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Twitterati times

Social media and narcissism

Mukul Kesavan Published 08.01.23, 04:35 AM

Lurking nameless on Twitter, I find myself unmoved by the outrage caused by Elon Musk’s micromanagement of this microblogging platform. One of the penalties of growing older is losing a talent for empathy. I can understand the reasons for outrage without being able to resonate to it as I might once have done.

I understand why people are concerned about Musk’s provocations, his dismantling of the processes that were used to vet hate speech and fake news on the platform. I can see why public figures want their ‘blue ticks’ protected so that their identities can be authenticated online and protected from impersonators. Businesses that use Twitter to promote themselves clearly have an interest in keeping the platform respectable. I can even, with a little effort, swallow the argument about Twitter being a digital public square too important to be run by a troll-billionaire like Musk.


But I don’t care. This is mostly down to age. I was nearly fifty years old when Facebook became a generally available social media platform. It isn’t hard for me to remember a world without ‘Friends’ and ‘Followers’ or one in which the opinions of a bigot on an edit page mattered more than the chorused tweets of some distempered troll farm.

The best argument for social media platforms is that they democratise online engagement by removing editorial gatekeepers, allowing people to self-publish. This is useful in all sorts of ways. It enables the naming of predators and abusers. It’s hard to imagine the MeToo revelations happening in a pre-social media age or being as effective. But social media shaming is a double-edged business. We have seen in recent times how Twitter mobs have been routinely mobilised for majoritarian ends.

The real difference between my generation’s use of online resources and our children’s is that we, consciously or otherwise, tend to use the digital world to achieve analog ends. This is exemplified by email. I remember marvelling over my first email account supplied by VSNL in 1996. Electronic mail felt like the lovechild of a telegram and a fax. This recourse to pre-internet precedents was a ponderous way of making sense of this magical ether that invisibly infiltrated our lives. Serious communication, I told myself, ought to happen over email which has the great advantage of being a kind of archive. Text messages are, for me, the equivalent of Post-It notes. It’s a distinction that is impossible to sustain as everyone I know, from contractors to my children, send me everything, from invoices to family photos, on WhatsApp.

I remember thinking naively that Facebook in its early years was an updated, networked way of making and keeping pen friends. The scope of the platform wholly eluded me. The notion that it would grow to be the biggest purveyor of news and targeted advertising in the world was unimaginable. I still consume news in the way that my father used to: by reading newspapers. I have a row of newspapers and magazines bookmarked on my browser and I read them dutifully by going to their home pages and reading their sports pages first, then navigating to the headlined news and then, if time permits, reading the columnists.

I feel vaguely horrified by surveys that tell me that millennials get their news from Instagram or Facebook or Twitter even though this news consists of links to the same world of digital news sites bookmarked on my browser. It seems like a random, almost involuntary, way of informing yourself about the world. Or, even worse, being informed about the world by an algorithm that knows you so well from your social media outpourings that it can pander to your prejudices with bespoke news.

I lurk pseudonymously on Twitter in a non-tweeting way because it’s an inexhaustible source of low entertainment. Twitter is to the real world what filmi gossip is to the Bombay film industry. There used to be a gossip section in the film magazine, Stardust, called Neeta’s Natter that people read because it dealt in scandal and narcissism and farce. Twitter’s a bit like that. Apart from the loons, it has ‘serious’ people being self-regarding and indiscreet in ways they would never countenance in real life. The other attraction of Twitter is that it is a searchable archive of names, mainly mine.

All social media platforms are ways of giving our inner Narcissus an airing. In the brief period that I was on Twitter as an active user, I would tweet out links to pieces I had published and hang around trawling the platform for responses. This began to seem like a forlorn way of spending my time so I stopped... and began doing it on Facebook instead.

The pathos of social media is that it turns each one of us into a broadcasting station, trying to find a wavelength where sympathetic (or admiring) listeners will tune in. We’re all AIR now, with the ‘I’ in the middle meaning just that. You could argue that all writing is egotistical. It is and it isn’t. The difference between a tweet or a Facebook post on the one hand and an essay or a book on the other is that there is an impersonality about the second kind of writing that is absent from the first sort.

The difference between conventionally published writing and its reception and social media posts and the way they are read is, I think, that in the former gratification is delayed and for that reason the anticipated response doesn’t shape what is written to quite the same degree. In 1959, Norman Mailer, the world middleweight champion of self-love, compiled and published a book of short pieces, verse and fragments called Advertisements For Myself. We are all Norman Mailer now and our social media offerings are, without exception, advertisements for ourselves.

Whenever I read an interesting ‘thread’ on Twitter, my first instinct is to wonder why its composer hasn’t done the right thing by it and published it as an article or an essay so that we are spared the indignity of numbered paragraphs and the uneasy sense that we are reading a primer. I try to persuade myself that the thread is a contemporary genre in itself... and fail. If all back upon my hostile old-person explanation: the need for instant gratification by way of likes and retweets and acronymic knowingness trumped the desire to produce a finished and possibly durable piece of work.

Which is why it’s hard to fret about Musk’s Twitter takeover. It’s almost appropriate that this Gulliver-sized egomaniac should own a platform crowded with self-driving egos. Narcissists get the social media platforms they deserve.

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