Check out this New York Times article on essentially the same discussion we had yesterday.
Once again, I think this reporter misses a key point: Twitter can be more than one thing. Just because politicians aren’t using it in a sophisticated way doesn’t mean that it can’t be integrated into the public sphere. I can both converse with the person serving my coffee and comment on the fact that the coffee’s been served (amongst the many, many other things I can do on Twitter, all in just a few minutes).
It’s ironic reading an article by a practitioner of an increasingly irrelevant communication medium criticizing a new form for it’s lack of substance. The last time I checked, politicians can’t get more than ~7 seconds of a soundbite in the media.. how long does it take to read a Tweet aloud?
4 seconds. Of course, the soundbite comes in the context of a story. A tweet may have context, it may not. But there’s never a news story that is just the president saying something for 4 seconds.
One issue is that since Twitter is more than one thing at a time, it may not be as useful with respect to encouraging civic participation, disseminating information, etc. — whereas a television news program is only a television news program. A campaign ad is only a campaign ad.
There’s just (potentially) too much happening at once on Twitter with too little detail to encourage meaningful participation. I’m excited to see what Ari and Mike G. come up with regarding Tocqueville and Twitter b/c I think he would’ve hated it.
Are you talking about Alexis? Because we’re using his more technologically savvy brother, Bob de Tocqueville.
I’m excited to see what we come up with too. Actually, we’ve come up with it. We just need to finish writing it, then we’ll look for feedback from skeptics.
But don’t be overly skeptical, Mike. Tocqueville almost certainly would have loved Twitter…if he tried it. And, really, it’s all about jumping into it to see what the possibilities are. From the outside, you’re right, it just looks like noise. But, as Eric Clapton reminds us:
It’s in the way that you use it,
It comes and it goes.
It’s in the way that you use it,
Boy don’t you know.
I’ll need to be convinced. I think he would have been deeply skeptical of Twitter and almost certainly would not have liked it. Twitter’s brevity would likely have offended him, regardless of the way that you use it; he also would have almost certainly been very worried about its celebration of individualism and its implications for civic group membership and participation regardless of the way that you use it. The factors he believed helped strengthen American democracy are not ones that I think he would’ve seen in Twitter.
I don’t personally think Twitter is noise, but I don’t quite see how I would enjoy using it in a way that is different enough from facebook or blogs to make it worth my while. For instance, I am enjoying this blog and its conversations about discourse, the discipline, etc. but I fail to see what Twitter adds to the experience. But I’m also a fuddy duddy who pines for cardigan sweaters and a perpetual 65th birthday.
Just a quick sample from Book II, Chapter 5:
“As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to. The first time I heard in the United States that a hundred thousand men had bound themselves publicly to abstain from spirituous liquors, it appeared to me more like a joke than a serious engagement, and I did not at once perceive why these temperate citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides. I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed by the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance.
They acted in just the same way as a man of high rank who should dress very plainly in order to inspire the humbler orders with a contempt of luxury. It is probable that if these hundred thousand men had lived in France, each of them would singly have memorialized the government to watch the public houses all over the kingdom.
Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.”
I think this is an apt passage to quote, as Tocqueville himself notes that what these people are doing seems pretty odd. His first inclination is to wonder why they didn’t just drink water by themselves. But your comment – and Tocqueville’s – answer our question: they desire the company of others, they need to associate with others (not just with regard to political issues/questions, but intellectual, moral, and even other more whimsical endeavors).
What you like about the blog is “its conversations about discourse, the discipline, etc.” Without the conversation, you likely wouldn’t enjoy the blog nearly so well as you do. But you’re lucky: you have a ready-made little community here with whom you share these interests. What Twitter provides is a larger community: new people, similar interests, more conversation. The difference is that the community forms itself, around the interest.
You might even be able to find a group of people who all pine for cardigans…
I could find the same group on a blog. There’s nothing unique about Twitter that makes it easier to find the community. I can google what I am interested in, find the web community that is interested in it to, and enjoy.
The debate, to me, is about whether a virtual association is the same as a physical association. I think Tocqueville would say no.
I should note that I’ve yet to fully tap into Twitter’s potential for community building; that being said, several people I follow regularly provide links (mostly to technology commentaries) that I’ve found to be quite helpful.
Partly because I know much more about political science than I do about what’s going on in the academic world outside of it, it’s much easier for me to just Google the polisci info I’m seeking. Following people who are more versed in another area, however, allows me a quick ‘in’ to the interesting aspects of these other fields. So I suppose in that way Twitter shows a good, quick method for augmenting the more exhaustive blogs, Wikis, etc.
I agree with Mike G’s point, but that, to me, is a different thing that what Tocqueville is saying (“As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world…”) Mike is learning extra things, but not things related to an opinion or feeling he wishes to promote in the world. He’s just learning helpful things, which doesn’t have much to do with the preservation of democracy.
This is fun.
I think it’s probably impossible to definitively decide what Tocqueville would have thought about virtual communities.
What I want to suggest is that Tocqueville thinks associations are central to preserving democratic freedom. And these are associations. I don’t want to start picking and choosing which associations are the “right” sort, as Tocqueville himself does not. Again, I want to say that associations – whether virtual or not – are nothing more than what you make of them.
That may depend on the sort of relationship that Mike has with the link-provider. If the Twitterer is someone already known to Mike (and I mean virtually, not personally), and Mike is following that person because of an interest in a particular topic, then they might plausibly be called an association and the links are just the passing of information within an existing organization.
There are a couple of problems though. I’m sticking with the bandwidth issue and going to say Twitter communities are likely to be less coherent than other virtual communities or physical communities because of the 140 character limit. This will make coordination and action difficult except under highly salient circumstances.
Secondly, virtual communities without hierarchies are probably particularly prone to collective action problems when it comes to democratic action because no one is assigned to, say, go lobby Congress. It’s the Kitty Genovese phenomenon in cyberspace. For example, Facebook “Causes” have lots of members, but don’t raise much money.
This might be unfair if Ari and Mike are arguing that Twitter just increases the likelihood of new associations arising, in which case I would be lumping the failures of “bad” Twitter groups on the “good” ones as well.
But then we get to Wagner’s Twitter vs. Google argument. How do you surmount that? Perhaps in this case the 140 character limit is a virtue, making the formation of new ties less intimidating? People who would be scared off by a full-on webpage might feel more capable of jumping in if all they can see of the existing organization are tweets?
Perhaps it is an either/or. Maybe it’s okay for people to choose Google or blogs or web pages as their medium over using Twitter.
But Wagner’s point about isolationism has two possible answers. 1) It seems to me that those who are already somewhat social with a physical community tend to embrace more ways to be social (via Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Conversely, people who are less social in real life are probably reluctant to join more ways that force them to make contact (I live with a prime example, and it’s not Mike).
2) However, for those “isolationist” folks who are really into technology and spend most of their time online, they have made transitions from World of Warcraft to Twitter fairly easily. Anecdotal example #2 is my brother-in-law who has the same disposition and reluctantly-social tendencies as his brother, but because he loves anything techie or information, etc., he has bought into Twitter and Facebook. It’s difficult for him to connect with people in person, but he is able to do so more effectively online. So without these electronic social networks, he would have less community.
But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether Twitter is inferior or on par with other mediums. Which brings me to one of my earlier posts — I wish more things in life had character limits. Imagine Twitter as the small talk with strangers and friends that lead to deeper conversations elsewhere (blogs).
It took me awhile to figure out what I’m trying to say, but I think I have figured it out:
Compared to “real” associations, in a virtual association it is relatively easy to exercise “exit” in the Hirschman sense. And within virtual associations, Twitter-based associations are probably the easiest to exit. (This exit could take the form of not participating in group action, expressions of individuality, leaving the group, etc.) At some point, this ease of exit makes for a kind of association that is different enough from previous kinds that it may not be analogous at all.
Something I should have introduced earlier is Tocqueville’s concern with aristocracy-generated associations and democratically-generated associations. In the paragraphs (1-2 pages) before the quote Ari provides, Tocqueville writes that
“When several members of an aristocracy want to associate with each other they easily succeed in doing so. As each of them bring great force to society, the number of members can be very few, and, when the members are few in number, it is very easy for them to know each other, to understand each other, and establish fixed rules.”
To me, Twitter is used by the aristocracy. We follow journalists, actors, faculty, etc.
“When the members of an aristocracy adopt a new idea or conceive a novel sentiment, they place it in a way next to themselves on the great stage they are on, and in thus exposing it to the view of the crowd, they easily introduce it into the minds and hearts of all those who surround them. In democratic socieits, only the social power is naturally in a state to act like this, but it is easy to see that its action is always insufficient and often dangerous.” About three paragraphs later is the passage Ari quotes.
Tocqueville ends this passage, ” In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions increases.” Of course, then there’s all the stuff on the growth of individualism as conditions become more equal — there might be an opening there for the K&G argument.
My view is that the web, and then especially developments like Twitter, exacerbate the inequality of conditions (at least so far), which is one reason why I think Tocqueville wouldn’t like Twitter.
As for the “right” sort of associations, I think Tocqueville does declare some dangerous or misguided, such as the ‘no drinking in America’ folks he discusses in the same chapter from which we both quote.
I’m not convinced that Tocqueville sees this sort of association as dangerous or misguided. Here’s this:
“The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society…
I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”
In Mike’s quotation – about actions that are “always insufficient and often dangerous” – Tocqueville is referring to government. In my translation, the phrase isn’t “social power” but “governing power.” Thus, he goes on to say:
“No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands. Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor. Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”
One more: Twitter isn’t really used by the aristocracy (which is clear once you get on there and check out what’s happening). All you need is a computer and an internet connection. And that’s pretty ubiquitous (at this point, in this country).
There are celebrities on Twitter, more every day. But you don’t have to follow them. And, if you don’t, you’d never know they were there. Oprah, we all know, now “uses” Twitter. But it doesn’t affect me in any way. If I wanted it to, however, it could affect me in all sorts of ways.
In some sense, Twitter has the capacity to make anyone a celebrity. You don’t have to be beautiful, you don’t have to have a wonderful singing voice, you don’t even have to be particularly brilliant. But if you have something to say and others connect with you because of it, then there you have it.
I don’t see the connection with the last set of Tocqueville’s quoted passages and a refutation of the art of association, equality, individualism, etc. points I was making before. On the other hand, the points about all different kinds of groups forming is one point for the pro-Twitter column, with some probably reasonable assumptions.
Not to get too bogged down in translation debates, but social power seems to be the better translation than governing power, given the point Tocqueville is making there with respect to the rest of Democracy in America.
It is true that the average Twitter user is poorer (re: younger) than the average American. But it is also true that those with high numbers of followers are wealthier, educated, etc. The aristocracy (Where’s an Al Gore campaign slogan when you need one!?!). Twitter users are also more plugged in (read papers online, etc.) which suggests that the wealth statistic regarding their use is a bad once since the average users are college students (with parents who can afford college, a wireless connection, etc.).
The other thing I think but can’t remember for sure (my copy of Democracy in America is at the office) is that Tocqueville wasn’t a huge fan of demogogues, which I think (this is dangerous, without the book!) he argues wouldn’t so much tyrranize in democracries but hinder growth, keep people in silo’d pockets of communication, etc.
One thing that bothers me about Twitter that is sort of relevant here is that associations have members. Twitter has followers. People have followers. I’m uncomfortable with that and given my vague recollections on Tocqueville’s take on demogogues, I think he would be too.
This is not to say that Twitter users are demogogues (though Shaq sort of is… :-)), but the potential for it seems greater when you have followers than members.
The aristocracy argument may be correct. Perhaps what is going on with Twitter and other social networking technologies is that though there may be a aristocracy that naturally emerges (and a “lower class” of those who don’t have enough influence to have followers), said aristocracy is more encompassing. In other words, there can be more people within the aristocracy. The potential for more aristocrats (or gatekeepers, elites, what have you) would seem to increase feelings of efficacy and influence, would it not?
And, of course, the dirty joke with the punchline “The Aristocrats.”
From my friend Aurilean Craiutu, who has co-edited two books on Tocqueville and has a co-authored APSR on AdT’s post-1840 thoughts on America…he did think it was an open question as to Tocqueville’s opinion about Twitter, but:
“Tocqueville would certainly not have used it; he liked to write nice and long letters. The only use he migth have made of it is to pick-up women (he was interested in that activity..)”
Found an interesting link that shows what Twitter is doing to other technologies – pay no attention to MySpace (does anybody use that?) but instead focus on Google and email. Very interesting.
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