I’ve sometimes gotten into a conversation with my non-Twitter-using friends about why certain groups (journalists, marketers, technologists) like the service so much, and while I’ve never been able to articulate it precisely, I think this is the reason. The fundamental fantasy behind our deification of social media is precisely the scenario depicted above: the genius tycoon, sitting in front of a mass of simultaneous media feeds, picking out trends from all the noise, predicting the future by consuming as much information as possible. (See also the fictional fantasy of the hacker as information-wizard.) By giving us access to all data instead of the either what we see through our personal experience, or the massively filtered and ideologically selected depictions that mass media limits us to, and doing it in an incredibly quick mouth-on-the-firehose kind of way, we are able to use our own independent intellects to draw conclusions uninflected by gatekeepers and self-interested restrictions. And we don’t have to be tycoons to do it, since it’s a free service universally available.
But none of this is true. For one thing, we don’t actually have perfect access to Twitter information. We are always offered a semi-random selection of what’s being produced, based either on who we follow or the incredibly unreliable search function. The only way to get that access is to be a tycoon, since a feed off the full Twitter “firehose” of all content costs somewhere around $300k/month currently. For another, it turns out that this volume of information is too much for us to process unassisted. We turn either to self-styled collectors to sum up the general trends on a certain subject, or we rely on technological tools created and run with certain ideological purposes (see: Twitter’s trending topics metric). In either case, we’re right back to relying on institutionally-inflected gatekeepers rather than our own direct experience of the data. And finally, the possibility of universal access does not equal the reality of universal use. Even if we did look at all Twitter data, we would only be seeing the experiences of 15% of the U.S. population, and far less than that in many other countries - especially if we limited ourselves to English-language results. We’re not seeing the news from everywhere, we’re seeing the news from very particular perspectives.
The point is that this fantasy frames a certain kind of evidence. In contrast to the traditional notion that what we experience firsthand is the most true thing, this kind of knowledge - aggregated knowledge - gets its value from having been gained unobtrusively, without self-interest or contact with the datapoints, and so therefore neutral. Aggregated knowledge enables an aura of perfect universality, facts so disconnected from any individual’s experience, inflection, or perception that they must be true. Both this method of knowing and the old way rely on certain value-laden worldviews, but neither are more true. The knowledge we gain from this supposedly panoptic view of the world is as limited and mediated in its own way as anything else. It just feels more real. And that’s delicious, isn’t it?