It’s something of coincidence that the week I began to hate Twitter was the week I was immersed in Critical Theory and more specifically, the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Fascinated by Habermas’ concepts around the Lifeworld, the System and Public Sphere, I began immediately trying to see parallels in how we use social media. I was most interested in the idea that Twitter was the technological marvel that merged the Lifeworld — typically the domain of the private and information shared only among close family and friends – with the Public Sphere – the place where people come together to talk about issues of importance to them.
Twitter has a myriad of uses. From sharing the mundane such as today’s lunch special or cat video to live updates on breaking news to intense discussions around social issues, Twitter gives everyone the opportunity to join the conversation.
I am a big fan of Twitter. Since joining in 2007, I have found it to be not only a source of amazing information and great entertainment, but also a great way to meet new, fascinating people (including Stephen Harper’s deceased cat, Cheddar Harper, with whom I’ve had an on again-off again relationship for a number of years).
I remember doing a workshop on Twitter and sharing Margaret Atwood’s love of Twitter. She called the Twittersphere an “odd and uncanny place” and akin to having fairies in your garden. Atwood talks about the whimsical nature of Twitter and the variety of interactions possible. An idyllic world indeed.
Back to Habermas and my somewhat utopian view that Twitter was the 21st century Public Sphere where not only where dialogue flourishes, but “ideal speech” – respectful, reasoned discourse among individuals – is possible. That all changed with Jian Ghomeshi.
It was fascinating to watch the story evolve on Twitter from the very first Tweets on Sunday, October 26th as people (including me) expressed disbelief that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi through growing shock and then anger as the story developed. Some high profile people – including Green Party leader Elizabeth May – tweeted their support for Ghomeshi in the first hours before the Toronto Star article with the serious allegations of violence and non-consensual sex was published. Those supportive tweets would be retweeted over and over again in the coming days with vitriolic comments added despite the mea culpes from people like May.
I began to see what I had been denying for so long – Twitter, far from being an idyllic Public Sphere, is in reality a vast echo chamber that gives everyone tries to yell louder than the next person. Or worse, the public square where people can be pilloried and shamed for all to see.
I saw people I respected and considered “progressives” attacking other like-minded individuals because they weren’t politically correct enough or hadn’t expressed their outrage loudly enough. There was a rush to post your opinion, then trumpet why it was the correct one.
Zosia Belski wrote an interesting piece in the Globe and Mail on October 29 called “Social media, victim blaming and the two camps enshrined in Ghomeshi-gate,” that talks about the rush to judgement. She quotes Alfred Hermida, author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters as saying about social media “It’s the way that space is designed. You’re expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider ‘Do I really think that?’…Immediacy privileges reaction rather than reflection. It fosters ardour rather than nuance.” These are certainly not the conditions necessary for ideal speech.
All of this is not to argue that there haven’t been some amazing memes that have come from the Ghomeshi affair, including the “BeenRapedNeverReported” hashtag that has shined a much-needed spotlight on why women don’t report sexual abuse and violence. It also doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Twitter. It means I need to look at Twitter with more of a critical eye, and when I tweet, ensure I’ve taken some time to reflect rather than just react.