Twitter’s Past, Present and Future — Less Public Square, More Private Rooms

There’s been a number of thinkpieces from media professionals about The Future of Twitter. Do I need to list them? Google is your friend there — there’s been too many. Most of them seem to focus on the commercial future, talk about stock prices, all of that discussion around the financial worth of the service. The problem is, that’s probably entirely the wrong way to think about the modern combination of newsticker and telegram. It’s a free service, it’s a free method of communication and hence nearly impossible to monetise. On this, Osman Faruqi’s Nationalising Twitter piece — while a touch tongue in cheek with its suggestion — does the best job of summarising what it is as a communications tool. I would go a step further and suggest that the best way to describe its utility is that it’s what Linked In is missing — a fast, easy to use messaging service for professionals in a particular field. I think that provides a clue as to Twitter’s future.

The difficulty for those wishing to make money for Twitter is that for the new casual user, Twitter is next to impossible to understand. I will write about it from my perspective of having experienced Australian Teacher, News / Political and Sport Twitter.

Twitter started with the potential to be analogous to Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Public Square”, which theory Ken Hirschkop has outlined:

“The image of the developing man (sic) begins to overcome its private character… and to enter a completely different, spacious sphere of historical being…the marvellously open expanses of the public square are not only literally but metaphorically spacious, allowing history a room for movement which it is denied in the bourgeois parlour or home”

That is, that the public square is an open expanse where society can spread out, mix, learn and expand in its understanding and connection. Twitter had and possibly still has the potential to be this. But what I will argue is that Twitter has paralleled what Hirschkop has said marks the 20th Century:

“Full of… rooms, old houses or offices which an external history enters only as an incomprehensible or destructive force. Whether it erupts into private life in the form of a meaningless arrest and trial, or as a war which robs the home of its best and brightest, history again and again violates the privacy of the bourgeois, until… his ultimate desire is not to become “world — historical” but to gain protection — “peace” — in a quiet home by the river”

But how did it do this?

The public square analogy has its greatest potential to work when Twitter is at its most active during events, such as during major tragedies, political events, TV shows, sporting events. It provides a chance for everyone to share a moment online, be in a virtual public square. But it’s still a square where private suites and rooms exist. And it’s during the down times, when the people are busy with their everyday lives, where these different rooms become exposed.

The first thing to realise that maybe it’s human instinct, it’s become mostly sectionalised into private rooms. It’s very difficult to drift between the rooms — I have tried, as do a few others. And within those rooms, they are full of professionals and long term users all using codes and signifiers that they alone know. For example, there’s various unsayable things on News / Political Twitter, certain allowed forms of expression which to a new user would take a while to learn. I have experienced in my Twitter mentions the confusion of new users many times as they have responded to me as they would an ordinary person on street, looking at something that has happened. And, I have to admit, most of the time I am at a loss to describe what is happening.

It’s somewhat easier in the Teacher Twitter room, because almost no outsiders contribute to the discussions or seek to know more about what is being discussed during the nightly hashtag chats which is the backbone of that form of Twitter.

With News / Political Twitter, though, a lot more want to be involved and demand what is going on. But the nuances are continually lost with new users who are quickly whipped up into existing discourses, echo chambers and silos, as I have outlined in my megaphones post, and my updated version of that idea, the whacky ibis effect.

Journalists and politicians who are mostly using Twitter as a way of communicating what’s happening as well as with each other, are mostly mystified by a whole group of mostly new (and some experienced) users shouting at them and demanding things. More experienced users who have gathered large follower numbers over the years are skilfully harnessing and channeling users towards a particular goal in questioning and undermining the messages of journalists and politicians. That is their carefully cultivated brand, whether it’s Chris Kenny or Van Badham — staunch activists for their side of politics, working to squash enemies and sticking to their lines. It’s sometimes effective in terms of Twitter, at least. In these battles, the subtweet, the .@ tweet, the quote tweet and the screenshot are the most common ways to weaponise the medium. I have used all of them for my own activism and campaigning — and some of it I regret, especially the more strident political party based activism.

There’s also a room — or maybe a better term is a wine bar or upmarket pub — where there’s a group of experienced users who have cultivated the brand of being cool outsiders, commenting harshly on everyone who is politically committed one way or the other. They are often friendly with journalists, as it’s good professional practice for journalists to have a cultivated non aligned persona. The codes and lingo used in and between these two groups (which includes heavy use of the subtweet) has come to be extra bewildering to anyone who has only a passing relationship with the medium. It could be argued that such a development of the journalist / cool outside lingo is deliberately exclusionary, as to provide a psychologically necessary buffer between their room and that of the non media professional. Damian Cowell summed up the attitude of the excluded well in his I Fought the Groove Police:

They kill you by inaction
Embargo your supply
They wash their Pontius Pilate hands
As you hang out to dry
Your dream drops like the disappeared
From a chopper into the blue
And you become a footnote
In a concrete shoe
I know I’m in your gun sights
I’m odds on to lose
I could have Gandhi’s insights
British India’s what you’ll choose

In the light of all this, it’s little wonder new users can be bewildered early if they refuse to act in line with an activist’s demand or don’t know what is cool and uncool. And declining to fall in line with acvitists or what is deemed cool can be challenging if that activist is famous, a writer for legacy media or Twitter famous. To have a tweet retweeted, favourited or even be followed by someone famous can be a powerful drug to lure people into tweeting a particular way. After all, many of us like the idea of being a name on the list carried by a bouncer outside a cool nightspot.

But for those not willing to do the work to be considered cool and an insider, the main purpose of Twitter for casual users appears to be just to find news links, maybe comment on it to other people they know and then get the hell out. Otherwise, they risk getting into an awful, confused tangle.

Sport Twitter is similarly compartmentalised — though less rooms and more stadiums in size. There is some room for drifting, but not a lot more. In Australia there’s NRL, AFL, Soccer (A League and Euro Soccer), NFL and Cricket silos, though heavily male in tone and in conversation — and the amount of mixing varies. Based on my experiences, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of crossover between NRL and AFL, nor between soccer and AFL. Cricket seeps into many silos, however.

What marks sport twitter over some time in Australia at least is a heavily white male tone about particular sports, but that is being challenged. It’s been clear over the time I have engaged with sport Twitter that there has been an increase of female engagement, which has brought a positive change to the style and nature of the conversation. The recent Chris Gayle and Eddie McGuire / MMM controversies highlighted the increasing power and of the female voice on that form of Twitter.

As ever, though, with the positives of these changes, we have the subterranean depths well under the public square – the basement, full of mostly men, snarling at women, threatening them, screaming at the dying of the possible end of their privilege. The same men are usually the grubs that will shout horrific garbage about various communities, such as those who are Islamic, Indigneous, LGBTQI. Trolls isn’t the right term – trolls have a modicum of a brain. These are just blind, deaf and dumb grubs squiggling around in the dirt. Despite all efforts to eradicate such abusive creatures, either through reporting their accounts, screenshotting their worst tweets and showing it to others, they are still there. Twitter, the company, continue to be shocking in terms of cutting down on this, adding to the level of dissatisfaction and contributing to the spurning of Twitter by the larger community. Sport really brings out these grubs whenever women write about a piece of sexism in sport – which is unfortunately still far too prevalent in society. Sport writer Erin Riley can provide a far fuller picture of these grubs than I.

This is not to say that sport Twitter is all bad. It’s been a good place to see how some millennials are using Twitter. Many people from this age group seem happier tweeting about sport than going into the minefield of politics. They like sport, they also like talking in the same way they use texts – same language, same sprinkling of snapchat photos. They are mixing up their usage, rather than providing a focused set of messages, or building an activist brand or all those things that those from other generations are using Twitter. That mixed use of the medium provides us with an indication of Twitter’s possible future.

Twitter’s future seems to be:

  • As a way for professionals and potential professionals in a field to connect during workdays and at other times
  • A way for news outlets and political parties to repeat their messages
  • As a public square for events
  • As a kind of Internet forum where friends connect with each other in a set of rooms that others might be able to see, but generally ignore

I’m not sure how money can be made from all this, but I, as a user, don’t really care about that. But it is a touch sad that human nature seems to have expressed itself and taken a possibility for an open exchange of ideas and become yet another segmented house with elites, classes, unwritten rules and hard to break walls. Twitter though, despite all of that, remains to be an important public and professional utility, but maybe never one that will make its owners a lot of money — unless someone like Microsoft can pay a puzzling amount of money, as they did with Linked In.