Twitter, by its own hand or some sudden shift in trends, will one day die. What will I do then? The engine of my thought is always directed toward Twitter. As I walk the city, I am attuned to that little empty box insistently asking “What’s happening?” My experience of the material world is shadowed by a kind of holographic plane, a translucent layer over everything, studded with tweet buttons. Conversations, happenings in public spaces, street art, or a celebrity sighting — these are all fodder for a reality that I have come to perceive in tweet-size fragments.
Twitter has colonized my mind. Almost every day for just under a decade, I have checked the site, have tweeted, retweeted, been subtweeted. My mental map is the frontier surrendered, and Twitter is the empire. To become occupied by a social network is to internalize its gaze. It is to forever carry a doubled view of both your own mind and the platform’s. What beckons initially is what feels like a blank canvas — some empty space onto which one can splash one’s desires. So, like millions of others, I conjured a persona for Twitter, at first modulating myself for the tech- and pop-culture-savvy early users, then later techno-skeptics and lefty cultural critics, and now for the many like me who are just exhausted by the whole thing and make aimless or bitter jokes.
That we perform for others isn’t exactly new; it is, rather, a fundamental part of who we are. The field of psychology is littered with concepts like the looking-glass self — in which we form our self-conception based on others’ perception of us — or David Elkind’s imaginary audience, a term describing how an envisioned, general audience affects our behavior. Writing out our identities as an act of self-creation is perhaps the most obvious way in which we respond to this phantom viewing public, positioning and shaping our words to suit who we imagine to be reading them. In Politics and Aesthetics in the Diary of Virginia Woolf, author Joanne Tidwell suggests that Woolf — an author who otherwise demanded much of her audience — wrote for an older self, imagining an ideally sympathetic reader, as if in her diaries Woolf wrote to the person she hoped to become. Social media is another kind of public diarizing, and its trajectory aims at a similarly ideal avatar — it externalizes thought, but also the interpersonal, the communicative. We use it to seek out an empathic witness for our scribblings, projecting into the murk of online space an audience who sees us as we hope to be seen.
Twitter, which is public in both its default settings and its culture, concentrates this effect. You are almost always followed by those you don’t know, or the bots and spam accounts who don’t quite exist but appear to. Each numerical addition to one’s follower list amounts to a little increase in our sense that people have chosen to watch because there is something about us — a wry smirk in a profile pic, an offhandedly funny or heartfelt tweet — that drew them in. One’s audience is like a darkened theater punctuated by hundreds of eyes, anticipating that self-image tucked into the corner of one’s mind, carried about as one moves through the world. If in specifics we distinguish between bots, brands, and our friends, in practical terms they all form part of the same expectant crowd.
Thus, the imagined audience is often just that: an imagining; a conveniently blank, conjured thing, a sort of perfect Other, all id and ego but no wagging finger of the superego — a blurry, smeared collection of people we want to like us, be attracted to us, be jealous of us. We aren’t so much writing to people or acting ourselves out but invoking what we imagine our ideal audience to be. A Twitter joke isn’t just an attempt to get laughs or acquire likes; it’s an attempt to extract from the faceless dark of the limitless web an exact body of people who find what we find funny, funny.
To become occupied by a social network is to internalize its gaze. It is to forever carry a doubled view of both your own mind and the platform’s
But the imagined Other is not just some conveniently homogeneous mass. It is always split, fissures of the Real forming in our fantasizing. It is a horizon of general possibility punctuated by pillars of aspiration and threatening figures of repression, sharp pinpricks interrupting the easy reverie of perfect sympathy. Among the unindividuated mass are those we desperately want to please, those whose money we want, those we want to fuck, those who are out of our orbit and to whom we are grateful for just a shred of attention. There are, too, the predators, the haters, the naysayers, the racists and the sexists, the homophobes, the chaotic monsters who gather around the word “troll.” We push down the thought of one so that we might bathe in the affirmation of the other.
The idealized audience is a thing you forever create and that creates you at the same time. To have an audience at all is to be relentlessly concerned with how you will be read. At times Twitter provides the perfectly sympathetic audience we don’t have elsewhere: a warm embrace to soothe our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires, made more welcoming by the fact that our audience isn’t quite a real person but rather something just close enough to the outline of a person to function like one in our psychology. But the very blankness of that Other imbues it with the threat of disapproval, wildly vacillating in our imaginations from a nagging “no” to the glare of white supremacy or patriarchy. Watch your tone, we tell ourselves, and even when we are actively defiant, that is exactly what we are doing. Each tweet has to be read with the same doubled view of its production: a string of words meant to mean something to someone, and an expression aimed at no one in particular; an object made to expel some desire, not meant to really communicate anything.
Maybe colonization is the right term for Twitter. The internalization of another structure is, after all, just the model of colonialism deployed by the most successful and insidious powers. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British bureaucrat deeply invested in instituting British schooling in 19th-century India, wrote in his now infamous “Minute on Education” that the point of any new education system in the country was to reform educated Indians into an Anglicized middle class bureaucracy who, indoctrinated in English supremacy, would remake India in Britain’s image. The point wasn’t to repress; it was to have the colonial subject come to express the values of the colonizer “through their own volition.”
The tension between the imagined audience who sees you perfectly and the one who you contort yourself to please is precisely the nature of modern control. When in response to the ubiquity of surveillance we namedrop Foucault — speaking of the way sous-veillance has chilling effects — we often forget that the French philosopher suggested that power doesn’t simply say “no” like a police officer brandishing a truncheon; it beckons us to say yes, asking us to remake ourselves in its image, happily and contentedly producing the right sort of content. To internalize the structure of a social network is a way of both connecting with other humans and becoming subservient to our imagined visions of what they want.
We aren’t so much writing to people or acting ourselves out but invoking what we imagine our ideal audience to be
To use Twitter is to become its consumer but also its bureaucrat. We tweet and read, expressing and absorbing what we wish as we propagate and internalize the logic of the platform, hundreds of millions of us performing these new behaviors in lockstep, beckoning each other to join in. It is a kind of auto-colonization: adopting the notion that a public digital self is a way to temporarily exceed the body, and embracing the personal brand as a mode of existence. We perform, as we always have, but perhaps more consciously, more acutely and persistently attuned to being watched. As we offload more of our identity and day-to-day life to the platform, we bend to the imagined Other like plants craning to maximize their exposure to sunlight.
I worry that this is what Twitter has done to me — or perhaps, what I have let it do to me. I have watched my tweets change over the years: first, in response to more followers, then to the incessant awareness that I need to make a living, then to callout culture, the politics of representation, and sheer exhaustion. But a decade on, I still find myself thinking in the terms of Twitter: how each absurd, mundane happening in my life might be framed so as to be alluring to my audience, a potential employer, a date, or new friend. I still always carry my followers with me. In fact, I can’t get rid of them. They are like a ghostly companion, ever at my side. It isn’t just my tweets that have changed, but the way in which I relate to reality.
It is not, as so many state too breezily, too unthinkingly, that I am simply lost in the frippery of the everyday; rather, each platform offers broad structural and economic incentives for me to perform in a particular way. Twitter asks for the quip, the incisive takedown, or the viral. Instagram beckons the beautiful or the conspicuously consumed. Facebook demands the emotional or the inflammatory, the easily liked or the easily shared. Like a digitized medieval morality play, we have outsourced virtues and vices — Joy, Envy, Lust, Fear — to the dynamics of each platform. It is this, contrary to the ceaseless debates over narcissism or distraction, that forms the crux of our bargain with social media. Those other issues are just the side effects of the main medication. We are always being reconfigured from the outside in. Just as the book shaped thought in a particular way, so too do the many facets of digital, each in their own way.
When my perfect Other disappears, what then? The bind of colonization is that the vacuum left by the colonizer’s absence is so often filled by something similar. There is no going back from that global shift. And when Twitter fades I will seek out another holographic companion that offers the same release, and relentless pressure. Some other structure will occupy me — and it too will implore me to consider what it means when it incessantly asks: What’s happening?