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.