I have tried a few times over the past year or two to become a true “Twitter user” (@cloutiertheo) – meaning of course that one must be active and consistent in not only checking it but in contributing to it. I have failed each time. In part, this is because I can’t and won’t spend my life tethered to inputs from screens, and I have a “real” job as a professor. Professional journalists and people with high enough status jobs that someone can manage a twitter feed for them are one thing, but I’m not those things. But in part I’ve failed because I haven’t found a way to be on Twitter regularly and not become extremely annoyed with and by it. Amidst moments of enlightenment (“wow, I got directed to this great article…”) I can’t avoid the triviality, posturing, snarkiness, and whatever else comes across the feed.
It may be that I am just not fit to use this medium or that I’m unwilling to undergo the discipline necessary to practice it well. On the other hand, it may be that Twitter itself should be rejected or at least dramatically modified. In the terminology of Catholic social thought, it may be that Twitter is not simply something that is used badly by some people, but it may be a real structure of sin, one that (to recall the words of John Paul II) strengthens and spreads individual sins and “become the source of other sins.” After the last week of controversy over the encounter between Covington Catholic students and Native American activists (and others), even the New York Times editorial section featured an opinion piece entitled “Never Tweet” and its resident Catholic-concerned columnists on the left and right both registered their objections. So maybe it’s time. Twitter is a sinful social structure. It either needs to be radically changed or rejected.
Why? The answer to this question requires two things: an identification of the sin involved and an account of what it means to call a structure “sinful.” The sin of which Twitter stands accused is an easy one: it is lying and deceptive. “Deception” is probably a better description of the key problem here, although one might suggest that all the deception on Twitter is ultimately rooted in someone doing something that is simply lying. Twitter is a structure of deception.
Of course, here is where the second piece – the account of a sinful “structure” – is needed. Because “Twitter” is not an “agent” who chooses to deceive. Defenders of Twitter will adopt the usual (libertarian) defense that (say) gun owners adopt: Twitter doesn’t deceive people, people deceive people. And to a certain extent, this is true. As Daniel Finn has and is working out in his absolutely essential work on the relationship of sinful structure and agency, structures do not “do” anything without agents making choices. So at one level, when we are assessing Twitter, we have to ask people to examine their own behavior: are you deceiving people? Is the deception intended or not? Is it a result of ignorance or not? Is the ignorance vincible or invincible? Everyone who posted anything about the last week’s events can use Catholic moral theology to assess their responsibility for any individual sins of deceiving others.
But what structures “do”,” according to Finn, following the lead of critical realist sociologists, is that they shape agency by offering definite (“real”) restrictions, enablements, and opportunities. An agent is not simply free to do whatever they want on Twitter. They are positioned. Twitter is structured in certain ways and not others. And one’s agency is always already shaped by positioning in those structures. White people in today’s America, like it or not, and (in many cases) regardless of their class backgrounds, have benefited from certain racist structures, which they may not have intended, but nevertheless have shaped the position of their agency – and have done so in distinctly different ways. As someone who grew up in Chicago, above all de facto practices of housing and neighborhood segregation – ending officially before I was born but still shaping the agency of white adults around me – most certainly benefited me and harmed African-Americans during my childhood years. Does that mean these groups had no agency? Of course not. Is it the case that the development of time requires careful analysis of how the structural positioning changed? Yes. Chicago in 1950, in 1987, and in 2015 are different places with different positions – though not at all totally different. A proper analysis of the situation requires attention both to the agencies of individuals and groups, but also to the positions in which they acted.
But back to Twitter. To argue that Twitter is a sinful social structure is to suggest that it positions agents in ways that deception ends up being much more likely – and then out of this deception grow “others sins” (in John Paul’s words): sins of anger, of injustice, etc. How so? In three ways.
First, the inclination toward deception is the result of Twitter’s “immediacy.” Immediacy should be understood in two ways. The medium is matchless in terms of the speed of dissemination, and it clearly privileges speed. But it is also “im-mediate” in another, more technical sense: it is not “mediated” by anything like an editorial system. In both of these cases, it is worth noting that these are supposed to be “advantages” of Twitter – Twitter provides the freedom for anyone to speak out and to get that word circulate with unprecedented rapidity. But privileging the goods of speed and freedom happens at the expense of other goods – above all, accuracy. I logged on to Twitter once over the past week, and it happened to be right at that point where outrage about the high school students but peaking but a few people were saying, “there’s a larger context here.” However one might hash over the larger context in all its complicated aspects, the point is one needs time and professional labor to do so well. Twitter not only lacks that, but actively precludes it.
Secondly, the structure privileges certain sorts of language expression and images over others. Again, like all structures, it’s not a matter of some sort of illusory, no-structure neutrality, but instead of matter of assessing what is privileged (and correspondingly what is not). The deception involved is more subtle, but potentially even more important: Twitter deceives us into thinking unimportant things are really important. While this is not meant to be a post advocating anything about the encounter on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I hazard to say this: it’s not that important. You’ve got an engagement between a group of activists demonstrating for a cause and a bunch of high school males from out of town reacting to finding themselves in the middle of it. Because people can film everything now, it gets filmed (in many forms!). No laws are broken in the video. Neither party does much of a good job of trying to express whatever they are feeling and thinking in (let’s say) diplomatic ways. And both groups are standing on what might understandably be taken as something like sacred ground for the purpose of airing grievances through free speech. Meanwhile, actual adults at the other end of the Mall cannot run a government. How in the world in that context do people become preoccupied with this incident between these parties?
Part of it is that Twitter is tailor-made for the Lincoln Memorial incident but not for government shutdowns. Or, maybe to put it in even worse terms, Twitter encourages its users to believe that incidents like the encounter at the Lincoln Memorial are important, symbolic proxies for the thing at the other end of the Mall. Which unfortunately further distorts the attempts to do the really important things at the other end of the Mall. I’m suggesting that Twitter is a sinful structure because it encourages that substitution of symbolic but insignificant imagery for the real work of thinking through our society’s problems.
This could be an argument that Twitter is a useful medium for some things, but not for others. This is a possibility. For example, in a recent speech, Ben Sasse remarked that “political twitter is demonic, but sports twitter is an inbreaking of the eschaton.” Notice how this illuminates both my points. In sports, transmitting the “big moment” is part of the essence of communicating about sports. And if someone spreads rumors about a false free agent signing, or tweets from their seats in the stadium “bad call” when it was not a bad call – well, who cares? The structural incentives towards inaccuracy and momentary images don’t matter that much, and arguably even enhance the whole experience of shared spectator sports. A different analogy: in college, one of the central institutions sustaining the life of the school was called the NNB (“noon news bulletin”), a daily copied and folded sheet of paper that everyone (I do mean everyone) picked up and read at the entrance to the dining halls at lunch. The NNB was the single most effective way to communicate about what was happening on campus – indeed, the NNB, “it’s what happening” at Carleton. What that meant was announcing things – and ordinarily announcing things in the pre-set categories the Student Activities people had set up to structure it. But frankly, no one would have imagined the need to express opinions on campus issues in the NNB itself. Yes, it was Carleton, so people sent in clever jokes and even the occasional entirely mystifying message (which perhaps meant something to the one or two people with whom the person was conversing in the wee hours of a party the previous weekend). But if you wanted serious debate about campus issues, you went to a meeting or you wrote something in the campus newspaper or (most importantly) you went to class and talked about class with your peers. So maybe Twitter, as a structure, shouldn’t go away, but maybe it is sinful for some things. Maybe it ought to look more like the NNB.
A third and final problem, however, has to do with the deception of “everybody.” Twitter is enormously good at creating a false, deceptive sense that “everybody” thinks a certain way and believes certain things. It’s likely that this has something to do with the infamous algorithms invisibly “acting” behind the scenes. But it is also, I would argue, kind of inevitable given the medium. In theory, many people say they want to keep up with all sides of issues on Twitter. But the end result of that is going to be either of two outcomes. One, a person will have to expend enormous amounts of (mental) bandwidth working through and trying to be generous to very frustrating material. Or two, a person is going to manage their feed and follows in a way that may keep one of two “moderately dissenting” voices, but is “mostly” made up of relatively like-minded people. It is the only way to remain sane (unless perhaps Twitter is more or less your profession). And this will result in exactly what you would imagine, a generally-reinforced sense that “most everyone” thinks things that are mostly compatible with your own thoughts. To put it bluntly, it creates world where it becomes unimaginable that 60 million people voted for Trump or that almost 40% of Americans are “minorities.” Because your Twitter feed just tells you every day something else….something else that is in fact deceptive and untrue. (And this is particularly terrible for Catholics talking about Catholics, but I digress.)
I don’t know what to do about Twitter itself. As Albert Hirschman described in his classic book, dissatisfied agents always face a choice between “exit” and “voice.” “Voice” means people who really depend on Twitter need to work hard to figure out if there are ways to manage the structure (and not just their individual behavior) to make it less prone to deception – and BTW, anyone who believes it is self-correcting should sign up for that kind of (false) libertarian view across the board, on race and economics as well as on technology. That’s just naïve, silly, and dangerous. It is a structure; it can be made and it can be changed. And if it can’t be changed, then professionals need to consider “exit” – and “exit” in this case would likely be some kind of alternative platform that achieves some of the genuine goods of Twitter, but within different parameters. I leave it to others – media professionals above all! – to work through what that looks like. But let’s stop pretending this awful thing is just what we’re stuck with. It’s moving us ever more toward lying and deception. I’m sure I have friends much more active on Twitter who can name the positives more clearly. And I know that figures like Fr. James Martin and Bishop Robert Barron use the medium, however imperfect, with genuinely evangelical intent. But the point of recognizing sinful social structures is never to say that they “force” everyone in them “to sin.” It means that they lead over time to both individual acts and the formation of persons more and more inclined to sin – in this case, to deception, however unwitting. Let’s figure out a structure of virtue instead.