James McLeod: Can a politician really leave Twitter?
If you’re on Twitter, you get sucked into the culture of Twitter. The machine and the mob are tugging on you constantly.
By: James McLeod
Former journalist and longtime politico Siri Agrell formally launched her campaign for a seat on Toronto’s city council not long ago.
The election is still five months away. Unless you care deeply about Toronto municipal issues, Agrell’s announcement won’t feel very significant.
What caught my attention, though, was the fact that Agrell nuked her Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts the day of her campaign launch party.
I’ve known Agrell for years (mostly through interactions over Twitter) and in addition to being a former staffer to Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Agrell is a known commodity in the Toronto tech sector, as the former executive director of OneEleven, a startup incubator.
At a time when Elon Musk is making strident pronouncements about how Twitter is a vital public square for political and social discourse, here’s somebody with deep communications, political and tech experience saying that social media is more of a liability than an asset.
You can read Agrell’s full rationale here. But one line in particular stuck with me:
“That doesn’t mean social media platforms can’t change or improve. But I think the best way to bring about those changes is to show them we’re not entirely dependent on their tools. To disrupt and model new things.”
For months, I’ve been wrestling with my own experience on Twitter, and I’ve been feeling more and more like I’m struggling against a mob and a machine. I think in one way or another, a lot of people want to renegotiate their relationship with social media.
I’ve poured a lot of my life into Twitter. If you’re a regular user, you might know me. If you’re not on Twitter, suffice it to say I’ve been an active user for more than a decade, I’ve got about 20,000 followers, I typically spend several hours on the site every day, and I am the first person to ever have their Twitter username cited in official proceedings of the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature.
In January, as a stupid experiment, I decided to set a self-imposed Twitter limit. The main feature of Twitter is speed. Conversations, reactions, and jokes all happen in real time, as a bunch of twitchy online news junkies participate in a big chaotic chatroom.
So I slowed it down for myself. For one month, all my tweets needed to be scheduled three hours in advance. If a joke is stale three hours later, it’s not worth making. If somebody else will make my insightful comment within three hours, then I’ve got to come up with smarter things to say.
I thought that this experiment would be like going on a social media diet — the same experience, just a bit less satisfying. Instead, almost immediately it felt like I was fighting against an enormous machine.
Of course, I know design steers behaviour, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how much the design of a social media platform encourages certain kinds of behaviour. Most users don’t really feel the full force of it, because they just slide effortlessly into that mode of interaction.
This is why it’s basically impossible to get into a political argument on Instagram (and you’d feel foolish if you tried) and basically impossible to avoid getting into a political argument on Twitter. These are carefully designed spaces, with product managers constantly monitoring user metrics and fine-tuning the platform to maximize attention, engagement, consistent daily use, and other such performance indicators.
The culture of a platform — Twitter quips, Tiktok dances, conspiracy videos on YouTube — it’s all just a byproduct of those design decisions optimizing for user metrics.
But taken together, what it means is that if you try to use a social media service like Twitter or YouTube in some way that’s not “normal,” you’re running contrary to the design of the environment and you’re out of step with all the other users.
Mostly my little experiment just made for an uncomfortable, frustrating month. But what does it mean when our politicians use Twitter and Facebook as their default complaints window for constituents? How does it shape our political discourse when it’s all filtered through the engagement metrics, the memes and the bullshit?
The really frustrating thing is that digital technology is enormously powerful, and if they can be used as tools, our devices can be incredibly useful, and fun.
Years ago when I was living in Newfoundland and Labrador, there was this short lived call-in radio show on Friday nights where a professional sexual health therapist would answer questions and offer advice. The questions were sometimes funny, sometimes wild, and often I think the callers had been drinking before picking up the phone.
One week, a friend posted on Facebook that he was listening to the show, and in the comments under his post, a bunch of us started chatting in real time while listening to the radio. It was clunky. Facebook wasn’t designed to be used that way. But the tools were available to us, and so we used the comments as a little live chat for people listening to the N.L. call-in sex advice radio show.
These days I don’t log on to Facebook anymore, because the culture of the site is dour and depressing, and the design feels like algorithms trying to steer you from one trash pile to the next based on whatever opaque profitability metrics excite Mark Zuckerberg at the moment.
I’m not ready to delete my Twitter account. I still live most of my life through my internet connection, and I’ve found a rich world of experiences and human connections online. In spite of all the problems, there’s a lot to love about online. But I think we should all be thinking more about digital devices as tools that we use intentionally, in ways that we choose. We should resist the easy pull of going with the flow, and just modeling patterns of warped and weird behaviour just because it’s the culture of a particular website.
Just a few days before Siri Agrell shut down her social media accounts, she got in a little fight on Twitter. I won’t bore you with all the backstory. You can get most of that here. Suffice it to say somebody made a critical comment, and she came back with an aggressive response.
A cynic might be tempted to view this as a nascent politician who had a momentary lapse of judgement, and then followed it up by fleeing social media entirely. I don’t think that’s what happened here. For one thing, Agrell has clearly been thinking about this for a while; she wrote a book about her relationship with technology.
To my eye, the bust-up is an example of exactly the sort of culture Twitter inevitably produces, with performative sparring playing to the crowd, and strident statements stripped of nuance, because that’s all that fits in 280 characters.
When I reached out to tell her I was writing this piece she texted: “Here's a quote for you: if I was going to quit twitter because of Jonathan Goldsbie, I would have done it after he made fun of my jokes when I emceed newsapalooza."
This will probably make sense to Twitter people, and nobody else. If you’re on Twitter, you get sucked into the culture of Twitter. The machine and the mob are tugging on you constantly.
I am legitimately curious how it’ll go for a politician who consciously eschews social media. There’s a chance that she’s making a fatal mistake. Maybe Elon Musk is right, and Twitter is the new town square, and if you’re not there, you’re not participating in the public discourse.
My hunch is that by forgoing the mainstream platforms, it’ll force Agrell to find other ways to connect. A thoughtful email from the candidate, or a text message exchange and a phone call, might be worth a lot more than the thin impact of a carefully crafted tweet with hundreds or thousands of retweets.
I guess we’ll find out.
James McLeod is a Toronto writer and communications professional focused on innovation and technology.
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