The national churn

Gareth Leaman argues why the reliance of parties on the ‘Twittering Machine’ is mistaken. He puts forward that progressive causes are undermined through a dependency on platforms whose economic logic of harvesting attention and publishing ephemera cannot lead to meaningful change.

Full article available in Planet issue 243

Additional notes

While there wasn’t space within the article, it should be noted that there are many successful Welsh publishing platforms that produce valuable content without embracing the logic discussed here – most notably Voice.Wales, whose work you can support via Patreon.

It is also worth noting that there are democratic possibilities for social media as a communicative form, and that for many people, despite its obvious trappings, social media is the only avenue of expression due to being excluded, for various reasons, from more conventional publishing platforms. This article primarily focuses on media platforms whose content is almost solely informed by social media engagement, rather than a discussion of the merits of using social media in its entirety. This requires a much deeper and more sensitive analysis, some examples of which are included in the ‘further reading’ below.

This essay is partly a follow-up to a previous piece of work, ‘Democratising the Welsh alternative media’, published by O’r Pedwar Gwent (Cymraeg) and Undod (English).

I may follow up on this in more detail soon (though it has been addressed to in plenty of previous articles), but the recent goings-on in YesCymru point to the shortcomings that arise when a pursuit of ‘numbers’ – in this case converting social media engagement into membership recruitment – becomes a goal in itself, without any scalable organisational structure or political drive underpinning it. Other recent examples of online organising failing to reflect or manifest a material political culture include the Northern Independence Party (also discussed in this issue of Planet), and the dissipation of Corbynism as a popular force.

Works cited/discussed

Further reading

Richard Seymour, ‘The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media’

For those who are curating a self, social media notifications work as a form of clickbait. Notifications light up the reward centres of the brain, so that we feel bad if the metrics we accumulate on our different platforms don’t express enough approval. The addictive aspect of this is similar to the effect of poker machines or smartphone games, recalling what the cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han calls the “gamification of capitalism”.

But it is not only addictive. Whatever we write has to be calibrated for social approval. Not only do we aim for conformity among our peers but, to an extent, we only pay attention to what our peers write insofar as it allows us to write something in reply, for the likes. Perhaps this is what, among other things, gives rise to what is often derided as virtue-signalling, not to mention the ferocious rows, overreactions, wounded amour-propre and grandstanding that often characterise social media communities.

Jay Springett, Your Attention is Sovereign

‘Complicit that every tweet is feeding a machine that has been built and designed in such a way to convert our attention into money. Each and every tweet gives the machine more value and more power over you and other people. Interacting with surveillance capitalism in any form is bad for everyone. I am beginning to come round to the opinion that perhaps there is a case to be made that interacting with social media in its current extractive form is morally wrong.’

Joe Kennedy, ‘The Stuplime Object of Ideology’

Trolling is stuplime: it both demands response and maintains, in its banally contentless nature, a shit-eating unanswerability.’

Sam Woolfe, ‘Twitter and the Rebirth of the Aphorism’

‘The inclination to chase approval on social media also means that these aphorisms may be more prone to self-absorbed motivations than aphorisms of the past and modern ones published in print. Everyday people might have written aphorisms down in private before Twitter, but with the possibility of gaining likes, retweets, and followers, all of which feels rewarding as a social creature, there is a stronger incentive to try and come up with clever and deep observations. How much of aphoristic writing on Twitter is based on the desire to appear a certain way? How much originates from the genuine wish to share something insightful before it’s lost and forgotten?

William Davies, ‘The Politics of Recognition in the Age of Social Media’     

Platforms represent a watershed in the moral and cultural contests of modernity. They not only transform relations of production, but re-format how status and esteem are socially distributed. They are refashioning struggles for recognition no less decisively than the birth of print media did. At the same time, their logic is such that their principal effect is to generalize a feeling of misrecognition—heightening the urgency with which people seek recognition, but never satisfying this need.‘           

Ben Burgis, ‘We Can’t Cancel Ourselves Into a Better World’

‘[The] toxic cocktail of neoliberal social atomization, for-profit social media platforms that incentivize our worst impulses, and a sense of powerlessness that can be temporarily sated through online pile-ons and attempts to get people fired or de-platformed for doing or saying bad things has produced a culture of mutual surveillance and hair-trigger denunciation that infects the entire political spectrum.’

Paris Marx, ‘Don’t Blame Social Media. Blame Capitalism.’

‘It is important to understand what effects these technologies are having on us, both personally and collectively, but failing to recognize the longer history of these problems and the broader structures that contribute to them will lead us to solutions that don’t actually get to the root causes.’