Technology and Society

Twitter and the Bernays Bookcase

December 7, 2017

I’ve been reflecting on my Twitter habits lately. I haven’t personally been harassed there, but I know a lot of people who have, and the company has a bad record when it comes to deciding which voices should be silenced. It also gives an unstable president a destabilizing bully pulpit of outsized influence. Twitter, like Facebook and Google, has lost the ability to fix its own problems, throwing up its hands before a Senate committee hearing. Whoops! When you design a platform to engage as much of the world as possible in instant communication, assuming the more the merrier because that’s what produces your real product, enormous amounts of information that can be used to sell ads, you don’t put your engineering skills into steering and brakes. Collisions are useful. Incitements to violence – oh, we didn’t think about that.

The other thing that bothers me about my use of Twitter is more personal: the assumption that my identity is a product I’m selling, and Twitter is a place where I’m supposed to cash in on the attention economy by . . . seeking attention.

My affair with Twitter started innocently at a digital humanities unconference as a useful way to connect with people interested in the same things so we can have ongoing conversations and a steady flow of new ideas. That’s what makes it valuable – I learn a great deal from the people I follow. I’ve also inadvertently learned a lot about current events in Canada, Britain, and Australia because people don’t just share academic ideas, they share and reflect on what’s happening in the world. So it’s been good. But supporting a company that won’t own up to its responsibility doesn’t feel good.

Why does Twitter make me feel compelled to comment on and amplify other people’s Tweets? In part it’s that little dopamine bump you get when someone pays attention to you. It’s also an urge to personally curate the web. Hey, look at this! I think it’s important! More insidiously it tells you something about me. You will know me by my retweets.

It reminds me of the identity function of our bookshelves. We curate our personal collections so we’ll have the books we want to revisit close to hand. We also keep books we may never reread but which mark a moment in our lives – there’s that bit of me that earned that degree, there’s that shelf of books I read as a child and read to my children. Then there are those books we never actually read, the ones that indicate we’d score high on one of the “100 Classic Books You Should Have Read” quizzes even if we never cracked them open. Plus the ones that are simply part of the clutter than follows us everywhere.

There’s a fascinating passage in Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print that illuminates the analogy of Twitter to our bookcases. The “father of spin” (and master of marketing and propaganda) Edward Bernays was asked by book publishers how to boost business after the crash of 1929. The answer? Make bookshelves a kind of home furnishing that shows you have taste. Promoting bookcases in home and garden magazines not only gave publishers a market for their wares, the boost in book culture prepared workers for new kinds of work and consumption.

The burgeoning “consumer-oriented and information-dominated” economy of the early twentieth century required large numbers of workers proficient in the reading, sorting, processing, and distribution of information . . . Bookshelves thus embodied a specific middle-class habitus expressed in and through knowledge work and the collapse of labor and leisure. The built-in-bookshelves campaign could therefore be viewed as contributing to a complex social pedagogy whereby a growing middle class experienced the transition from a more producer-oriented to a more consumer-oriented economy.

Twitter and Facebook are the empty bookcases that we fill compulsively both to market ourselves and to be their ad market. People who write the content we share are increasingly dependent on these empty, hungry bookcases to reach an audience because that’s where the audience is, not at the website the news or arts organization or individual blogger creates. I’m not comfortable with any of this.

I pulled the plug on Facebook years ago when they proudly announced Timeline – their proprietary record of my entire life. I had already been troubled by their business model and their monopolizing of online attention, but the creepy Timeline is what made me pack up and move out. I’m not ready to leave Twitter, but I want alternatives so I’ve checked out Mastodon (“Is anybody there? Hello?”) and made smaller, more focused communities like Metafilter and the Library Society of the World’s hangout part of my routine. I’m also curating my dusty RSS feed reader and using Pinboard and finding more than enough to read. I suppose I could also pull some of those books I always meant to read off my bookshelves.

But I’m finding ways Twitter (and before that Facebook) has wormed its way into my life. That itch to reach for the phone and see what’s new, that urge to share something I found interesting to display myself publicly by what I read, that desire to fill my attention with fragments when focusing feels like work. How ironic that we append the words “sharing” and “attention” to “economy” without any expectation of sharing profits or demanding transparency about how our attention is turned into money.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.