“Twitter is used as a global town square…. Twitter’s health is measured by how we help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in his testimony before Congress last week.
I couldn’t help laughing. If Twitter is healthy to the degree that it promotes thoughtful debate and critical thinking, then Twitter is a withered husk riddled with syphilis, bubonic plague, and six kinds of cancer.
As I watched Marco Rubio and Alex Jones come perilously close to duking it out in the halls of Congress, I found myself wondering if the online “town square” Dorsey envisions is possible or even desirable. And if not, I wondered, what does that say about the foundations, and the future, of democracy?
In 2009, two academics co-authored an article predicting a social media-driven “writing revolution” that would, in the next few years, bring civilization to a state of “universal authorship.” “Nearly everyone reads. Soon, nearly everyone will publish,” they wrote, and gave several examples of how Twitter can empower individuals and erode traditional power structures.
Indeed, the entire history of literacy and authorship follows the same arc. The American and French Revolutions wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to rapidly publish and distribute pamphlets and newspapers, which then went “viral” among a growing vernacular readership.
This readership was itself largely a result of the Protestant Reformation, which pushed for universal literacy on the basis that anyone who could read the Bible for himself could not possibly be taken in by popish lies.
For centuries, civilization seemed to be on an irreversible upward trajectory, as one authoritarian regime after another collapsed and the “marketplace of ideas” stretched around the globe. In this view of history, universal authorship should be the last step toward the achievement of the perfect democratic society. Instead, I fear it could destroy the possibility of having a society at all.
The ideal democratic citizen, it seems, would be well trained in critical reading, willing to consider every point of view objectively before accepting or rejecting it based on its own merits. As one college composition textbook puts it, we who live in a society defined by universal authorship should be able to “see beyond our own pet beliefs” and be able to “protect ourselves from those who would try to manipulate or harm us.”
The problem, of course, is that this is an incredibly difficult line to walk, especially for the average person. Even the best educated among us can’t do it all the time. A writer for The Atlantic recently complained about the leveling tendency of social media when he expressed his annoyance at “the people who will tweet or email me when I share this very article…because they believe they are owed an audience with me simply by virtue of the fact that they are on the internet, and I am on the internet.” This is universal authorship in action, and it’s simply exhausting.
Fifty years ago, things were a little easier. Technological barriers to entry meant that the three major news networks served as a de facto public square where Americans could come together and be reminded that, despite their disagreements, they inhabited more or less the same world. This unifying centrism naturally excluded some ideas, but these limitations meant that the average citizen could still conceivably consider all the points of view to which he was exposed and make a decision for himself.
Today, all barriers have fallen. InfoWars and Slate jockey with CNN, The New York Times, alt-media YouTubers, and President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed for space in the public square. No one could possibly give every one of those voices a fair shake. Spend five minutes on Twitter, and you’ll see that the freedom of universal authorship has led us to imprison ourselves. Social media users are sealing themselves off into echo chambers, and anyone who penetrates those echo chambers with an opposing opinion is immediately branded a troll. The very technologies that were supposed to open up the public square have rendered it uninhabitable.
This, I would argue, is one area in which conservatism must break with classical liberalism and speak in defense of “pet beliefs” or, as Russell Kirk called them, prejudices. “Prejudice is not bigotry or superstition, although prejudice sometimes may degenerate into these. Prejudice is pre-judgment, the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion supply a man when he lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason,” Kirk writes in his book The Conservative Mind.
No one has an infinite store of time or knowledge, and it’s time we as conservatives stopped pretending such a thing were possible. In the age of universal authorship, the ideal democratic society is not a collection of autonomous individuals who have purged themselves of prejudice, but a community in which a large majority of citizens share the same prejudices.
Perhaps such a community could be re-imposed through totalitarian censorship and propaganda, but I doubt it could ever be rebuilt organically. The recent decision by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms to ban Alex Jones is nothing more than a futile, last-ditch attempt at re-erecting some barriers around the public square. As YouTuber ChrisRayGun recently pointed out, we have no consistent standard with which to police social media, and any attempt to do so will either fizzle out or else be easily circumvented. Universal authorship is here to stay, and it may have dealt the death blow to pluralistic democracy. If that is the case, our only choice is to embrace a sort of Benedict Option, working to cultivate the prejudices necessary to preserve our own subcultures.
In his science fiction novel The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson imagines a future in which pluralistic nation-states have fragmented into what Stephenson calls “phyles” or “tribes,” each based on a shared religion, race, or ideology. A bare-bones law code called the Common Economic Protocol enables the various phyles to engage in trade with one another, but otherwise, they remain entirely insular. Instead of making territorial claims and attempting to govern the diverse population of that territory, each phyle maintains a network of sovereign “enclaves” scattered throughout the world and linked together by social media.
Thanks to the free-for-all of universal authorship, these phyles are already beginning to form. People from across the world gather into insular Facebook groups devoted to their niche ideologies, from RadTrad Catholicism to unironic Stalinism. These communities don’t care about engaging in open and civil debate. Instead, they develop their own meme languages and their own byzantine rules for regulating discussion and dealing with intruders. Log on and see for yourself: we may be living in the last days of the pluralistic society.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.