The #Tacit Decline of Twitter

Eric Bovim

Anguish in modern life seems inextricably tied to technology, and oftentimes I wonder what Solzhenitsyn would make of Twitter.

tacit decline of twitter

One of my favorite opening passages from any book begins this way: “The anguish of beginning signals the difficulty of the enterprise.” That stealth line was written by the Hungarian philosopher László Földényi, and it rings repeatedly no matter how many times you reread it.

In our culture of comforts, we are not acclimated to struggles or anything approximating anguish: we are but a tweet away from the next fleeting thought, a click away from a new present tense. It’s not that things should always be hard; it’s that meaningful endeavors are almost always never meant to be easy.

I’m reflecting upon such things, perhaps, because I’m approaching the midpoint of my life, the time when one starts to dwell upon the shadows between aspirations and reality. What nudges us forward, universally, is the “difficulty of the enterprise.” But I’m also reflecting upon such things, too, because of a speech by a Russian novelist.

In the winter of 1978, an invitation to give a Harvard commencement address arrived for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He had not spoken publicly in two years. Though he was in exile and a critic of the USSR, his now famous speech would center around Western matters, notably the weakness of the West.

Recently, the National Review included a posthumous essay by Solzhenitsyn. The speech “unleashed echoes that kept resounding far longer that I could have foreseen,” he writes. It is a must read for anyone looking to understand America’s relationship to the 20th century.

Even a cursory read of his speech forty years after its delivery yields an abundance of admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic prescience. “How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without verification,” he said, as if he were smack in the middle of the digital era even then.

Two years ago this summer, I put pen to paper and published an essay that touched briefly on Solzhenitsyn. My essay addressed the Brexit vote in the wake of Trump’s unforeseen ascendancy, a kind of dual anguish for the West. What did this portend for the future?

Reality today: Brexit is on the ropes, Prime Minister Theresa May along with it too. Brexiters expected their split from the EU to be clean and swift; that is, a break without anguish. As for President Trump, he remains buffeted by a kind of peculiar anguish of his own making (Twitter tirades) and a much more potentially lethal anguish that could engulf his presidency (The Mueller investigation, and now his Helsinki press conference with President Putin).

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Anguish in modern life seems inextricably tied to technology, and oftentimes I wonder what Solzhenitsyn would make of Twitter.

The ideas that underpin Twitter are good ones: empowerment and concision. Self-expression within 280 characters forces the general populace into a kind of short-form exercise to articulate a perspective. This is a virtue.

Twitter is basically a printing press, and in this sense it is a news service. “The press can both stimulate public opinion and miseducate it,” Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard. Well, such as it is, Twitter, along with so many other social media platforms, is enabling the mass self-expression of the individual on levels unseen in human history. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Twitter is a virtual bird, sixty million messages are flown daily. And it was birds, too, that launched newswire journalism. Reuters, for example, was spawned from a fleet of carrier pigeons in the mid-1800s.

One of Europe’s great fortunes was made using a bird. Nathan Rothschild, the scion of Europe’s greatest banking dynasty, engineered one of history’s greatest short sales, with a pigeon, the twitter of his time.

On June of 1815, Napoleon was defeated by nightfall at Waterloo. The French army retreated into the moonlit hills. By then, a carrier pigeon had left Waterloo for London, bearing the news. I guess you could say that it was what we today would call, ‘Breaking News.’ By the time the Duke of Wellington had arrived victorious in London—to the sound of the trumpets—Nathan Rothschild had already minted a fresh fortune: with news of Waterloo in hand an hour earlier from his pigeon, he had rushed to the London Stock Exchange and engineered a colossal short sale of bonds.

The story illustrates the importance of the speed of news. The problem we face today is not one of speed but of preponderance of information—or what Solzhenitsyn calls “superficial and misleading judgements.”

The challenge today is that there are so many “birds” flying in so many directions that we’re not quite able to consume all the missives anymore. I read recently that the Associated Press had rendered curious ex cathedra commandments to reporters, best summed up as, “Thou shall not tweet!” Reporters, hypothetically, who observe a major accident or come across explosive political news, are instructed to run these bits through the AP’s editorial apparatchik and press them onto the wire. That would be like, I guess, Nathan Rothschild dispatching the news of Waterloo to himself by stage coach instead of by bird.

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Two years ago this September, I was in Florence with my wife at breakfast turning the pages of the New York Times. I came across this stunning essay about the risks and associated anguish of Twitter and other media by Andrew Sullivan.

In “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan, perhaps one the of the Internet’s top bloggers, describes himself as a man hollowed out, lost on the other side of a digital addiction.

“A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes.” 

A year later, Brett Stephen’s wrote a similar column denouncing Twitter for different reasons in The New York Times. “This is the column in which I formally forswear Twitter for good,” he writes, invoking Sullivan’s essay a bit later and calling Twitter the “political pornography of our time,” and finally declaring the medium “bad for the soul.”

Where does this all leave Twitter?

In 2015, it had 302 million active monthly users. There were around 330 million active monthly users in Q4 last year, hardly stellar growth—and maybe no growth at all when you factor in BOTS. And there are many prominent people quitting Twitter, like the New York Times’ star political reporter Maggie Haberman, who tweeted three days ago: “With exception of breaking news and my own stories, taking a break from this platform. No reason or prompt other than that it’s not really helping the discourse.”

What is the “difficulty of the enterprise” for Twitter?

First and foremost, to restore its feed to civility and intelligence, rather than the churlish and the puerile. To hold its users to account. To intend to inspire. To create social change.

These, I fear, are lofty enterprises for any business, let alone for Twitter.

But the larger question to be asked is whether too many good voices have already flown the coop?

I was encouraged many years ago when Teju Cole attempted to publish one of his short stories on Twitter using a syndicate of friends to retweet sentences. It was groundbreaking for literature and certainly for Twitter.

Cole was also one of medium’s most prolific and intelligent voices, with over 259,000 followers, touching on topics as varied as soccer, literature, race, and music. Sadly, his last tweet reads, “Good time for that Twitter break.”

That was four years ago this week.