Twitter and the Social Contract
A few days ago I was a bit of a dick on Twitter, about Twitter. The specifics of the issue aren’t really worth rehashing — except to be clear that they related to private accounts and the swirl of surrounding etiquette. This post is more of a general tour of some thoughts about Twitter, and shouldn’t be seen as necessarily related to the dickishness, either to back it up or retreat from it. It’s more about context, since Twitter itself isn’t very good at back-story.
In the abstract, while acknowledging that Twitter users have every right to make accounts private — and while also acknowledging that some have positive cause to make them private — the use of private accounts does seem to me to work against what makes Twitter valuable. In practice, of course, what the designers of Twitter created turns out to be extremely mutable, and to fit into very different models of communication, according to need. If one sees it as microblogging, as it was originally presented, the model is a very open one, a stream of posts and comments crossing and merging with streams of others’ posts and comments. One can also choose to use it to create walled-garden sub-communities of friends and like-minded individuals, in which case the model might be a private and moderated mailing list or IRC channel of old. Synchronous back-and-forth interaction with individual friends or groups of friends further subsumes the functionality of an IM client. And asynchronous direct messaging can even replace much of the need for e-mail. This mutability goes a long way towards accounting for Twitter’s success, I think. We like multi-use appliances.
But Twitter’s value for me, specifically, is connected to its openness — more than that, its openness and lightness on its feet. The 140-character limit, which seemed so restrictive and gimmicky at first, is actually enabling, liberating, and democratic. Meme-ish and valuable content propagates with lightning speed. With just a few Kevin Bacon-ish steps I can follow anyone, anywhere. I can dip in and out of feeds, see images from across the world within seconds of them having been captured, track trends and breaking news stories. I can interact with writers, actors, comedians, who wouldn’t ever have reason to follow me — and who seem to comprise most of my incoming feed — this interaction licensed by Twitter’s openness, and its avoidance of commitment to long screeds which demand long replies. Clusters of private accounts inhibit this model like bits of atrophied brain forcing synapses to rewire around them. They dead-end the flow of information.
But what about privacy? Isn’t that important? Of course. I find that pseudonymity and the ability to block buys me all the privacy I would ever want. It’s all that Usenet ever provided, for example. If others need or want more, that’s great, but it seems a shame. The walled garden they create both prevents their exit — only hand-picked followers can see their words — and others’ serendipitous entrance. A reply to a non-follower from a private account vanishes without trace, and a useful interaction is lost. Anyone deterred by the price of admission — not the least aspect of which is the possibility of having the submission rejected — to the walled garden sees nothing, and potential friendships are stillborn.
That’s the abstract argument dealt with — the argument that Twitter is just a better, more effective space when it’s made up of open accounts. For my own part, being certainly non-social, if not actually anti-social, I don’t see Twitter as (especially) a place to interact with people I already know, or to continue friendships made elsewhere. It’s a much wider world I’m interested in. Twitter is primarily a network of microblogging for me, rather than a social network, and having a private account would make as much sense as having a private blog — none at all. There’s something else, though, something more personal and visceral and idiosyncratic. It’s basically this: faced with the need to send a “request” to follow someone, or to “friend” them, or to “join” this or that closed community, I will almost always turn back, for reasons that aren’t especially easy to describe. It’s one reason why Facebook represents a minor horror, and why any Facebook-isation of Twitter feels like a bad virus in a healthy body.
A trivial reluctance arises from the simple fact that private Twitter accounts aren’t just blocked for replying — in the way that some public forums are read-only to non-members, for example — but for reading too, so it’s not possible, even with respect to an existing acquaintance, to have any confidence that a feed is interesting and relevant, until one can see it. The consequence is a process of speculative requesting, and almost certainly a great deal of subsequent unfollowing, which does strike me as rude and disrespectful of others’ time.
I also bristle somewhat at the very notion of “requesting” access (“Please let me read your tweets! Please!”). “Requesting” access to the feed of a genuine friend might be a simple hoop-jump unwanted by the friend and imposed from above by a crude system, but it still wrankles. A request made of a more distant acquaintance, or no acquaintance at all, is gnarlier. Access, in such a situation, is a privilege granted to a chosen few, and I really have no desire to ask for privileges: if someone is happy to let me read what they write, their feed should be open to me. There’s little that’s welcoming about a private account.
But my largest objection to the process, I think, concerns the fact that a request to “follow”, or for “friend”ship, or for membership, amounts to a social contract, and it’s a contract I’m very very rarely willing to make. Some years ago I was invited to join a somewhat-secret, invite-only, kink-related mailing list. I hemmed and hawed a bit, but eventually accepted the invitation and joined. Within days I’d caused a minor storm by questioning whether a particular post made by another member was appropriate for the list. The fuel for my objection wasn’t so much the post itself, but that, given the fact that one of the rules of the list was that arguments weren’t allowed (I forget the wording, but that was the gist), I had no way to argue against the post in a way that was consistent with the list rules. I felt silenced. The social contract I’d bought into with the list membership wasn’t one I was comfortable with. I stayed with the list for a year or two, never really engaged with it, and eventually left.
The analogy here works for me. Even though the social contract which comes with requesting access to a Twitter feed is only implied, it feels clear to me that it’s restrictive. How could I ask to follow someone and then potentially respond to something I disagreed with — potentially strongly — in a way that was consistent with the social contract? That implied social contract is almost certainly differently-worded in the mind of every single private account holder on Twitter. It follows that I can’t be sure of the agreed terms, and that the contract I have to follow is the one in my own head, which is unavoidably attached to the deal: if I request access, I have to play nice, and I don’t necessarily want to play nice. Friendship isn’t a situation in which one feels compelled to avoid argument; it’s a situation in which one can feel free to argue without weakening the relationship, or breaking the social contract.
Twitter, then, at its best, is social networking without a social contract. I write what I want; you read what you want, and reply how you want. You write what you want; I read what I want, and reply how I want. This is why I have a more-than-token presence on Twitter, but not on Facebook, or FetLife, or Google+. A spread of private accounts works partly to introduce a social contract that was never consistent with the structure of Twitter’s brain, and serves as a lobotomy of sorts.