• Justin McBrayer

Why I'm Not on Twitter

I'm not on Twitter. That drives many of my friends and colleagues crazy. My editor advises me to use Twitter to build an audience and publicize my book. My politically active friends tell me how useful it is to stay on top of the latest moves in Washington. One of my students just told me that if it can't be expressed in 280 characters, it's not worth expressing.

I am unmoved. Here's why.

Twitter is an exceptionally useful platform for several things. Here are a few of the most important:

  1. Advertising: Twitter allows a source to efficiently blast email out to a select audience quickly and efficiently. When wildfires swept through my part of the state last summer, the National Forest and other fire-fighting agencies were able to quickly provide updates and bulletins to those following the fire-fighting efforts.

  2. Virtue Signaling: Twitter is an effective platform for publicly establishing one's credentials. You can advertise what you think or how you feel to a sizeable audience in a sentence or less. Tweets with slogans, memes, and quotes are effective ways to let others know where you stand on controversial issues. Psychologists call this 'virtue signaling'. You provide hashtag signals to others about where your real loyalties lie.

  3. Trolling: Twitter is an easy way to publicly mock one's opponents. The charitable side of me would describe this function as Jonathan Swifting your political adversaries. I've seen some incredibly clever comebacks and rebuttals to political, religious, and ethical points of view. The less charitable side of me would call this cyber-bullying. In either case, Twitter is an effective platform for trolling opponents and denigrating their viewpoints.

I don't deny that all of these behaviors are valulable (in some sense of the word), and I grant that Twitter is a useful tool to pursue each one. But I'm not interested.

That's because all three of these behaviors are also tribal (in some sense). Virtue-signaling to colleagues and brow-beating opponents are obviously tribal. And even the virtue of effective advertising is tribal in the sense that audiences of Twitter feeds are self-selected. A reverse 911 text goes out to everyone in a certain area. A Tweet goes out only those who have previously subscribed (though others could log in to see un-deleted Tweets).

All of this makes Twitter is a useful tool to enforce in-group/out-group dynamics. You can get the word out to your people quickly. You can signal which team you belong to easily. And you can draw a bright line between those who are on the in and "get it" and those who do not.

While no doubt I participate in this same in-group/out-group dynamic, it's not something that I want to do, and it's certainly not one my intellectual goals. In general, I think we need less social division, not more. Twitter doesn't help me to do that.

Further, the format of Twitter is inimical to two goals that I do hold. I think that (a) we should have a better grasp of the nature of our intellectual divisions, be they political, religious, ethical, or what have you, and (b) we should develop reasons for sorting our own intellectual allegiances to these camps.

The format of Twitter doesn't contribute to either goal. Carefully understanding a political, religious, or ethical position often requires nuance, detail, and precision. Twitter gives you only slogans (Black Lives Matter!). Developing reasons to endorse one worldview over another requires setting out assumptions, making arguments, and responding to objections. At best, a Tweet can provide a link to a site that develops reasons carefully.

I end with a note of epistemic humility: I've not used Twitter, and so I might be wrong about this. Perhaps there ARE intellectually virtuous reasons to Tweet and to follow others on the platform. And perhaps Twitter is not as nefarious as I've made it out here. Both are possible.

But convincing me will require making distinctions, crafting a nuanced understanding of the platform, and developing a case for a different conclusion. In other words, it will take more than one could to do in a Tweet.

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© 2020 by Anna McBrayer