Back in 2010, I had a tedious but pleasant at-home gig as a creator of corporate blog copy. Let’s say it was for a company that sold chocolate syrup. For this purpose, I had an account on Twitter, in whose placid blue screen I spent several hours a day, cutting-and-pasting bit.ly links into the platform’s compose box and then releasing them into the thicket. It was a repetitive process with seemingly low returns: suspended by retweets, or RTs, each post made its way two, maybe three times around my network, hoisting pageviews all the while, before abruptly dying on the internet floor. But if I did it several times, the traffic added up.
“New blog post!!”, I’d type before the link—we all did. For I toiled among my ilk: all my followers and the feeds I followed were corporations like mine. Behind each tiny logo, I surmised, there was a marketing person like me, sitting at her laptop, trying to drive traffic to her employer’s webpage. I imagined many of these people were other writers who wanted to be publishing essays or short stories, which led to a kind of sad but reliable camaraderie. In addition to faking enthusiasm for our own press releases or SEO-heavy blog posts, we promoted each other (“love yr post on choc sundaes!!”). I followed them and they followed me. I RTed their stuff and they RTed mine. The fact that our endorsements were empty—that we had no real love for things like “New Ideas for Chocolate Syrup” or “Top 5 Syrups (You’ll Never Guess #1!!)”—was beside the point. We had a greater goal: creating brand identity for our clients. For this, we would be rewarded rent money; another precious month out from behind the coffee counters.
Coming back to Twitter last summer as a writer with actual publications, I felt like a maid returning to the mansion as a party guest. Networking with writers on Twitter, I imagined, would be nothing like marketing on Twitter; instead, it would be like a literary salon: a window into the reading patterns of the smartest people in the industry, and a catalyst to further discussion. Even gratuitous self-plugs, I thought, would lead to fruitful exchanges on one another’s work. Armed with links to my pieces and a built-in following of eleven friends and two bots (automated tweeters that seemed to pop up around every new user), I logged into my new account, excited to enter the fray.
Across my screen’s scrolling expanse, I watched as the editors at the publications where my pieces appeared tweeted links to my articles; then I watched these links sink out of sight. I tweeted the links myself, but no one retweeted them (not surprising given my eleven followers). Then, amazingly, one of them caught on. A few people outside of my network started tweeting my article, and then, for a good half-week, it seemed like the link was everywhere. All the while, I watched, at first ecstatic, then pleasantly proud, then with a dazed curiosity that I couldn’t really parse. I had what I had always wanted. My writing was being recommended by people whose work I admired. I was now, in social media parlance, “part of the discussion.” So why did I feel like I was still blogging about syrup?
A couple of weeks before I rejoined Twitter, an article appeared in Slate about how literary culture was at risk in a 2.0 environment better suited to groupthinky “niceness” than thought-out critique. It’s a fair point, and to be sure, the bulk of comments that appeared in tweets about my piece were complimentary. But seeing these lines, I didn’t feel coddled. While a fair number of people also contacted me to tell me I was garbage, neither did I feel besieged by trolls (the free rein given to digital bullies being the other main argument for the great decline of discourse online). What I did feel, however, was superfluous. My thoughts had entered into the great e-marketplace of ideas, but the collective response seemed to boil down to “here.”
“Here.” That’s the closest translation I can think of for “RT,” which was by far the most common response on Twitter. More specifically, the average tweet about my piece looked like this: RT @bloopdibloop Name-Of-The-Thing-I-Wrote.
When we RT, are we really sharing? Or are we showing our followers that we’re in on the trendy discussion—defining ourselves by association?
Obviously this is nothing new. In Gatsby’s mansion stands a shelf of books with uncut spines. You talk about Velvet Underground with your friends and download Carly Rae Jepsen at home. That culture is consumed conspicuously, as a way of saying “hey, here’s who I am,” doesn’t make it any less valuable. I’ve heard a lot of people describe Twitter this way, as a kind of cocktail party full of bloated self-talk. But something was different about pseudo-discussion on Twitter: this was conspicuous consumption sans actual consumption. Within hours of joining the platform, I saw something wonderful: dozens of people trading links to articles that I’m certain would otherwise not be read at all. On the other hand, I was skeptical about how many people were reading them now. One person in my feed seemed to be recommending twenty pieces an hour. Several times, I caught myself posting links to things I’d only skimmed, or RTing a popular tweet about something I didn’t care much about at all. There were hundreds if not thousands of tweets on my piece before it gained four comments on its home website. By the time this happened, my followers numbered fifty. Some of the new ones were bots.
If tweets are the pennies of discourse, they are the gold standard of publicity: the #1 must-do for aspiring anythings in the digital age. It struck me as not a coincidence that many of the most active tweeters in my network were—like me—unknown or underpublished writers, critics, and media folks. We’re all scrambling for assignments, and we know exactly what getting one entails. Pre-internet, publishers could only gauge a writer’s popularity retroactively, through things like sales figures, letters, and reviews. Now, thanks to the real-time feedback of social media, they don’t need to take a gamble on the next popular voice. They just have to scan the hashtags .
As a platform for publicity and building a writer’s brand identity, Twitter is brilliantly effective (see: “Shit My Dad Says” as book and then TV show). As a catalyst for discussion, especially literary discussion, it’s rickety. Engaging another writer on Twitter is an awkward, drawn-out process, requiring a mutual follow between both parties, then a Direct Message request for contact info, after which you can finally chat on email or phone. As my piece caught on, I had several of these email and phone conversations, and each of them was suffused with a sense of relief. (“Finally, I can tell you all these things I couldn’t express over there!”). I also noticed that the real debate on my article—blog posts, comments, etc—only emerged once the Twitter buzz had all but died out. Were the people writing blog posts or leaving comments different from the ones who were tweeting? Or was it only possible to start really thinking about the piece once they’d stepped out of the Twitter brouhaha? Either way, I thought, the spirit of Twitter—fast, bitty, popularity-obsessed—seemed at odds with good discussion, a practice that requires introspection, research, and original thought.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy for every tweet, retweet, line of feedback, and shout-out I’ve gotten in large part because I was lucky enough to be publishing in the age of Twitter. Even the tweets that just said “here”; even the messages that called me garbage. It’s a hell of a lot more than I anticipated. But as excellent as Twitter is at getting writers this all-important visibility, I worry about how the emphasis on attention has complicated discussion. I don’t know how I feel about a platform that reduces creative people to talking about themselves in the bland marketing language of “brand identity” or “going viral” or “buzz.” I worry about the 140-character formula that makes it impossible to say more about a Pulitzer-winning book than about a gif of a dog eating soup with a spoon. And I’m concerned that when we aim to discuss articles and books on Twitter, what we’re really doing is advertising for Twitter itself, for a world in which direct marketing is passed off as dialogue, and dialogue is just the aftermath of attention.
I wondered, all the while watching whatever presence I had online die down. Now, no one’s talking about me at all on Twitter, and I’m starting to find the place almost comfy. In the quiet that appears once your name recedes, I’ve found a lot of smart people on Twitter who push the limits of the software to create things that are smart, productive, and totally new. They tweet novels in 140-character installments (@thefrenchrev); they mash up philosophers’ bon mots with the bon bon lyrics of pop stars (@Justin_Buber). I can even follow upsetting news stories via adorable cat (@TopConservativeCat). Mostly, though, I like to sit back and watch my feed. Post-buzz, I’ve lost a few followers, but I still have my friends (and my bots). I’ve also gained new, different followers, including a local sex worker who seems to use Twitter exclusively to solicit clients.
I clicked on her bio. “Fllw me/fllw u!! <3” it read. I wondered if she was tweeting at other prostitutes in the way I had tweeted at other marketers and writers; I wondered if she ever felt superfluous or bored. In the end, I decided to add her to my network too. I thought she might enjoy seeing me there on her feed: a sign she had tweeted beyond herself. Reached someone. Had—for better or worse—buzz.