It might be a disturbing thought experiment, but imagine that you work in marketing. Okay, take a deep breath. Let the shiver run down your spine. Right, now imagine that you are holding the account for two separate campaigns. In the first you are trying to raise the profile of a new product targeted at Gen Z – teenagers and students. In the second you are working for a charity which wants to influence policy makers about in-work poverty.
In both scenarios, you would have to work hard not to reach for social media. But which channels do you use? You do a bit of research. The latest data shows that, among teenagers, Snapchat and Instagram are supreme. This suggests that setting up a Facebook page will only make you look like a white middle-class Volvo-driving dad, who is half-proud of the fact that he has never heard of Stormzy. But the same data also makes it clear that your pitch to the policy wonks can’t ignore Twitter.
In an idle moment at the end of the day – perhaps sipping a miel latte as you stroke your hipster beard – you might wonder how this has come to pass. You can remember a time when Twitter looked a lot like fun. The parody accounts, the hashtag games (#popfish), the irreverent humour, the accounts written by people who looked quite senior and said very indiscreet things, that site which aggregated all the tweets of MPs. It was irreverent, poorly understood, inventive, a weave of idiosyncratic perspectives which messed with the small-c conservative orbit of public dialogue – it was liberating. It was liberating because it couldn’t be reduced to the sort of pattern which allows digital marketers to plan a campaign around it.
These days, news, politics and political debate dominate Twitter. It’s the number one channel used by governments and their leaders. It’s also one of the main places where people go to get news. This means that almost every journalist and politician has to curate their Twitter feed with tender loving care.
Its largest groups of users are aged 25-44, from middle-class backgrounds. This is a demographic group of ‘digital natives’ (those who have grown up with the technology), but who live on the fault line of political tensions. They may struggle to get on the housing ladder, resent the disparity of inter-generational wealth, and react passionately (one way or the other) to populist movements like Brexit, or Donald Trump’s brand of Republicanism. Twitter is, in short, the accepted forum for a lot of angry middle-class millennials.
The pattern has become familiar. First, someone in the public eye gets trolled, piled-on, pounded, punched, trialed condemned and humiliated. Then comes the backlash. We read about the ‘Twitter mob’, its miscreant misdoings, and the consequences for free speech and meaningful public debate.
Is it true? Has Twitter been reduced to a sprawling and indecorous version of the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics which is meant to make us all feel so cynical? Has our political culture shaped our digital culture?
The digital realm is awash with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘revolution’. Apart from the ocean of filthy lucre that awaits any digital innovation, it’s commonly described in Utopian terms. The digital revolution will deliver a better world. For politics this is meant to mean a more empowered, informed, diverse, transparent, personal and engaged world. But the history of Twitter has reduced the sprawling, variegated energies of people and their natural differences to the toxic singularity of centralised power. The empowering nature of the technology is in conflict with the reductive character of our politics.
To me this tells us two things. Digital technology reveals just how narrow, claustrophobic and elitist our political institutions (and the debate they generate) are. It also tells us that, for all its promise, ‘digital transformation’ is a poor surrogate for meaningful political reform.