My Mad, Sad, Lonely, Very Unpopular Guerrilla War Against Twitter

NOT TWITTER. Sunrise, South Yarmouth, MA. August 1, 2020.

Have you ever noticed how some people who are heavy Twitter users, not to say addicts, tend to get defensive, not to say prickly or sharp-tongued or derisively sarcastic, toward anyone who suggests that Twitter itself, while not entirely evil, might on balance be harmful, addictive, damaging to personal and societal health? One might call this response Twitter Fragility. (With addiction, it’s known as denial.) And it seems to be most prevalent among those who have invested a great deal of their identity in, and/or have some personal or professional interest in maintaining a successful presence on, the platform. Of course, the idea of Twitter Fragility is unscientific. It can neither be proved nor disproved. It functions, like other such concepts (“false consciousness,” “the repressed”), as a logically closed system. Any negative reaction to the concept, indeed any attempt to criticize the term itself, can be taken as a display of the very “fragility“ in question. So then, is Twitter Fragility a real thing? I don’t care. The term serves my purpose. And I like the way it sounds.

For the past month or two, having ended my own heavy Twitter usage (not to say addiction) six or seven months earlier, I have been waging a sustained, low-level campaign of guerrilla resistance against this social media platform (a.k.a “hellsite”) that has given us @realDonaldTrump and so many other symptoms of our social unraveling. The campaign has used a combination of tactics. First, rather than tweet anything in “my own voice” (whatever that means), I began sending out to my grand total of 4,400 some-odd followers, at apparently random times, various kinds of tendentious and entirely useless hashtags. (Both qualities, the tendentiousness and the uselessness are essential!) The tweet will consist only of such a hashtag by itself: E.g. #TwitterIsAComputerGameWithNoWinnersButTwitter (Bang!). Or: #TwitterIsDehumanizingDiscuss (Pow!). Or: #TwitterIsPerformanceBetterWorkOnMyAct (Zing!). And so on. These tweets, dozens of them, have produced precisely two interactions, by the same person, both strongly negative. For whatever reason — and it’s true, they will not win any awards for poetry or wit — let it suffice to say that they are not popular with the tweeting masses.

The second tactic takes quite the opposite approach. On my website, I created a new page called “Epigraphs: A copyist’s journal, updated at whim,” which consists of substantial quotations, some longish and some short, from major writers and thinkers of the 19th, 20th, and earlier centuries — from Dostoevsky to Auden, Arendt to Bonhoeffer, Jesus to Camus, James Agee to James Baldwin, Simone Weil to MLK (plus a few classical ch’an poets and some of their American devotees, to keep things in perspective). In other words, samples of intellectually and morally robust arguments for a universal humanity and solidarity, the sanctity of persons, and an ethic of neighborly love, as opposed to atomization, dehumanization, and self-absorption. Tweet-length snippets of these quotations, or epigraphs, are tweeted out, sometimes as threads — containing what may or may not be significant juxtapositions — and of course with links to the web page where all can be read at length. I must report that these epigraphical tweets have been only slightly more popular than the tendentiously useless hashtags. Given the authors involved, surely the quality of the content is not the problem.

I might choose to look at all of this as an experiment, scientific or aesthetic. But I’m afraid that would miss the point. This does not pretend to be science — or art. It aspires to something more like subversion.

It makes no difference whether a single tweet goes viral or is liked and retweeted by no one. All that matters is that it exists.

Twitter is indeed a computer game, with rules and conventions that must be followed — if one wants to play successfully. It calls for performance. It calls for artifice. But what if you wake up one day and no longer give a fuck about the game and its rules? What if winning, in any larger sense, is impossible — the underlying code makes sure of that — and merely to play at all is to buy into a particular system and its dehumanizing ethos?

What if disobedience — and therefore unpopularity, marginalization, irrelevance — is freedom? What if I withdraw my consent from the rules of the game? What if I relish my unpopularity?! What if resistance, though inevitably futile, has its own rewards?

Camus once wrote,

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.

For my part, all I ask is that, in the midst of a dehumanizing world, we reflect on what we’re doing to each other and make a choice.

The technologist and tech-dissident Jaron Lanier, among others, is right. It doesn’t have to be like this. Another world is possible.

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Wen Stephenson

Wen Stephenson

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Journalist. Essayist. Dissident. Author, ‘What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice.’ wenstephenson.com