Twitter Is Not That Important

If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to tweet about it, does it make a sound? Physics says yes; the digerati may disagree. Call it Twitter Supremacy: the idea that one’s Twitter following, habits and adroitness at manipulating public opinion via the microblogging site are the sole indicators of success. Too many of us are guilty of believing this aphorism; this is self-evident on the site itself, where power-users and trolls alike revel in mocking each other for not having very many Twitter followers, or having fewer than they do. Lately, the insult du jour is to mock someone’s “ratio” — Twitter slang for a post’s proportion of replies to likes, a high ratio being supposedly indicative that the tweet is making people mad rather than engaged.

Twitter Supremacy is best explained by example: You can see it in headlines like this one from Indian news site NDTV: “When Rahul Gandhi Starts Getting Retweeted More Than Modi.” Or this one, from Spin Magazine earlier this week: “Taylor Swift’s Team Issued a Defamation Threat Against a Website with 76 Twitter Followers.” The subtext: these things are unimportant because they have a small following; never mind that you can buy 1,000 followers for $5 on Fiverr, or that some relatively important people have no Twitter presence and therefore zero Twitter followers, while some relatively unimportant people have accumulated thousands.

Why is Twitter Supremacy a bad thing? It’s only bad inasmuch as it relies on a logical fallacy — the idea that Twitter mastery is any indication of a) importance, b) success, and c) the greater public opinion. All three of these beliefs are provably untrue. And Twitter Supremacy is also “bad” inasmuch as belief in Twitter Supremacy consigns the realm of public opinion to the business decisions of a for-profit tech corporation whose interest is not serving as a public debate forum or fostering free speech, but rather profiting off the impression that this is what it is.

Let’s start with the third fallacy — which, in my opinion, is the most important to deflate. Twitter is not a representative, democratic court of global public opinion, because Twitter isn’t a random sample of the global population by any means. Likewise, the ability of a person or brand to contribute to Twitter varies, and can’t be analogized to democratic opinion polling. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that Twitter’s userbase comprises a very specific subset of the population, and its active userbase is even less random. In the United States, it skews quite young; globally, Twitter users are more affluent and more likely to live in the First World, particularly the United States. It goes without saying that you need to have internet access to use the platform, which means half the world is cut off from participation.

As with many leisure activities, those who tend to do best on the platform are those who have the leisure time to contribute meaningfully to the platform — or those who are getting paid to do so, whether they be PR professionals, corporate social media experts, or professional trolls paid for by shadowy firms. Becoming popular on Twitter — and therefore, important in the eyes of many — is a process that is easily manipulable, particularly by corporations, states and those with money. The obverse is true too: If there’s an opinion or idea that you don’t like on Twitter, those with the funds can shoot you and your ideas down. Journalists have documented before how bot armies can be used to trigger Twitter’s algorithms to suspend legitimate accounts. Alternately, Twitter bots can be used in service of propaganda, by replying en masse to topics and threads to try to derail threads and troll users into oblivion. And because Twitter is often thought of as being synonymous with the zeitgeist, the popularity or unpopularity of a subject on Twitter is conflated with its popularity in the public sphere.

Even for non-moneyed users, being successful at Twitter is an appreciable skill that very few have. Tweets that go viral often do so not because they are “good” by any meaningful metric, but because the right people with the right amount of followers posted them at the right moment and with the right hashtags and the right promotion. To confuse a “good” tweet with a bad one is to miss the greater discourse surrounding the social and material aspects that determine what goes viral and what doesn’t.

For better or worse, the perception of Twitter as an important and officious forum of public opinion has been buoyed by the online presence of the president of the United States, an active user who may have mastered Twitter better than anyone in history. Trump correctly understands it as a propaganda organ and a pure expression of celebrity culture. Indeed, Twitter is well-suited to propaganda: Twitter’s short-form posts (there is a 280-character limit) are a bulwark against expressing complexity of thought. Tweets tend toward quick, short bursts of emotion and slanted rhetoric. Debunking, or having a rewarding conversation, is difficult in such a short space; name-calling is easy. Trump knows this well, and uses Twitter solely for outbursts and to mock and belittle his opponents, knowing full well that he will reap free press and his tweets will ring around the internet for days.

Trump’s Twitter presence shines a spotlight on the unequal distribution of power of the platform: Celebrities can use Twitter as a free publicity tool, provided they have insight into how to use it correctly. And Twitter loves to promote its resident celebrities via “moments,” a kind of gossip roundup akin to Page Six.

I’m a begrudging Twitter user by virtue of my profession — as someone who works in media, to not have a Twitter account is essentially an admission of being a technical idiot, despite the fact that most in the media industry seem to be skeptical of its potential. And yet, in the media industry, Twitter followings are repeatedly mistaken for importance and vice versa, as in the aforementioned two headlines.

Hence, journalists are perhaps the most guilty of being Twitter Supremacists. Many online magazines, this one included, embed Tweets casually in articles, as though they could substitute for the zeitgeist. And journalists seem to revel in our ability to easily gain coveted “verified” status merely by being journalists. Twitter’s relationship with journalists is telling: Because journalists were (until recently) generally viewed as the arbiters of fact in a society, Twitter seems to hope some of our officiousness will rub off on them, and help them be viewed as a purveyor of facts, populated by important people.

Lending officiousness to the platform is a sin that the Twitter corporation relishes — it would love to be viewed as a place where all important discourse occurs, so that it may serve ads to the eyeballs that come to view said discourse.

Lately, the Twitter corporation has been actively trying to enhance any appearance of officiousness to its site. Their latest innovation is a process known as verification, whereby those who apply, and are deemed important enough by the company, are granted a blue check mark next to their name that confirms their identity. Verified users also receive special privileges to deal with trolls, and their tweets and replies are more likely to appear in other users’ feeds. The project seems to be geared towards their larger goal of creating clear spaces on the site for authoritative accounts of events, yet it has had the side effect of creating two tiers of Twitter users, the verified and the unverified.

The idea of verification is not necessarily bad. Yet the problem is that the corporation is the arbiter of who gets verified and who doesn’t, and their process is opaque. Obversely, when a voice on their platform doesn’t align with their business model, Twitter has often taken to silencing them for obfuscatory infractions. Again, this policy belies the notion that Twitter is some sort of egalitarian public forum -- the public doesn’t have full control over whose voice bubbles up; the corporation does.

Moreover, if we were to consign our public discourse to Twitter, the legacy and permanence of the words we write there would be called into serious question. If Twitter goes bankrupt, or is thoroughly hacked, or if a more authoritarian government or CEO comes to power, billions of human words and records will evaporate. The cloud is an unwise place to put important civilizational texts.

There’s an old saying in the finance industry: “The bank always wins.” The meaning is simple: Those who create the rules of the finance industry are most adept at manipulating them to their advantage; consumers who think they’re getting a good deal on a loan, or milking the bank for credit card rewards, have been thoroughly duped — the bank makes the rules, and therefore always wins. In the same vein, the Twitter corporation writes the rules of Twitter engagement; they determine which accounts are verified, and therefore given a patina of authority, and which aren’t; and they determine which tweets are and aren’t seen in your timeline. But they don’t have your best interests at heart; they are, in fact, constitutionally incapable of having any interests at heart besides accumulation of profit.

Here’s an idea: Don’t take Twitter seriously. Think of it as a toy, or a sort of ephemeral joke repository, and you’ll be far better off. For when the public comes to unthinkingly accept Twitter to be the be-all and end-all of public discourse, everyone else loses. Only Twitter and its shareholders win.


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