I thought the world would automatically be a better place

Saturday morning on Twitter.

‘Donald Trump gets to go on his first big boy Trip’ – Slate magazine.
‘If Mueller Indicts Kushner, there goes Mideast peace. And we were so close’ – Dan Gilmor retweeting Robert Mann.
‘What’ – Asher Wolf liked Petra Starke.
‘Brilliant’ – Nikki Bradley quotes Salvador Hernandez tweet of CNN video with comment ‘If he took a dump on your desk you would defend it’ with a poo emoji and ‘@andersoncooper what?’
‘Even Harvard can’t ignore it. The partisan press is out to destroy President Trump’ – Brent Bozell.
The New Yorker retweets ‘What does Donald Trump mean when he says his body is a battery? @alanburdick investigates!’
Brian Stelter retweets ‘First on CNN: Former FBI Director James Comey now believes Donald Trump was trying to influence him, a source says’
Jon Kudelka posts a cartoon, two bankers smoking cigars, one says to other ‘Do you ever get the feeling we would have been better off just copping a royal commission’.  
‘Jesus just fuck already’ Marieke Hardy retweeting Ashley Feinberg. A screenshot of the New York Times telling followers to follow The Washington Post.

That’s the first ten stories from one pull at the home feed.

This is news, but not a newspaper.

It’s more like a poker machine. Every time you spin the wheels: Trump, Trump, Trump.

I have no idea how many times I’ve already bounced the Twitter feed this morning. Wandering around the house, the garden, making coffee, putting the washing on. How many tweets have I seen today already? Twitter would know. My guess is several hundred, at least.

The news cycle of Saturday morning used to be slow. Different to the rest of the week. I’d often walk to the newsagent and buy a newspaper. The newsagent was a mate, we’d chat for a bit. I’d come home. Make a coffee. Sit down and read it. Maybe a couple of hours spent with it over the course of the day.

Chat about stories with housemates. Stick a good cartoon on the fridge.

It strikes me how similar these rituals were in their rhythm and mood to that great story Walter

Lipmann tells at the start of his 1922 book Public Opinion. There’s an island where a ship delivers the newspapers once every six weeks. The islanders would gather on the dock to get ‘the news’ from home. One morning, as they wait, they are unaware the ship is bringing news of the outbreak of war in Europe, a month earlier.

It seems so splendid now. Imagine how different the news would sound if it only told you what was important from the last month, rather than the last minute.

I spin the Twitter feed again.

First three.

Nadine von Cohen. All caps. ‘Fuck yeah there should be beds every few streets so we can take naps when we go for a walk or run for the homeless I guess’.
JR Hennessy quoting a Jason Kuznicki tweet. Kuznicki wrote ‘I see today that ‘Haha, Trump likes well done steak with ketchup’ is making the rounds again. So here’s a tweets storm about that. Sadly’. Hennessy responds ‘This is possibly the stupidest thread I have ever read. I’m not even mad I’m just impressed’.
Duska Sulicich ‘What happens when Trump eventually leaves office? How will he be stopped from blurting national secrets in a fit of bigly boasting? Seriously.’

In her book Addiction by Design, Natascha Dow Schull describes how poker machines work. The machines collect data about the patterns of players. The data trains algorithms that run the machine, they learn to dispense just the right amount of incremental wins and free spins to keep the player engaged on the machine for as long as possible, while ensuring that more often than not, the player loses money. Within a few spins, a machine has worked out what kind of player you are and will calibrate the game play accordingly.

The algorithmic design of the poker machine, is a good analogy for understanding the logic of the Twitter home feed, the Facebook News Feed, the Instagram home feed. The algorithm learns how to produce a feed of content that keeps you bouncing the top of that feed. Spinning the reels over and over.

Elizabeth Wissinger describes this as a profound shift in the kind of attention our culture fosters. From the cinematic gaze, to the televisual glance, to the digital blink. When we bounce our social media feeds our attention is spliced into glances and blinks, moments scanning a non-narrative, hyper and respective sequence of stimuli.

Bit by bit over the past few years, this is what my consumption of news has become.
Scanning stories, glancing and blinking, at a constantly updating, potentially endless, feed. It seems to work against the possibility of reflection or narrative. It has no long, slow narratives.
The voices are different too.

In the old fat Saturday newspaper the voices were reflective, contemplative, critical, sharp, witty, thoughtful – as often as they were incendiary, biased, and hot-headed.

The tweeter though is always a pundit, laying out a hot-take, a wise crack, a conspiratorial explanation of what’s really happening, an emotively charged spew about someone who is plainly an idiot.

The pundit is a persona that emerges from the ‘meta-coverage’ or horse race journalism of cable news. This is a kind of journalism that is more concerned with describing how the game of politics work, than in explaining and interrogating the ideas of the political class. The voice of the tweeter seems less interested in reflecting on the world, than in rapidly decomposing other people’s views of the world.

News on Twitter is fast and corrosive. In the past couple of years I have stopped buying newspapers, stopped watching broadcast television altogether, and pretty much stopped listening to radio. My news consumption is Twitter and podcasts. I’m not alone.

We are rapidly dismantling a culture of ‘news’ that came to dominate everyday life in the democratic mass societies of the twentieth century.

One thing that ‘news’ did during the twentieth century was play a role in shaping mass identities and shared ways of life that millions of people identified with. This made democratic societies possible. For all its shortcomings, this system of mass media representation created a kind of fabric that held enormous groups of people together.

Twitter is startling because it is a media platform where we do not participate in creating a shared narrative. Twitter is instead a machine for dismantling the possibility that shared narratives might emerge. This weekend The New York Times wrote a kind of ridiculous profile about Evan Williams, the co-founder of Twitter:

Evan Williams is the guy who opened up Pandora’s box. Until he came along, people had few places to go with their overflowing emotions and wild opinions, other than writing a letter to the newspaper or haranguing the neighbors.
Mr. Williams — a Twitter founder, a co-creator of Blogger — set everyone free, providing tools to address the world. In the history of communications technology, it was a development with echoes of Gutenberg.


It is surprising to see a paper as sober as The New York Times compare Twitter to the printing press. That said, Twitter does share in common with the printing press a massive explosion in the volume and qualities of public speech. And with that, a fundamental shift in how we represent our world.

In the wild, chaotic, repetitive, snarky, violent feeds of Twitter I more and more feel like I’m looking at the programmatic destruction of a system of representation.
Representation becomes less a social process for making sense of our shared experience, and more a system to be dissected and debunked.

This was not how participatory media was meant to turn out, it was meant to foster a new age of representation. One which, by allowing the expression of more diverse voices, would enable a better reflection of our lived experience.

Williams offered The New York Times a frank admission about the withering of that dream:

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Journalism is always a public form of speech that is produced historically, conditioned by politics, culture and technology.

News will persist. Our challenge is to figure out how to create a culture of news that doesn’t just stimulate our reactions, and cultivate our disbelief, but rather fosters our capacity to understand each other.

I deleted Twitter over summer. I’m going to delete it again. I’ve had it back on my phone for two weeks, and I think I'm going to delete it again. Its mood is dark, frantic and unsettling.

Ten years after its invention it might have been easy to see what the printing press would disrupt, but perhaps lest clear what it would facilitate and enable. We live in a similar moment. It is clear what media platforms like Twitter dissolve, and it is also clear that the participatory culture they promised will not be what the one that they create.

The present moment calls for us to tackle the platforms that program public culture: Twitter, Facebook and Google. To address them now as public institutions that we each have a stake in because they are the architecture that will either thwart or enable our capacity to give an account of our lives, to understand the lives of others and imagine our futures.