The US government is one of the most undemocratic in the North Atlantic. Not only was the US Constitution designed to constrain ordinary people’s political impact, with institutions like the Senate, Supreme Court, and Electoral College established to protect minority rule, but the peculiar nature of the postwar US state—in which policy authority was granted to “private” institutions like think tanks and NGOs—incentivized American elites to ignore public opinion. This was the case in the 20th century and remains true today. Even the protests responding to the brutal murder of George Floyd, which occurred in the early months of a deadly pandemic that has killed at least 600,000 Americans, have done little to structurally reshape US policing. Countless other examples—from our endless wars to our massive inequality to our awful working conditions—underline the widening fissures between policy-makers and the public.
It’s ironic, then, that Americans seem to talk about nothing but politics. In fact, partisan affiliation has become one of the most important identities in the contemporary United States. While in 1960, the American Psychological Association reports, “only 4 percent of Democrats and 4 percent of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite political party,” today those numbers are 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively. In an epochal shift, more Americans would rather have their child marry someone of a different race than someone who voted a different ticket. Ours is a political age in which people have almost no impact on policy. But if we can’t shape policy, how do we get our political fix? If you’re college-educated, wealthy, and under 50 years old (and if you’re reading The Nation), the answer is probably Twitter. According to Pew, active users of the social media platform spend most of their time tweeting about politics.
Twitter is the place where “the attentive public,” we strange few who devote most of our waking hours to politics, comes to hang out. It’s a modern salon, or at least the closest thing we’re going to get to one in our era of alienated and individualized politics. But as the Marxist writer Richard Seymour makes clear in his incisive The Twittering Machine, Twitter—and social media in general—is the last place one should look for the reasoned political debate upon which liberal democracy must rely. In fact, Seymour’s analysis suggests that the very architecture of social media, the algorithms and protocols that make it what it is, combine to create an atmosphere in which it is impossible to resolve arguments. Few veterans of the 2020 electoral season, which pitted Bernie Bros against Liz Lads, the KHive against the Yang Gang, would disagree with this claim.
The problem, however, isn’t that we can’t “log off,” as so many on Twitter implore others to do; the problem is that Twitter has come to define “real life.” A human being who lives until the age of 70 will spend about 50,000 (out of 400,000) of their waking hours on a social media platform. To “log off” is to become an ascetic, disconnected from the “real” (virtual) world. Assuming we can’t uninvent social media—and there’s little to suggest we can—we’re left with two questions: Can Twitter be a politically productive space? And perhaps more important, is it possible to live a healthy online life?
The Twittering Machine is less a coherent monograph than a series of loosely connected, semi-aphoristic thoughts about social media; in this sense, the book mirrors the style of Twitter itself. But contained within these strands are a number of penetrating insights into the nature and effects of social media. In Seymour’s telling, the most important thing to know about the term “social media” is that it’s a misnomer; we should instead refer to it as a “social industry,” because platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not designed to connect us or convey information, but are designed to mine data from user behavior, package this data, and sell it to the highest bidder. We posters are essentially digital serfs working for nameless tech giants under conditions of the latter’s choosing.
Moreover, like any good capitalist operation, social media companies do whatever they can to keep us addicted to their products. They need us to remain enthralled, as our addiction ensures there is data to be sold. Twitter, Seymour notes, “deploys crude techniques of manipulation redolent of the ‘Skinner Box’ created by behaviorist B.F. Skinner to control the behavior of pigeons and rats with rewards and punishments.” The means of addiction are obvious even to the most casual Twitter user: Every time we tweet, we’re gambling that someone will find us interesting or funny and reward us with likes and retweets (and maybe, just maybe, a DM). And like all good addicts, we posters are also aware that one wrong tweet—one wrong bet—could have catastrophic consequences, from social ostracization to losing one’s job.
Why would anyone tweet if the rewards are so fleeting and the downsides potentially disastrous? In Seymour’s telling, tweeting is a form of “hedonic stimulation” that enables “us to manage our emotions.” The pleasure and pain of social media, he argues, serve as distractions from the alienation at the heart of our everyday lives. It’s not Twitter that’s the problem; it’s the world that’s the problem. Is it really any surprise, Seymour asks, that at the very moment when most Americans feel alienated from one another, from their government, and from history itself, new platforms promising simulacra of connection proliferate? The relationships we form online, Seymour explains, stand “in for the social relationships that have been upended by the turbulence of capitalism.”
Tragically, if unsurprisingly, living life online accentuates our alienation. How many of us have attended parties where we spent more time scrolling through our smartphones than engaging with those around us? Depressingly, we seem to “prefer the machine,” especially when the machine attenuates the messiness of real-life relationships. For many Twitter users, the platform serves as an escape, even a form of self-annihilation, in an alienated world.
For their part, the social media giants are generally agnostic as to what we serfs produce. (The banning of the Proud Boys, QAnon, and Donald Trump are exceptions that prove the rule.) The most important part about a tweet is that it generates data; it doesn’t really matter to tech companies whether it was posted by a TERF or an anti-fascist, Matt Gaetz or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Twitter executives, in other words, couldn’t care less about the “debates” roiling their platform; for the gray flannel suits (or rather, the Asics and Lululemons) at Twitter HQ, “the more chaos, the better,” as it’s chaos that begets information. All of the passion and emotion that we posters expend on the platform is geared toward one thing: making money by selling data.
For Seymour, this raises a question: Can profit-oriented social media platforms that are designed to create and sell data be put to productive political use? One of the great promises of social media, after all, was that it would democratize the public sphere. “In the birthing bloom of the web and instant messaging,” Seymour notes, “we learned that we could all be authors, all published, all with our own public.… And the good news gospel was that this democratization of writing would be good for democracy.”
From the vantage point of 2021, however, it seems clear that social media has little relationship to democratic action. Why protest when you can post, especially when the latter is easier and more satisfying—at least in the short term—than the former? There are, of course, exceptions to the depoliticizing effects of social media: Occupy Wall Street was in part an online phenomenon that engendered physical resistance; the #MeToo movement channeled discontent with misogyny and sexual violence to hold some notorious offenders to account; and Twitter and other platforms have been used to coordinate demonstrations in the United States and abroad. But even if they have helped galvanize some social movements, as a whole social media platforms allow people to feel as if they’re transforming politics when they’re really just consuming it. It doesn’t matter how many likes and retweets your anti-capitalist meme received; inequality has still increased.
In fact, as Seymour argues, the kind of mass action that thrives on Twitter tends to be more authoritarian than democratic. Twitter is famously the home of the troll, and to be a troll is to be someone interested primarily in playing to one’s own crowd. And as history has shown time and again, crowds quickly become cruel to people with whom they disagree. Even if an individual troll isn’t especially vicious to their victim du jour, when trolls meld into an undifferentiated mass, their “petty acts of sadism,” Seymour insists, become “monstrous,” especially to the person experiencing them.
It almost goes without saying that few people have had their minds changed as the result of a Twitter pile-on. Indeed, the opposite is likely true: How many times has Twitter cruelty pushed erstwhile or potential comrades to embrace ideas they might otherwise have found anathema? Politics is as much social as it is ideological, which is easy to forget when trawling through cyberspace, where the coin of the realm is an affected intellectual purity.
Social media usually degrades debate. As Seymour notes, “whatever we write [on Twitter] has to be calibrated for social approval.” No one wants to be “canceled,” especially when cancellation can have devastating real-world effects. Because everyone is just one “bad” tweet away from personal disaster, there is “a strong pressure towards conformity with the values and mores of one’s peers.” Twitter has made us all agents of the Stasi, ready and willing to pounce on anyone who strays beyond presently accepted norms. And on top of this, it’s hard to have productive discussions on a platform where everyone is waiting to talk.
Yet social media can have positive effects. Seymour recognizes that Twitter and other social media platforms “address legitimate wants: they offer opportunities for recognition, for creative self-styling, for interruptions to monotony, for reverie or thinking-as-leisure-time.” They also have a democratizing effect by diversifying the public sphere and allowing the hoi polloi to directly address—and make fun of—the elites who have done so much damage to the world. Twitter further has enabled people across wide geographic divides to form genuine relationships and communities, and many have started podcasts, magazines, or other creative ventures that would never have seen the light of day if the legacy media continued to hold a monopoly over public speech.
The question then becomes: Can we have the good of Twitter without the bad? Seymour doesn’t fully answer this query. In the end, he advocates that we do what we can “to withdraw our labor and reclaim the pleasures of writing as leisure time”—i.e., log off. He also suggests that governments regulate social media and expresses the hope that we can create platforms in which there is “no way to make money from taps and clicks, and therefore no technological incentive for addiction,…trolling and the regular moments of explosion around aggregated sentiment that characterize the Twittering Machine.”
But we can’t simply log off Twitter; it’s become an important part of our “real lives.” So what can we do? Personally, I’ve tried to adopt a more conscientious attitude toward Twitter, recognizing it for what it is: an entertainment. I’ve further attempted to become less emotionally invested in the platform, which makes it more boring and hence less addictive. Yet the reality of the matter is that the pathologies engendered by Twitter—narcissism, impulsive gambling, the endless search for approval—are pathologies endemic to our hypercompetitive world of financialized and meritocratic capitalism. The depressing truth is that we won’t solve the problems of the former unless we move beyond the latter.