Around March 10 2020, I was puzzling over the strange new virus, when someone on Twitter posted an essay by a guy I’d never heard of: Tomas Pueyo, who works in tech in Silicon Valley. I read it twice. “The coronavirus is coming to you,” wrote Pueyo. “It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly . . . When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed. Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways. Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die. They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies. The only way to prevent this is social distancing today.”
Pueyo’s essay, which swiftly notched up 40 million views and his follow-up, “The Hammer and The Dance”, which correctly predicted a vaccine within months, foretold what was coming. And I encountered both, thanks to my addiction to Twitter. With Elon Musk seemingly about to buy the social-media platform for $44bn, let me say something unpopular: Twitter is the best global information and ideas exchange ever. It’s also very funny.
It gets a terrible press. Even “the platform’s most prolific users often refer to it as ‘this hellsite’”, notes Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times. That’s fair enough. Twitter is swarming with bots, disinformation and fake accounts (Mitt Romney used to tweet under the pseudonym “Pierre Delecto”). Worst, as Donald Trump himself told the FT while he was president: “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here . . . I don’t have to go to the fake media.”
But as the author Sarah Jackson argues, technologies aren’t inherently good or evil. They are just tools. To condemn Twitter because of trolls is like condemning the printing press because of Mein Kampf. The trick is to filter out the rubbish.
When a stupid person, troll or Kanye West pops up on my feed, I just mute them. Pow! It’s cathartic, like popping a pimple. (I now receive much less abuse on Twitter than from FT commenters.) Twitter has also got better at weeding out trolls and bots: the history of technology is that the invention arrives unregulated and is slowly tamed. Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist”, may set things back by rehabilitating trolls, including Trump but, even then, ideas exchange would continue on the best bits of the site.
My policy on Twitter is to follow beautiful minds, specialists or both. Whereas Facebook and Instagram confront you with horrifying images of your friends’ perfect kids and perfect breakfasts, Twitter has zones of substance. I’m very 2015 in my faith in experts, and I want climate scientists, trade specialists et al to explain the world to me. Recently, a friend tweeted a fascinating, optimistic essay by the historian Timothy Snyder titled, “How does the Russo-Ukrainian war end”, while someone else riposted with erudite gloom from the scholar Tatiana Stanovaya.
Even a one-line tweet can contain a better idea than a 600-page book. If Socrates returned to earth, I like to think he’d start dialoguing on Twitter, probably in English for global reach:
@Socrates: With what is rhetoric concerned?
@Gorgias: With discourse.
@Socrates: What sort of discourse, @Gorgias — such discourse as would teach the sick under what treatment they might get well?
Today, beautiful minds around the world, from Harry Potter’s creator @jk_rowling to a local librarian, could join the dialogue. Twitter opens silos. And though it’s only about a sixth the size of Facebook, what happens on Twitter percolates beyond Twitter, partly because journalists are listening.
Twitter hasn’t achieved equality. A large majority of users are male and generally from rich countries. But Twitter is surely the most equal version to date of what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas dubbed “the public sphere”. Ordinary people’s tweets helped fuel #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and now the Iranian uprising. Meanwhile, we’re living through the first war in history in which lowly participants tweet videos. Watching Russian soldiers surrender to Ukrainians felt like seeing live footage from the first world war.
Twitter has helped improve language. The 140-character tweet is a literary form, like the haiku, and it trains experts to speak human. There’s also the nascent art of Twitter montages: combining words with the perfect image. Then there are the running gags, like the ritual retweeting of @David_Cameron’s message from just before the UK’s 2015 election: “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice — stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.” No wonder Musk craves this financially disappointing platform. After all, Jeff Bezos only has a newspaper.
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