Bumper-Stickers And Tweets

I have previously noted that I consider Ezra Klein one of the most thoughtful and insightful observers of American government and society.  A recent essay for the New York Times, reminded me why I came to that conclusion.

Klein–like many others in the Chattering Classes–was considering the chaos created at Twitter  by Elon Musk (aka the “Chief Twit”). He began by pointing out that the handwringing over losing a “town square” is misdirected, because Twitter and its ilk are not analogous to town squares. Permit me to quote his reasoning at some length:

This metaphor is wrong on three levels.

First, there isn’t, can’t be and shouldn’t be a “global town square.” The world needs many town squares, not one. Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. This is true, too, for Twitter, which is less a singular entity than a digital multiverse. What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.

Second, town squares are public spaces, governed in some way by the public. That is what makes them a town square rather than a square in a town. They are not the playthings of whimsical billionaires. They do not exist, as Twitter did for so long, to provide returns to shareholders. (And as wild as Musk’s reign has already been, remember that he tried to back out of this deal, and Twitter’s leadership, knowing he neither wanted the service nor would treat it or its employees with care, forced it through to ensure that executives and shareholders got their payout.) A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.

Third, what matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.

Klein references the lofty goals that accompanied the creation of these social media platforms. They were going to enable democratic deliberation, allow people to connect across barriers of ethnicity, geography, religion. As he points out, the predicted improvements haven’t arrived–democracies are weaker, not stronger, Humans are no wiser, no kinder, no happier.

The reason, he says, that so few aspects of our common lives have gotten better– and so many have arguably gotten worse–is the role played by these platforms in diminishing “our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.”

In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted.

He compares this reduction in collective attention to “the tragedy of the commons.”

Farrer argues that our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or a platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.

Klein notes that Twitter, especially, makes it easy to discuss difficult issues poorly. Complex matters are reduced to bumper-sticker memes. The algorithm that determines what you see takes its cues from likes and retweets, and the quote tweet function encourages mockery rather than conversation.

As Klein says, Twitter has facilitated the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It has allowed socialists to get a new hearing in American politics .It has also given new life to the racist right. “Put simply, Twitter’s value is how easy it makes it to talk. Its cost is how hard it makes it to listen.”

The Internet has enabled immensely productive collaborations–Klein singles out Wikipedia as an example–but social media is arguably a different animal–one Klein believes is in decline. I’m not sure about that. Humans have a longing for connectivity.

But surely we can do better than substituting bumper sticker slogans for dialogue.


  1. I worked in Germany for several years. The Germans learned after more than a decade in the 30’s and 40’s that they could not rely on the media or the government for reliable information. They began to talk to one another…over a back fence, in the pubs, before and after church and work.

  2. Bumper stickers decrease the value of vehicle ownership. Among the top ten known reasons for getting less for your trade-in are bumper stickers. For the same reason, I no longer listen to colleagues who continue to use Twitter as a primary means to brand their erudite presence. Any means accessed so cheaply renders no redeeming value to the desired listener.

  3. Two points:

    1) This quote above: “They are not the playthings of whimsical billionaires.”
    2) The Twitter files aren’t mentioned.

    Whimsical billionaires seem to own a lot connected to the government in some manner. For example, Elon Musk has extensive government contracts while pretending to be the new leader against the establishment.

    This is where the Twitter files come into play. Musk picked two journalists to receive a trove of internal documents which shows the level of government intelligentsia control at Twitter (Zuckerberg has made similar statements).

    These social media giants built town squares until they sold out to advertisers, and since they were publicly traded, the federal and state intelligentsia kept their hands-on management. This is why Musk took Twitter out of the public realm and took it private.

    Do I believe Musk is now an anti-establishment savior?


    I can scan Twitter in 15-30 minutes and obtain more relevant information than from any newspaper/magazine/TV.

  4. Professor Farrar has completely misdiagnosed the problem here. The problem is that government has been involved in controlling free speech. The fact that Elon Musk has given this information to journalists is being ignored.
    We forget that the first amendment is to provide free speech not inhibited by government control.
    The latest Twitter drop number 9 at this point states many shows how many different agencies, bureaus, state departments, including the DNC were in directing Twitter and othe big tech agencies!
    Before Elon Musk became a “problem”, the federal government left him out if a national discourse on EVs even though his company Tesla was responsible for the EV revolution.
    The US federal government refuses to change in ordere to help the commin man but manipulate businesses that don’t fall in line with its political persuasions. Big business with its “corporate socialists” are at tge forefront at the demise of inflation and government growth and power.
    Remember the FBI and other government agencies made hundreds of attempts through meetings and emails to hinder free speech with contributions and pay offs in the millions. Free speech has been obstructed.
    The constitution has been violated

  5. The Tragedy of the Commons is a good analogy. If a Commons does not have regulations that govern what is appropriate for its use, it will degenerate. Garrett Hardin, who popularized the topic, realized his mistake, and regretted that he had omitted that constraint.

  6. What also is being ignored is that more is being done to root out sex trafficking on the twitter platform than before! Its been used fir worse tgan bumper sticker memes and those that should have regulating it failed in this regard.

  7. IMHO social media is worth what you pay for it, nothing. This is especially true when some over rated billionaire decides to make it his plaything.

  8. The Twitter files have been a nothing burger. All they show is a private company wrestling with how to regulate speech on its website. That such regulations affect conservatives more is because conservatives (actually I would call them alleged conservatives) were more involved in pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable than those on the left. The person chiefly doing that was none other than Donald Trump but he was far from the only one.

    FYI, Elon Musk made his money because of government mandates regarding alternative fuel vehicles. The other car companies didn’t have the infrastructure to build electric vehicles so Elon Musk stepped in and did it for them. Now those car companies have built out their electric auto infrastructure. They don’t need Musk and Musk’s own line of Teslas is overpriced and not very reliable when compared to other electric vehicles. I say that as an owner of an electric vehicle, a 2019 Nissan Leaf, which is a terrific car, except when it’s cold. Electric cars don’t do well under 40 degrees because battery efficiency is dramatically reduced in cold weather. Changes to address that problem are coming.

  9. There can be no “commons” if their is no “comm-unity”. Our culture is a tangled mass of bubbles of politics, ideology and entertainment/marketing. The only halfway integrated commons is the Right Ecosystem, forging forward on all fronts with no alternative to challenge it.

  10. I’ve never used Twitter but it seems to me that any platform that so severely limits the number of characters you can use necessarily results in slogans, “gotchas”, fractured thoughts and misunderstandings.
    It cannot substitute for thoughtful discussions. But, like all other tools ever invented, it can be weaponized. Perhaps our collective defense lies in defining when it is being used as a weapon and prosecuting the people who are responsible.
    No freedoms are limitless, not even freedom of speech. The question becomes where to set the limits.

  11. John S. Some of your sentences are clear but others are just bewildering. If, after writing a sentence, you take a moment to carefully read and revise it, I think we can better understand your point of view.

  12. First- I do not do Twitter.
    Second- I do not do FB.
    Third- I do not do any of this sort of thing.

    With what passes, now, for hindsight, I am glad that I am somewhat reclusive on the web
    and not so caught up therein (pun very much intended).
    Elon seems to be a brilliant man in some respects, but out of control in too many others.
    i see that some people have been comparing him to TFG, and there do seem to be parallels,
    but he is not vicious like TFG, or so it seems to me; maybe just blind to how he affects people.
    Bumper sticker slogans can be like tweets, I suppose, massively varied and easy to exploit
    for imbecilic reasons.
    However, some bumper stickers i’ve seen, and their ilk, have been impressive in a positive way;
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,”
    impressed me enough to take a photo of it, imprinted/pasted on a car side window,on the spot.
    As I did so, the owner of said car returned to it, and I complimented him on it.
    Going further off on this tangent, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, as you
    are crunchy, and good with ketchup.” This is on my car.

  13. I was briefly a twitter user about 10 years ago and it only took about 15 minutes of my time to figure out that, even then, it was a raw cesspit of Internet garbage, with complex discussions boiled down to what will fit on a bumper sticker, or to be reduced to a derogatory label. So Todd, I wouldn’t be so proud of all that insight you gain.

    Today’s NYTimes published an article about Chinese censorship on Twitter. Since China doesn’t have the power to delete tweets, they tried another tactic, dilution and obfuscation. At the height of the protests a few weeks ago, people had taken to twitter to report on the protests. The Chinese government launched thousands of BOT accounts to generate content linked to key works being used by protestors, so if you did a search, almost all that came up was posts for services by fictional call girls. This only happened if you did the searches in Chinese and not English. So we are back to the Internet Cesspit where manipulation is cheap and easy. It also points out that all of those thousands of “unnecessary” people that Musk fired, really might have been doing something after all.

    Thirdly, comments about government controlling free speech are so off target. When free speech passes into the realm of propaganda, libel, fraud, misinformation, and election manipulation, there should be some limits, but they won’t be imposed by the government. Like most things in a capitalistic system, the free market will crush toxic products out of existence. When was the last time you saw an over the counter pill that has capsules with power in them? The makers of Tylenol will tell you it’s been a long time. Money is running away from Twitter as skittish advertising are directing their money elsewhere. The money it is attracting is most likely coming from unsavory and nefarious sources with harmful agendas intensifying it’s toxicity (See Chinese Government Manipulation). If it were still a publicly traded company I am sure it stock prices would be in the toilet and shareholders would be demanding changes. Too bad we have one ignorant narcissistic billionaire still stirring the cesspit.

  14. Guess what Elon? The public square is ours, not yours. Technology may be a means of production that you can build a better soapbox out of, but your technology does not define who we are or what we have to say.

    Our public square is egalitarian and your technology, despite being shared, is like your wealth, not shared equally. We, not you, will decide its role in our public square just like we, not you, will decide if all of the other products of the means of production that your wealth led our design and implementation of, have value to us.

    It’s time to accept who owns capitalism and who it serves at whose pleasure. We are the market.

  15. There is so little SILENCE in public spaces. Music in stores, even TVs flogging products when we pump gas. We are bombarded by noise – not information – NOISE.

  16. William – it is part of the “entertaining ourselves to death” environment. We usually skip the TV ads by “taping” shows. But, when we can’t, I can’t help but notice the huge prevalence of pounding music and, gasp, raucous dancing in a majority of ads, even those for insurance. Distract us from climate change; distract us from toxic politics; distract us from inequality of opportunity…

Comments are closed.