So I can’t stop thinking about the thirty-something minutes of interview that didn’t make it onto this week’s podcast.
Don’t get me wrong: I am hella relieved that our podcasts for Writing and Editing for Digital Media only needed to be three minutes long. This, uh, ~magical~ time at the end of term when every assignment is due in the same twenty-four hour period is already intense enough, thanks very.
But Mark said a lot of thought-provoking things, and I think that one of them might connect with my long-standing antipathy for Twitter. He said that The Discourse(TM) in social media happens in three spaces:
- a large bubble in which politically left-leaning people communicate with politically left-leaning people;
- a large bubble in which politically right-leaning people communicate with politically right-leaning people;
- a small and murky area between the two bubbles that Mark calls ‘the troll zone’.
Hearing him explain online interactions in these terms helped something click for me: I experience Twitter as a left-leaning echo chamber punctuated by trollish #shotsfired.
I don’t enjoy that experience. I haven’t figured out how to have a better one.
MARK DAVIS: All the various forms of political activism and politics which, ah, those people who consider themselves to be progressives and who believe that the world operates a certain way, ah, live in complete naïveté about this entire vast alternative public sphere of conservative media.
JUDE ELLISON: And is this how we ended up with Trump?
MD: In part, yes.
As part of his research, Mark reads posts from all three zones of social media discourse.
Most people don’t. We like our echo chambers, I guess.
Tiny problem: echo chambers make for huge consequences.
MD: I went on the record in… before the election, well before the election, and said to all my Facebook friends, you know, ‘Trump’s going to win.’ And they said, ‘Impossible, impossible, impossible.’ I said, ‘No, Trump’s going to win.’
JE: What a terrible thing to be right about.
MD: Ah, well, yeah, yeah, but… the reason why I believed that is because I’d been reading comments threads on Breitbart, and I’d been reading them for months. And what struck me about it was that even as Hillary Clinton was chastising ‘deplorables’, um, I knew that actually the people on those comment threads weren’t the ‘deplorables’ that she was talking about. They were Middle America, and they were as angry as hell.
Remember that ‘We versus They’ rhetoric Mark talked about on the podcast? The one whose divisive framing now tinges nearly every issue and whose prevalence he called ‘the tragedy of the twenty-first century’?
Let’s see: Middle America versus Washington elites. Trump versus Clinton. ‘Deplorables’ versus Democrats.
‘We versus They’ rhetoric, indeed.
This rhetoric is also all over Twitter, and so are the trolls. The usual fedora’d suspects are in evidence, sure, but #notalltrolls wear fedoras. In fact, high-visibility performance trolling is now so normalised that the President of the United States can tweet something asinine, JK Rowling can clap back about it, and Stephen King can RT her, and that’s… business as usual.
Who are these performances meant to help?
What are they meant to change?
Lest I come across as above all that nonsense, I’ll confess that I did troll @ the President, an act that appears–surprise!–to have accomplished nothing.
I follow Stephen King, and I enjoy it when he trolls the POTUS. I am–and we who are in our various ways vulnerable to the POTUS’ prejudices and caprices are–powerless enough already. It’s hard not to cheer when someone with an audience punches up.
I don’t follow anyone in the right-leaning echo chamber. In what feels uncomfortably like and probably therefore is an act of ‘look, I can read outside of my bubble!’ tokenism, I follow and subscribe to The Economist, which is about as right-of-center a publication as I am willing to tolerate on my timeline, which says more about me than it does The Economist.
And so I become part of the problem.
Is there a solution?