As a very early member of Generation X – so early I almost qualify as a Boomer – I had the good fortune to grow up without the Internet. I always had access to computers. Anybody who went to Rutgers in the 1980s will remember the fifty or so original Macs, each in its own cubicle, in the Owls Roost study hall. But that instant community you can get these days simply by opening your laptop and logging into social media would have to wait until AOL in the mid-1990s. I was in my late 20s before I ever posted a thought online. Back in the 1980s, unless you got involved in a college newspaper or literary magazine, you largely wrote for yourself.
During my troll attack last week, one of the ring leaders kept repeating that she couldn’t believe I had twice as many followers as she did. I have about 1200 followers on Twitter. It’s a respectable number for a nobody, I suppose, but it’s also highly misleading. Even though I cull my followers list of sock puppets and spambots, I rarely interact on a regular basis with more than nine or ten people. Social media provides the illusion of an intellectual community more than the reality of an intellectual community. If you spend enough time tweeting you will get followers. That doesn’t mean you’ll get readers. The vast majority of “hits” I get on this blog come from Google searches, not social media, and even here, I doubt the ratio of people who actually read the posts compared to the people who just look at the first few sentences and then go onto the next search result is very high. I have trivial 1200 word film reviews that have gotten over 10,000 “hits.” Four people read my undergraduate thesis on Joseph Conrad, a committee of three professors, and myself.
To acquire “followers” on Twitter or “friends” on Facebook is not so much to get readers, but to enter the corporate “hive mind.” Indeed, on Twitter, if more people actually comment on the tweet than simply like or retweet it, that’s considered a “bad ratio,” and evidence you’re an idiot or a troll. It’s easy to feel popular and smart on social media, especially on the Twitter left. Just find some establishment boob with a blue check mark, wait until he says something stupid, and retweet him with a snarky comment. If your comment taps into the hive mind, you’ll get hundreds of likes and retweets. Or just say something like “smash the state” or “fuck the police” or “that’s racist,” and you can almost imagine that you’ve just written the Communist Manifesto. Argue that people should read the actual Communist Manifesto, on the other hand, or, God forbid, Capital, and you’re just as likely to be accused of being a “privileged” college educated, “ableist” white male.
Twitter and Facebook are both based on a clever lie. You imagine you’re expressing yourself through the software. In reality, the software is expressing itself through you. The more your thinking conforms to a narrow range of acceptable opinion, the more popular you become. The more complex and informed your thought, the more you will be ignored, or even “dragged.” Just about the worst thing you can do on the Twitter left is to start a sentence with the word “actually” – to basically say “I disagree” – or to point out that “not every member of this group fits your description,” the infamous “not all men” cliché. On the Twitter left, you can be more radical than Lenin, but you must never say something like “we should judge people as individuals, not as members of their gender or ethnic group,” and it makes sense. Twitter is not the megaphone of the people. It’s a corporate advertising platform designed to break people down into demographic profiles that can then be sold to advertisers. The more I act as a “white male” or an “American” or a “college graduate from the northeast” and the less I act as “Stanley Rogouski” the more useful I am to lords of Silicon Valley. If I spend enough time on the Internet, I may eventually get more readers than Herman Melville ever got for Moby Dick during his lifetime, but I will in no way be a great, a good, or even a mediocre writer and thinker. I will be the perfect ventriloquist’s dummy.