It's Good to Just Be Honest About What You Care About
like everyone, I'm invested in things I find to be a little uncool
I really wasn’t built for this era, where the highest honor you can bestow on someone is to say that they don’t care and the most devastating rejoinder “you mad, bro?” I’ve been asked that question dozens of times, online, and have usually not bothered to respond; nobody needed to be told that the answer was always yes. I’ve always cared too much about everything. I know that likely sounds self-aggrandizing, to some degree, but I think most people who are familiar with my history know that it’s a lament rather than a brag. I have issues related to properly feeling and expressing emotion, relating to my medications, but caring, in the explicit sense, is not a problem. On the one hand, this has frequently left me disarmed in those online spaces where irony and detachment are the currency of the realm, which is most online spaces; on the other hand, it’s permitted me to avoid having to engage in who-cares-the-least theatrics, as no one would ever believe that it was me, so why bother? Regardless, I always could be gotten to, and though my life and the internet have changed sufficiently that I’m hardly ever in that position anymore, I still can be gotten to. Oh well.
I care very much what people think about my writing, though I’d much rather I didn’t, and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for reactions to it. I’m very careful not to let those opinions influence what I believe or write, but I can tell you that it does ultimately play a role in what I write about. More than I would care to admit. And honestly this has very little to do with commerce and everything to do with wanting people to absorb and be in some sense moved by what I produce. Oftentimes this desire can be satisfied by provoking people rather than by pleasing them, but it’s pretty basic psychology that these are ultimately the same impulse. I’ve never really been one to care about being liked in a personal sense, but I want my work to inspire feelings, and I suppose that this is part of why I write so much - the desire for a part of myself to live apart from myself, so that other people can comprehend it separately from the comprehension of me. All of this is quite embarrassing to me.
This whole Twitter verification froufarou is a really rich tapestry, to me, in that it’s forcing a lot of people who base their self-performance on their disdain for feeling and personal investment to show their cards a little bit. A curious aspect of Twitter culture is that its most dedicated users have always tended to be the most dismissive of its importance. This was baked into the social contract of the site, at least for those who were ostensibly there for primarily professional purposes. Twitter was something you were supposed to be in but not of, something you participated in while letting everyone know you were in some sense above.
In part this was a specific acknowledgment of the site’s very real downsides. I’ve already written too much about the corruption inherent to the model - the perverse incentives created by cramming entire professions into the same room together and giving them tools to bestow their blessing on some of their peers and not on others. This basic setup is a machine for provoking conformity. And the experience of using Twitter has often been described as inherently unpleasant. (Hence the “hellsite” nickname.)
But I suspect that a bigger part of the ethos of not caring about Twitter, on Twitter, was simply the odd 20th and 21st-century social dynamics that made not caring about anything an essential part of cultural elite performance. Twitter was a place where you signaled your values to others, one way or another; a key signaling mechanism among the college-educated aspirational class is pantomiming indifference to everything. Late 20th-century culture saw high-status people becoming attached to detachment. The strange developments of early 21st-century technology ensured that they could only properly convey this detachment to others by habitually making use of a service that they felt honor bound to dismiss as an irrelevance.
This status of professionally and socially relying on a service that you were simultaneously bound to treat as irrelevant to you would come to dictate discussion of Twitter culture and its effects. Whenever I would write a piece suggesting that media and journalism were being distorted by the perverse influence of Twitter, the response from people in media and journalism was rarely to question whether my specific analysis was right or wrong. The response was almost always some version of “imagine caring about Twitter.” This was the site’s immune system, its forcefield; arguments about the widespread addiction to the service among the chattering class could be dismissed simply through the shrugging, evidence-free assertion that no one cared about it. The trouble with this claim was that it was always easy to demonstrate that many influential people in media literally tweeted morning, noon, and night, which led to the obvious question - if you care so little about Twitter, why does it consume so much of your time and attention? To pick a name more or less at random, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has tweeted north of 160,000 times in 16 years, which averages out to somewhere in the ballpark of 27 times a day. This is not particularly unusual for people in his class, especially considering that many journalists have deleted all their tweets at one point or another.
In any event, the posturing that suggests that people don’t care at all about Twitter becomes untenable as they drift towards a decade and a half on the service. But if and when they drop that pretense, we should be allowed to speak frankly about the effect of that investment on media. I feel and have always felt that the healthier thing to do would be to say “as the sheer volume of my tweets suggests, I enjoy Twitter as a service despite its faults, and I think concerns about its influence on my industry and its professional relationships are overblown.” That would have been internally consistent, in line with the behavioral evidence, and perfectly fine. (I’ve never doubted the obvious sense in which Twitter is appealing, that great feeling of showing up to a party and saying “wow, everybody’s here!”) The trouble is that, as we all eventually learn, anything you admit to yourself you care about is something that can someday hurt you.
Now, some say, Twitter is dying. The proximate cause of this perception is obviously the stewardship of Elon Musk, who’s stumbling around exactly like you’d expect from a man who paid $40 billion
for a listless and unfashionable company to own the libs. But I’ve also been told by a lot of people on the service that the vitality and centrality of Twitter had been slowly bleeding out for some time before Musk’s acquisition. Perhaps it was just the passage of time. Either way, with verification gone a clear sorting mechanism has gone with it, and the status hierarchies that often motivated the site’s basic behaviors have grown a little more muddled. As many are pointing out, now that you can pay to get that once-coveted blue verification badge (and to an entity owned by Musk no less) the badge has begun to signify pretty much the opposite of what it once did. This is a kind of entertaining chaos where the stakes could hardly be lower. But it also reveals the same basic, fundamentally screwy dynamic as with Twitter as a whole. I suspect that a lot of the site’s verified users really did care about that status, even as they would loudly profess that it meant nothing at all to them. Because as human beings we tend to care about status markers even as we openly disdain them. But! Even if not a single verified user ever cared about that status, it was still a dumb, needlessly provoking system.
I thought this was pretty funny from Derek Thompson.
Derek’s a very thoughtful guy, but he seems to have missed a basic issue here: the fact that he thinks the blue check system “filters out the crazies” amounts to an endorsement of the very status claims he says nobody cares about. Saying “this tier is for the crazies, but this tier is for the ones who want to filter out the crazies” is as bald of a status game as I can imagine. Most human beings on the tier reserved for the crazies are going to feel a little resentful of that status. Nor does treating the amplification part of verification as some irrelevant detail make much sense, on a network where the only point is to get your message out there. This has been the funny part about this entire debate; journos and writers keep inadvertently demonstrating precisely the thinking that generated the “elitist blue check” narrative in the first place. Of course, when you designate some people the elect and leave everyone behind to scrabble around like the downtrodden in a Dickens novel, especially when based on a fickle “notability” standard, you’re going to get a surge of destructive resentment. What did leadership at Twitter think was going to happen?
This story is a classic example of people attempting to force rational motives and logic onto what are inherently irrational feelings. Few elements of the human parade are less rational than our status anxieties. Think of high school. I’ve said many times that high school is nothing like the horror show it’s portrayed to be in popular culture, but certainly there are popularity hierarchies. Some people are generally perceived to have higher status than others, and most people caught up in that system care about it even though the ones on the bottom tend to outwardly claim not to. It’s a sad fact of human life that we are not in control of our own feelings towards perceptions of our value, often even including those of strangers we have no reason to care about. These are primal feelings, the type that come from somewhere deep in our animal brains, and I suspect they’re the product of evolutionary forces from when we roamed the plains in small bands when one could not possibly ignore the esteem they were held in by peers. If I went out to a bar and walked around and told complete strangers that most of them were JV and a few of them were varsity, many among them would feel some strange sense of hurt feelings even though that makes no rational sense. Nobody wants to be told that they’re below other people; that’s the foundation of movement conservatism’s playbook.
I think a lot of journalists, writers, pundits, academics, creators, etc, people who are/were Twitter power users with tens of thousands of followers and were once verified - I think that, in general, they very much do care about Twitter. Which is fine. I’m sure there are exceptions, but that’s my impression. And among those who were emotionally invested in Twitter who were verified, I think many of them have been emotionally invested in their verified status as well. It’s not a conscious choice but a product of operant conditioning. It’s also an uncomfortable position to be in; even aside from the social diktat not to care about anything, caring about verification cuts directly against the egalitarian mores of so many who use the service. But as with so many other things, it’s better to be honest about conflicted feelings than to cover them up. You can admit that you got caught up in the feeling of exclusivity verification brought you while recognizing the uglier elements of that system. For the record, I think on any open social network the verification process should be available to anyone willing to provide their real names and documentary evidence that they are who they say they are. That’s expensive, so it would be entirely appropriate for people to pay a one-time fee upfront - I don’t know, $200? That preserves the stated purpose of verification while eliminating the untoward status hierarchy.
Or if you want to be part of a tiered system, start a new app that’s explicitly not open to everyone. Start Raya but for Twitter. Make it explicitly a social network for professional journalists, media types, and similar, and make it clear that not everyone can join. Let other people start accounts just to have a feed and bookmark things they like, but don’t let them participate in the process. I promise it would be healthier than superficial egalitarianism but implicit hierarchy.
We might also consider breaking up with the notion that detachment is cool and not caring sexy. Those feelings are the product of broad and diffuse cultural forces, so none of us can just choose to turn them off. But I’d love it if we headed in that direction. Like a wise man said, disdain for feeling is the shackles of youth. Unfortunately, I’m a man who consciously disdains the rejection of caring and feeling, but who (against that conscious will) secretly wishes to be a cool guy who doesn’t care about anything, but who also could never achieve that kind of cool anyway. It’s exhausting, being a person.