For a good while now, I’ve had a shameful habit that I felt cast a dim light on my status as a with-it political writer: I don’t spend much time on Twitter.
It’s not that I’m Twitter-ignorant, exactly. It’s actually the only social-media platform I patronize. I took a blood oath against participating in Facebook after watching it devour every waking hour of friends and family members, and I’m just not visually oriented enough to find the various photo-centric platforms compelling. I joined Twitter eight years ago and have a minimally respectable number of followers. About the only time, however, that I hang out on Twitter and engage in its vast battlefield of ideas and prejudices is when I’m covering some live event like an election night or a debate and have time on my hands during commercial breaks or when there’s some breaking news the MSM hasn’t gotten to yet.
For the most part, I go on Twitter to promote awareness of my own work, darting in and out and maybe addressing some especially dumb insults or misstatements of fact. I am aware of the major responses I get when I deploy names like “Bernie Sanders” and “Pete Buttigieg,” or when I offer an especially effective taunt aimed at Twitter unfavorites like, well, the president of the United States, whose tweets are perhaps the single biggest reason I visit Twitter. But I don’t live there, unlike, I have gradually discovered, most people in my profession. Which has left me feeling old and unhip, and dependent on my colleagues for an understanding of the latest trends and red-hot controversies in the Twitterverse.
But now, after repeatedly failing to keep resolutions to spend more time on Twitter, I am discovering that I am actually a trend-setter. It’s spending less time on Twitter that’s now hip, as my colleague Jonathan Chait explains in the context of reporting on how the Fourth Estate is shocked by Joe Biden’s popularity among, you know, actual voters:
The most important ingredient in the delusion was Twitter. It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the platform shapes the minds of professional political observers. Part of Twitter’s allure to insiders is that it creates a simulacrum of the real world, complete with candidates, activists, and pundits all responding to events in real time. Because Twitter superficially resembles the outside world’s political debate — it does, after all, contain the full left-to-right spectrum — it is easy to mistake it for the real thing.
But the ersatz polity of Twitter doesn’t represent the real world.
Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times had the same insight:
Spending too much time on the [Twitter] platform can be actively misleading about the state of the party, as you can see in the polling surge of Joe Biden, a man despised by the online left. Biden has fewer Twitter followers than the first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and less than half as many as Senator Bernie Sanders.
He’s utterly at odds with the style of progressive politics that dominates the internet, failing to properly apologize for touching women in ways that made them uncomfortable, offering half measures on climate change, and praising “my Republican friends in the House and Senate.” But among Democratic voters, he is leading the field by double digits.
And Kevin Drum summed up the lesson:
Social media is useful as a way of keeping in touch with certain segments of the population. It’s useful for finding leads. It’s useful for becoming aware of things before they break into the mainstream. But that’s about it. It’s a starting point. Reporters should limit their social media exposure to about ten minutes a day and spend the rest of the time in the real world. That would keep them more firmly rooted to reality, and help the rest of us stay rooted to reality too.
Telling political writers to spend no more than ten minutes a day on social media is like telling an alcoholic to have a daily teaspoon of hooch: It just maintains the addiction without satisfying it. Hell, even I spend more than ten minutes a day on Twitter, though probably no more than 15 to 20. So for once I’m feeling that the arc of technological history might just be bending in my direction.
There’s only one problem with my feeling superior to Twitter-addled contemporaries who got fooled into thinking Joe Biden was toast. I wrote some pretty negative things about Uncle Joe’s viability myself — particularly after he fumbled an apology to Anita Hill on the day he announced his candidacy — but I can’t blame it on Twitter. I came to the wrong conclusions (for now, at least) all on my own.
But hey, next time there’s a big, controversial political development that’s hard to read, maybe I’ll check out Twitter to see what not to say. And if I hit an hour a day on the platform, I’ll tweet a plea for an intervention from @ed_kilgore.