#49: Twitter and public influence
How Twitter can be used as a resourceful tool
Shit. Writing long form essays and publishing every day is hard.
But, I have noticed significantly less anxiety about writing and publishing. I think a viable hypothesis for why I have less anxiety is that I have built-up my salience muscle. After over a year of writing this newsletter and making progress on a book, I have a better intuition for how to arrange the soupy thoughts that float around in my mind. I have also given myself permission to focus on my writing as my one thing.
Writing has become a form of meditation.
I put on some music. I set a a timer for 25 minutes. I start working on a draft. I take a 5 minute break every 25 minutes. Rinse and repeat until I feel satisfied with my work. I end the writing session by making a mental note of my meaningful accomplishment.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, onwards to what I really want to write about.
Full disclosure: I want to build public influence, and Twitter is the de facto way to do that in 2022.
To be honest, I feel weird and a little slimy admitting to this because Twitter, and social media, more broadly, has a really bad narrative in our society. And for good reasons.
The paper is about how Twitter gamifies communication. C. Thi Nguyen takes a negative, critical stance on Twitter.
Broadly, I agree with his views.
His thesis is best summed up with these two passages:
Gamification homogenizes the value landscape.
And this phenomenon will help explain some of the more socially toxic aspects of Twitter. The technology invites us to focus our cares on the narrow task of getting points and going viral. And that goal is in tension with our interest in having morally sensitive and openhearted communication.
Pre-gamification, the aims of discourse are complex and many. Some of us want to transmit information or to persuade; some of us want friendship. Some of us want to join together in the pursuit of truth and understanding. Twitter gamifies discourse and, in so doing, offers us re-engineered goals for our communicative acts. Twitter invites us to shift our values along its pre-fabricated lines. We start to chase higher Likes and Retweets and Follower counts — and those are very different targets.
Throughout the paper, C. Thi Nguyen points out that Twitter satisfies our hedonistic desires to attain popularity. I interpret that to mean that Twitter taps into our high-school selves, the teenagers who direly want to conform, fit-in, and be one of the cool kids - at the expense of our true-selves.
We see people straying away from their true selves on Twitter, all the time. People who tweet and retweet with the intention of getting a bunch of likes and maybe even going viral. But to go viral you have to post morally outrageous Tweets to stir people up, or you have to post tweets that are aligned exactly with the values and beliefs of your echo chamber, which, of course, only deepens the roots of your echo chamber.
The problem, as C. Thi Nguyen, wisely points out is that Twitter’s goals as a tech company is to create a reliable scoring mechanism for communication that will function automatically. It accomplishes this in the best, technological way that it can: by quantifying likes and retweets.
And in a large-scale, technologized context like Twitter, that scoring mechanism needs to function automatically. Twitter can’t offer a score based on quality of engagement, empathy, or depth of thought.
This is, broadly speaking, good reason to worry: Twitter’s goals as a technology company are misaligned with society’s goals to use communication as a truth pursuing mechanism, or as a way to build empathy, or as a way to have earnest discourse.
So then why on earth do I still want to use Twitter to build public influence?
Well, there’s a kicker in Nguyen’s paper.
Nguyen differentiates between two types of users on Twitter: value-captured users and value-independent users.
First, what is value-capture?
Nguyen writes that value capture occurs when:
Our natural values are rich, subtle, and hard-to-express.
We are placed in a social or institutional setting which presents simplified, typically quantified, versions of our values back to ourselves.
The simplified versions take over in our motivation and deliberation.
Here are some examples that he provides:
starting to exercise for the sake of your health, then getting captured by FitBit and coming to just care about your daily step-counts.
Going to school for the sake of a good education and coming out obsessed with your GPA.
Becoming a pre-law for the sake of public interest and legal activism, and then coming to care more about getting admitted to the best law school according the US News & World Report’s law school rankings.
And, of course, going onto Twitter for the sake of communication, connection, and shared understanding — and coming out obsessed with maximizing Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts.
You may be thinking, what’s wrong with value-capture? Here’s how Nguyen explains it:
And, obviously, a high step-count isn’t the same as good health; a high GPA isn’t the same as a good education; and high Twitter Likes aren’t the same as connection or collective understanding.
But gamification tempts us to change our goals — to aim at expressions which maximize our score, rather than those which aid our collective understanding. And it promises to reward us for that change with pleasure. Twitter tempts us to subvert the activity of earnest conversation for hedonistic reasons.
You’ve probably figured out by now that a value-captured user is someone who plays Twitter’s game for hedonistic reasons (likes, follows, retweets). Arguably, the majority of people on Twitter are value-captured users.
Now, what about value-independent users?
Value-independent users, according to Nguyen, are users who:
treat the scores of Twitter as simple reports of some instrumental resource, useful for the pursuit of further ends. They treat Twitter’s numbers, not as setting a goal, but merely as useful data. They have avoided gamification.
Suppose one wanted public influence.
A resource for public influence is having a Twitter account with a wide number of followers — and tweets which are heavily retweeted will reach a large number of people. So one could aim for high scores simply as an approximate measure of that instrumental resource. Such a value-independent user wouldn’t have any form of change of value or goals, either short-term, or longterm. They also wouldn’t be subject to the motivational boosts that arise from more fully inhabiting the scores of Twitter. They would be holding those scores at phenomenal arm’s length. Such a user, then, would be free of the more pernicious effects of value capture and game-playing. They have resisted Twitter’s invitation to gamification.
I like to think of myself as a value-independent user - someone who uses follows and retweets as an instrumental resource, a measuring stick for the impact of my thoughts and ideas. Thoughts and ideas that are my own and not shaped by Twitter’s popularity contests.
But I also recognize that Nguyen is describing an idealized user. Of course I will be impacted by likes, retweets, and follows. I am a human being, after all. And of course my thoughts will be shaped by Twitter’s 270 word character limit and by the comments on my tweets - comments by people who may be value-capture users, or some other type of user who meanders on Twitter.
I really have no idea what will happen. I recognize that I am taking a risk by spending more time on Twitter, but I hope that with increased awareness, and regular re-calibration to my goals, I will smooth my journey.
Twitter is an experiment for me, part of a series of small experiments that I am running in my life.
Take care and be well. As always, I am sending you lots of love and self-care.