Weary of the Scene
There’s an emergent feeling, at least among the people I talk to, that Twitter has become too much of an ordeal, a Kabuki theater of outrage, radical posturing, and other well-worn, performative acts that we know all too well. Unlike Kabuki, there’s little pleasure in the costumes and gestures and pageantry. They’ve become too familiar, not to mention threadbare. The culture’s strictures have crowded out room for play, much less dissent or refusal to participate. (The journalist who isn’t on Twitter is either an elder statesman or playing some other kind of game.)
Perhaps you’re familiar with this argument — all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again, etc. But I do wonder if there’s some point at which Media Twitter will eat itself, when the gravity well turns into a black hole. It’ll be a time when we acknowledge that most of us are acting out the same bitter tropes, that we expend such intense, passionate focus on items that won’t be remembered in a day or two, and that, in the final analysis, it’s tiring. The jockeying for attention — a currency more valuable and ephemeral than peak-Bitcoin — is demeaning and can’t be rescued by meta humor or conventional irony.
You can still “do well” on Twitter if you want. Undoubtedly there are people who find voices or avenues of expression there who otherwise might struggle for a foothold or be shut out entirely. But it’s impossible to gain any security or to “win” at Twitter, despite the Internet parlance. Visibility requires constant maintenance, vigilance even. You can be more on point, funnier, more tied into the news cycle, a better curator, more radical, more aggrieved, but you will inevitably be usurped by someone who has judged you not angry/outraged/radical/sharp enough. They flank from the left, propelled by the confidence of youth.
In some circles now, the most effective rhetorical act is to accuse someone else of bad faith or hypocrisy (perhaps by digging up a year-old tweet and trying to re-contextualize it for the debate of the day). These are extraordinarily effective moves because they’re easy and cheap and difficult to counter. To reply that an accusation of bad faith is itself in bad faith — a disingenuous bit of sleight-of-hand designed to mask its own empty meaning — seems like a grown-up version of “I know what you are but what am I?” How can you debate someone like this? Why would you bother? And yet these petty skirmishes have been mistaken for sincere political engagement. They are how reputations are made.
The problem, at its root, might be that Twitter actually matters too much to journalists and media outlets right now, along with anyone who aspires to be part of this world (“community” is too kind a term). It’s too central to how news is crafted and distributed and, more personally and immediately, how we craft and distribute ourselves — our public identities, our relationships, our incessant-but-seemingly-essential attempts at self-promotion and advancement. We must insert ourselves into the morass, we must relentlessly personalize everything, or else we risk being overlooked. Particularly in a time of precarity, when if you aren’t one of the legions of poverty-wage freelancers then you are likely on the lookout for your next job (everyone wants to be poached!), you are always selling. You have to: the benefits are meager but they’re real. We’ve all watched the banal spectacle of a mediocre writer noisily tweeting his way into a staff job through a steady output of congratulatory messages, judicious retweets, unearned hyperbole (best lede ever! best correction ever!), and savvy cultivation of his betters. It’s a strange alchemy — the ingredients themselves are poisonous, they’ll hollow you out — but the recipe is known.
Attention and connections have always been powerful tools for a journalist; it’s just more enervating to see them collected in the always-on Twittersphere rather than at the occasional book or cocktail party. Sure, it’s never been only about the work. But I wonder if it’s ever been less about the work than it is now.