war on the rocks

Entry 16: A Wonk’s Love-Hate Relationship with Twitter

January 4, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 16th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

 

I managed 500 words today, but it was split between the current chapter I’m finalizing and some adjustments I made to the introductory chapter. I did an impromptu radio interview, and once again, spent too much time on Twitter.

I hate social media — especially Twitter. Some of my scholar friends don’t believe me because I’m on it way more than your average scholar, but it’s true. It sucks. But for me at least, it’s also necessary.

My biggest beef with Twitter, which extends to social media generally, is that I suspect it’s making me dumber. Had I not developed critical thinking skills pre-Twitter, I might now be a lost cause. I’m constantly fighting to maintain impulse control, which makes it harder to concentrate, especially when I lose the fight. This is my fault. I’m ultimately responsible for deciding whether and when I jump on Twitter.

But instant gratification is the devil. Connecting with and sharing opinions with others in real-time sometimes gives me micro-euphoria. It’s soma. Why struggle to finish writing a sentence that you’re unsure anyone will ever read when you can just stop for a second, see who’s talking about Trump, and weigh in for thousands of followers to read (and click the little heart icon)? That’s how you end up spending three hours writing one paragraph. It’s sick.

Twitter also produces so much information so quickly that it drowns out the past. Things that happened last week feel like they happened a year ago. The information environment is so saturated now that anything that’s not new basically never existed. In the North Korea punditry space, this opens up opportunities for commentary that seems to say the same thing repeatedly.

More generally, this de facto erasure of history is dangerous for the republic. I’m sure I read somewhere that a society without its history is a permissive environment for authoritarianism. But it’s not in my Twitter feed right now so I can’t be sure.

I have other beefs with Twitter that are probably more commonly shared: I hate that it sometimes reduces even respectable analysts to being highly opinionated trolls. It oversimplifies everything. It promotes outrage about everything. It creates incentives to state an opinion as quickly as humanly possible, but if there’s a typo or if it includes a less than thorough contrarian thought, the relevant Twitter sub-culture will swarm on you, trying to ruin your day.

It becomes an outlet where people can vent about legitimate political concerns, but in the process alleviate pressures to do anything about said concerns in the real world; slacktivisim as a substitute for, not adjunct of, activism.

If Twitter is civilization-destroying, soul-crushing soma, why do I willfully subject myself to it, especially if I have a book to finish?

First, what Twitter robs in critical-thinking capacity it makes up for in information awareness. I’ve never been so on top of news cycles, or tuned into what’s happening in various parts of the world I don’t specialize in.

Second, it’s a fantastic tool for public engagement, especially when you have a policy relevant argument to make. Sure, it’ll probably get drowned out by snark and you have to reduce it to a handful of characters to get it consumed, but you get to be part of a larger discourse, in real-time.

Third, Twitter is great for self-promotion. One way or another, it’s what everyone with a large following does on Twitter — even scholars. You just have to do it in a way that doesn’t turn people off. Ever notice how many people have profile photos of a book? They wrote that book, and they want you to know it (and buy it). I don’t see that as a sin. The age of Trump is the age of self-promotion. And in an information-saturated world, it would be hubris or laziness for me to produce research and then sit back and have faith that the right people will eventually read it.

Fourth, I’d guess a solid 70 percent of my national-level media exposure (e.g., The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Washington Post) has come from journalists and TV producers tracking down on Twitter. How they found me specifically I have no idea, but my modest media profile would be a lot more modest without my Twitter presence.

Finally, I’ve also found that Twitter has been a great source for research. It’s fairly capricious what you get, but if you’re following the right people, Twitter can actually make the life of a researcher easier — especially when they’re researching for a book about an ongoing crisis, ahem.

So I dream of a life without Twitter, but right now its too central to how I make a living and edify myself. The issue, for me, is self-control. I need to be more disciplined about when I take my soma. I will.

For what it’s worth, I jumped on Twitter three times while writing this and I hate myself for it.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor for War on the Rocks.

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