extrinsic to the abstract logic of capital. The first ‘critique’ is visible in the accretion of attention to those who are a good source of outrage (Joey Barton’s a reliable one) and those who most promiscuously spread it (Stephen Fry). The second is simply the manner in which attention in the wider world is replicated in the swamp.
V. Is Twitter due for a bout of ‘primitive accumulation’? In fact it is no doubt already happening, and the scale will only increase with its prominence as a form of cultural discourse. Dynamically-generated web content is ripe for certain skilled ‘proletarians’ to manipulate – trends will be manufactured, to the inevitable benefit of one or another power-that-be. Corporations will rake the money in – purveyors of CIA or equivalent black propaganda will struggle to stifle a laugh at how easy it is to touch a nerve among this uniquely thoughtless population.
VI. Twitter is not a threat to the mainstream media. Nobody, apparently, has told the media. The agenda for public discourse is still largely set by the press; and part of the press agenda is recycling this absurd myth that we live in an age of unmediated communication with one another. This puffs up the image of Twitter, causing the likes of the Guardian to fawn ever more cravenly before it. The Guardian is on the brink of winking out of existence, largely because its incompetent management have not found a way to screw money out of the internet – thus trends on the internet and in new media appear before it as an awesome, conquering force. The Guardian discourse on Twitter is akin to the sense of wonder experienced by the luckless earthling at seeing a vast alien spaceship, just at the moment that it lets rip with the death ray.
VII. Any leftist who recycles the r-r-revolutionary credentials of Twitter is thus exposed as an opportunist cretin. The opposite case – that Twitter is an obstacle to revolution – is closer to the truth. It represents an area whose dominant ideology is structurally bourgeois, in which everything that happened more than five minutes ago is already ancient history. The left cult of Twitter is simply the penetration of this ideology, and the collapse of historical time, into the forces whose purpose in society is to fight that ideology and preserve that historical memory.
VIII. The actual consequences of ‘Twitter politics’ are amply demonstrated in its flagship intervention: the Egyptian revolution. The eyes of the West were fixated on the tweets of the Tahrir Square protestors. When Mubarak fell, these elements were swept aside: the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology venerates the social forms of the first millennium AD rather than the third, have been the main beneficiaries, thanks to their disavowal of infantile faddishness in favour of long term, patient work among the masses. There is still no substitute for this work.
IX. The contemporary left is repressed. It is a case for psychoanalysis. The collapse of the USSR, and the concomitant catastrophe that befell a global left that was not able to make whatever distance its parts may have taken from the failed experiment in ‘socialism in one country’ real in the minds of the masses, could be confronted in a principled way. Yet it is much easier to just repress the trauma – “that was the old world, with old conditions! Now we have new movements like Occupy and UK Uncut!” The model thus becomes precisely those movements who make a virtue out of the absence of any obvious history, and hinge their appeal on novelty. Their novelty is utterly false, and founded on the fact that predecessors to these movements failed so completely and radically that even their failure is lost to historical memory. The ideal medium for the outpourings of such oafish elements is one where success is rapid but shallow, and nothing is thought, and nothing is remembered. Step forward Twitter. Their ideal ally is one desperately aspiring to a prelapsarian condition, before memory and before knowledge. Step forward the opportunist left. All those genuinely concerned with making revolution should bear in mind that we have far more to learn from the Muslim Brotherhood than UK Uncut.
X. There is a certain tendency to dismiss this sort of critique as ‘technological determinist’. In fact, it is not. Twitter determines nothing – it is determined, instead, by the dominant ideology. Those who view it as a neutral medium for communication, on the other hand, are guilty of a metaphysical separation of form and content, in which form is viewed as a kind of jug into which content is poured, and from which that content is poured into your brain. The relationship between form and content is rather more complex than that: the form of Twitter, certainly, marks it out as a transmission belt for ideology.
XI. Twitter is limited to twitches, yelps and other unconscious reflexes. The point is, in Trotsky’s words, to ‘learn to think’. (That should be the end – but the author will permit none of these theses to fit into 140 characters.)