The Twittering Machine
By Richard Seymour
The Indigo Press, August 2019, £12.99 (paperback)

Review by Kay Green

While a frighteningly large proportion of the world has been whiling away hour after hour twitting and liking and sharing and arguing their way around social media, Seymour has been asking: what are we doing? Why are we? What do the social media companies want of us, anyhow?

Lately, awareness is growing of the manipulation and censoring that goes on, and there have been debates about just what the social media CEOs talk about, when they get into tussles with governments.

Although Seymour has been busy researching all this, he doesn’t offer definitive answers – it’s all too new, and nothing like this ever happened before but this book, as well as being an absorbingly human read, will give you what you need to start thinking it through.

It’s not how you might think; things may be better, in some ways – and worse, in others – than you thought. There is the addiction thing of course – Seymour discusses, along the way, that this is yet another non-chemical thing that we call addictive – clue: look at what the addict was trying to get away from, rather than some suspected chemical reaction.

THE ADDICTION THING

People put up notices saying “I’m taking a break from social media” … and are back within a few hours, because something ‘irresistible’ showed up in their feed (how did they know?). And we, and others around us, have fantasies about digital suicide – you know, that thing where you swear wildly, delete all your accounts and skip off into the sunset? But generally, we don’t. As Seymour points out, a couple of websites turned up along the way to help people do the ultimate internet flounce (the ‘delete account’ links are not too well advertised, and getting shot of all your content is not straightforward, so people needed assistance). Both sites got scary letters from social media moguls, and promptly committed digital suicide.

But there is far more than the possibility of addiction to consider here. I’ve seen a few conversations lately along the lines of, “if Twitter is non-judgmental, why is it so tolerant of rape culture, whilst choosing to ban key feminists when they come to prominence?” Having read Seymour, I realise that social media and search engines can and do manage what you see without needing to make attention-grabbing bans so why… oh – ‘attention grabbing’ – there’s a thing.

WHAT THEY WANT, PURE AND SIMPLE, IS YOUR ATTENTION

For them, it’s all about content and clickery. All the behaviours people blame social media for are just traditional human behaviours writ large, but Seymour picks up on a social media CEO claiming to give people “what they want”. As with all marketeers, they mean what people can be persuaded to want, or what they are hoping to find. Observe the way we almost subconsciously grab our devices to check for notifications every time there’s a quiet moment – “It is as though, one day, it’s going to bring us the message we’ve been waiting for.”

When life puts a new trap in the path of humans, my normal response is to walk right into it, realise it’s a trap, ignore all available advice about how to get out of it, then write about the experience. As a result, there is probably a record of me being wrong about just about everything somewhere on social media. I’m not too worried because amongst all the blah plastered over the internet, why would anyone pick on me?*

But I am worried about what social media does to real world conversations. I keep getting wrong ideas about people – who they know, how well, and how seriously to take this or that row that they say they had, because it turns out they’re talking about something that happened on Twitter, that everyone forgot about ten seconds after it happened: something, in my view, that scarcely happened at all.

There’s a strange paradox there – social media, Seymour tells us, angles for constant, low-level attention and response. Emotions scud to apparent extremes, and die down and pass on. Deciding to ‘like’ or not, share or not, follow or not, is a very low-investment action but, your action can be part of something that’s taken (briefly) very, very seriously.

AND OF COURSE, IT MAY TURN UP IN A COURT CASE IN TWO YEARS’ TIME

I use social media to find and assess news sources (because the corporate media is very clearly not on our side); I use it for a dozen other reasons – and, like most people, I use it to mess about between doing other things.

All in all, I spend far more time on social media than I ever intended that I would. I bet you do, too. I still refuse to carry a smartphone everywhere, so still regularly have what used to be called AFK (away from keyboard) days, which I’m profoundly grateful for. One needs a bit of thinking time.

Lately, I have been trying to impress on people that they need back-up methods of contacting people who matter to them, because it all feels rather out of control – well, out of our control and, as Seymour points out, social media may well be on the rise as traditional media falls into very obvious bumbling and biased senility, but social media alone, rather like those modified starches they pack our food with, does not give us everything we need, and may well prove to have unexpected consequences.

* Yes, I do understand about data-mining but heck, I’m sure the devil has taken screenshots and date-stamped them by now.


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