Thursday, November 3, 2022

THE TWITTER PAGE: TWITTER: A Biography, love-letter to bygone days & TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, what we're losing even now

TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

Yale University Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.54 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From New York Times opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci, a firsthand account and incisive analysis of the role of social media in modern protest

To understand a thwarted Turkish coup, an anti–Wall Street encampment, and a packed Tahrir Square, we must first comprehend the power and the weaknesses of using new technologies to mobilize large numbers of people. An incisive observer, writer, and participant in today’s social movements, Zeynep Tufekci explains in this accessible and compelling book the nuanced trajectories of modern protests—how they form, how they operate differently from past protests, and why they have difficulty persisting in their long-term quests for change.

Tufekci speaks from direct experience, combining on-the-ground interviews with insightful analysis. She describes how the internet helped the Zapatista uprisings in Mexico, the necessity of remote Twitter users to organize medical supplies during Arab Spring, the refusal to use bullhorns in the Occupy Movement that started in New York, and the empowering effect of tear gas in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. These details from life inside social movements complete a moving investigation of authority, technology, and culture—and offer essential insights into the future of governance.


My Review
: What with Musky Twitter becoming a real thing and then "reassuring" advertisers that "Twitter cannot become a free-for-all hellscape" while then saying that "Fundamentally, Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise," all of which pretty much add up to something just like a hellscape to me, minus the "free" part.

What went right about this read for me as a reader was its blend of "I-was-there" anecdotal reports and a sociologist's academic assessment of what leads the riled-up masses to fail in achieving their aim. As they are not conflated, as in attributing to her eyewitness statements the weight and force of academic analysis, I found them mutually enriching to my read. I was equally convinced that the author was, in openly acknowledging her left-leaning bias and explaining why it informed her analysis, transparent in reaching her conclusions.

Since the advent of social media in the Aughties, we've undergone a startling tectonic shift in the public conversation about politics and current events. Loud voices (eg Alex Jones) predominate; their usually right-wing extremism (save the both-sides and what-about crap, it's more effort than I care to spend to debunk their fundamental wrongness politely) echoes and echoes while picking up force without ever gaining any meaning or truth. Alex Jones's lies about Sandy Hook are going to cost him nearly a billion bucks which he doesn't have, and is proof that Author Tufekci's central thesis is correct: Attention is the main currency of social-media movements, not information which was at the heart of previous propaganda drives. If Jones's grip on the attention of millions hadn't been so finely tuned and thus successful, the bogus information he was peddling would've vanished in its own ripples. Revolutionaries using social media to spread their word have succeeded insofar as they've grabbed attention and even inspired action based on it...but have failed to make consolidatable gains in opposition to their enemies because that step requires information to reach people ill-equipped to comprehend or act on it.

This last fact, evidenced by the failures of many current social-media-driven movements, are failures to create systems and get buy-in from the protestors. There are no "network internalities," a term I learned from reading the book that's basically the opposite of the well-known term "network externalities", derived from the easy and showy online "organizing" that barely outlasts the social media post. In olden days, when organizing was a rough and effortful slog of meeting after meeting after committee upon speech-giving bloviation, the fact that 500 people showed up to a protest said something very loud about how this message they organized around resonated with them. Now that the message is reduced to an attention-grabbing snippet to get your engagement to it in place of simply doomscrolling on, there's very little investment on the consumer's part.

Another signal failure on the reliance of protests on social media is the interruptibility of attention-based engagement as opposed to information-based buy-in. The model she uses for this is the Tea online scattering of loudly outraged racist scum (my term, not the author's) whose "movement" (in the same sense as "bowel" in my never-humble opinion) transcended the attention-based group's ephemerality by embracing older techniques of protest: accepting hierarchical thinking, coalescing their ideas into clearly stated goals, etc. They've been stunningly successful in fomenting their ignorant, evil, putrid "ideas" and getting mainstream buy-in for them. More's the pity. The strength they rely on for their success is pounding away at the attention-grabbing "messaging" while accepting the behind-the-scenes scaffolding of disciplined application of information-based knowledge.

It's a model for success against the effective countering of the attention-grabbing social media rebellion: Drown the attention out in a flood of irrelevant, often false, and designed to distract "information." It is a very effective technique, as current political tragedies have shown again and again. Records, as in "lists of factual things," are judged fake insofar as they disagree with the hearer's agenda, and thus require time and effort to deny, explain, or simply distract from in return. That's time not spent doing the real job. And that is he entire plan for success of the right-wing nightmare machine.

Academics aren't going to like this abbreviated treatment of the topics the author covers, or appreciate the absence in-book of notes and a bibliography. Lay readers aren't going to be thrilled that the author doesn't spoon-feed them conclusions that agree with their established prejudices. But if you invest in the author's central thesis, the revolution that can be televised is doomed to co-opting and failure, there is a lot to be learned from discovering why and why you should care. That's the point of the book. It makes its point very well indeed. And, as #Midterms2022 approach, it behooves us all as voters to learn what our manipulators want us *not* to see, to attend to.


TWITTER: A Biography

NYU Press
$13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The sometimes surprising, often humorous story of the forces that came together to shape the central role Twitter now plays in contemporary politics and culture

Is Twitter a place for sociability and conversation, a platform for public broadcasting, or a network for discussion? Digital platforms have become influential in every sphere of communication, from the intimate and everyday to the public, professional, and political. Since the scrappy startup days of social media in the mid-2000s, not only has the worldwide importance of platforms grown exponentially, but also their cultures have shifted dramatically, in a variety of directions. These changes have brought new opportunities for progressive communities to thrive online, as well as widespread problems with commercial exploitation, disinformation, and hate speech.

Twitter's growth over the past decade, like that of much social media, has far surpassed its creators' vision. Twitter charts this trajectory in the format of a platform biography: a new, streamlined approach to understanding how platforms change over time. Through the often surprising, fast-moving story of Twitter, it illuminates the multiple forces—from politics and business to digital ideologies—that came together to shape the evolution of this revolutionary platform. Jean Burgess and Nancy K. Baym build a rich narrative of how Twitter has evolved as a technology, a company, and a culture, from its origins as a personal messaging service to its transformation into one of the most globally influential social media platforms, where history and culture is not only recorded but written in real time.


My Review
: The hashtag. The @. RTs and subtweets and "blue" (actually white) checkmarks. All of the detritus, or furnishings if one is feeling charitable, of social media are Twitter-invented or -popularized. It's a simple, basic idea, Twitter: Let people bloviate for a limited space (pictures added sometime in the 10s) about anything they want and let them find each other, build communities (and form lynch mobs), coordinate revolutions, all via the hashtag. TikTok was called Vine, and introduced by Twitter before their idiot management shuttered it. I got my Twitter account in 2007. Reading a tweet of mine is most likely why you're reading this review.

Now #MuskyTwitter is trending and this very concise book, only two-and-a-half years old, needs a second edition.

What I enjoyed most about the authors' treatment of the history of Twitter is that they were as focused as a good tweet-thread. They didn't succumb to bashing or whitewashing Twitter's many quirks. Aesthetically Twitter's changed itself, and the social-media world, the most. It's not like it's a design-heavy UI, right?


Twitter's look, and its effect on your engagement, is carefully calculated. It's part of a subtle message...stay, look, seek and find...that messages a deep sense of satisfaction with the activity itself, the results really are secondary to Twitter. So why is Twitter so awful at generating money from advertising? Ask Elon, he seems to know...but seriously, Twitter's main issue has always been about defining itself, when the authors contend (and I agree) that the three features in the first line of my review actually made Twitter a mutiple personality. There's a way to use each of those features to reinforce one's group identity...BookTwitter, HorrorTwitter, BlackTwitter...and thus make a broad-based ad-watching public pretty elusive. Creating ads for small, not-very-numerous communities isn't usually cost effective.

And here's Elon, steppin' into the buzz-saw. Heh.

What these Australian academics set out to do was set a protocol for biographizing (my ugly word, not theirs) technology. Take it innovation by innovation, look at the drivers of the innovations and the results from their adoption and/or morphing uses. They'll lead to larger conclusions about the platform, its users, and the social-media-verse we and they all exist within.

My idea of a well-presented technology book. Not too long, not loaded with tedious jargon, and not so basic as to cause me to wish it was just an owner's manual not an actual book. I liked the read, I liked the methods the authors used, and I enjoyed myself all the way through. (Except the endnotes, I didn't read those.)

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