May 01, 2017

Habermas is on Twitter

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Have you ever argued with a stranger on Twitter? I recently published a Washington Post op-ed based on my research of the corporate consolidation of music festivals, and was drawn into a Twitter argument with an employee of the second largest corporate entertainment conglomerate in the world. (We ended up agreeing!)

The conversation made me reconsider how technology shapes and informs our discourse. A sociologist who is rarely taught in undergraduate courses, Jürgen Habermas, can help us understand this. (His theories are complex, and his books are not really geared toward American students’ tastes.)

Habermas is on Twitter, but only has fourteen posts as of this writing. His first tweet, however, was particularly useful: “This definitely brings new meaning to “public sphere.” Habermas pointed to eighteenth century cafes, salons, and bars were places where for democratic debate, and the rise of public opinion, so it would make sense that he would have some interest in Twitter.

Social media connects with his theory of communicative action: better outcomes arise when people work toward reaching an understanding, negotiating the context and rules of the interaction, settling and agreeing upon the norms. A few issues need consideration.

First, there is a question of access to social media. Certainly not everyone has access to the technology to participate in wider conversations on politics, their communities, and interests. We call this the digital divide. When writing about the public sphere, Habermas was careful to note that the public sphere was really the bourgeois public sphere, since it was only available to the elites. (For more, you can read his argument here.)

Then there is the architecture of the technology itself. Twitter is a massive operation. Currently there are over 313 million monthly users, although less than half interact with the site daily, and over 35 offices around the world. It has highly calibrated settings that seek to profit off your tweets. Not only is it a place that has become festooned with corporate ads, but Twitter’s structure also makes it a place where there is a very serious problem of online abuse, trolls, and internet harassers. In 2015, Twitter CEO even stated in an internal memo: “We suck at dealing with abuse.” (Pew also has a new report on trolls and fake news.)

Critical for a robust public sphere—what Habermas called an “ideal communication community”—is having critique and regulation built in, and being community driven. Twitter’s rules are decidedly non-negotiable, and not set by the community. So, it doesn’t quite fit the bill for a Habermasian social space.

Into that gap steps Mastodon. Mastodon is an open source, non-commercial competitor to Twitter that seeks to limit trolling and corporate advertisements from hogging your media feed. They offer longer posts (500 characters vs Twitter’s 140) and maintain very strict policies around racist, sexist, xenophobic and other discriminatory language.

What Mastodon does offer are more tailored rules to fit the varied communities it aims to host. Users make the rules of each communicative group, called an “instance.” Each instance, organized around some theme and hosted by someone who is just another Mastodon user (Mastodonian?), with their own rules for participation. The rules that are agreed upon and work within one conversation might not work in another instance.

Developer Eugen Rochko is quoted in Wired as saying, “I hope people will have more interesting conversations, more nuanced conversations, with less misunderstanding.” The author of the article notes, “…brands and bullies don’t make for engaged communities.”

But can Mastodon’s decentralized oversight and localized rule-making create a more welcoming and vibrant community? Can it be what Habermas seeks for his idea of communicative rationality?

At this point it is unclear that Mastodon will survive. There are a growing number of ethically-oriented but eventually unsuccessful social media sites hoping to knock Twitter and Facebook off their pedestals. Ello, for example, offered a nicer, less corporate version of Facebook and failed to take off. Same with Diaspora. Mastodon might end up being as extinct as its namesake. Habermas, in fact, is not all that optimistic. He says that bourgeois public spaces often flower, and then fade.

If it does hold on, however, it may be the closest social media has come to reaching to Habermas’ ideal.


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