“I don’t think considering that we are all part of an ecosystem of relationships is too much to ask,” writes Leigh Alexander over at her personal site. The specific ecosystem she has in mind is Twitter, by which she has done very well for herself, as these things go. Links to her articles circulate widely on the platform and are frequent topics of discussion among her legions of followers there.
That may be why some felt it was biting the hand that feeds when, on Thursday, Alexander posted “A Letter From Your 11,721st Twitter Follower” to Thought Catalog. The “provocation” was structured around a series of faux pas, each confessed with a mixture of admiration and blithe self-assurance. For example:
I noticed you’re having a heated debate with a colleague via Twitter. Can I step in? I mean, I’m sure you understand the issues at hand better than I, but nonetheless I thought it might be useful if I reminded everyone to keep calm and be polite, at least. Eep. I’m sorry I misunderstood the discussion. Do you have a link? Oh, it’s a couple tweets back in your feed? Right, right, sorry to butt in. I think you’re both right. You’re welcome.
As satire, this cuts too wide a swath, which explains the follow-up on her personal site. There, she called the piece “a call to self-examination for users among which I include myself,” and lamented “the idea that there is ‘no etiquette’ for Twitter.”
Ah, but there is! It isn’t always the etiquette we’d like, but there are reasons for that. They are, in fact, the same reasons that what etiquette Twitter does have centers mainly on platform-specific behaviors like retweeting, modifying retweets, hashtagging and using @ calls to draw people into conversations they may not have otherwise noticed. That etiquette is still evolving, driven by the pressures of using Twitter for reportage or dealing with hacked accounts, but it is unlikely to ever encompass the sort of audience awareness Alexander has in mind.
The reason is Twitter. We could expand that into a general principle and say that all platforms suggest an etiquette shaped by the behaviors built into each. For example: many “social” platforms provide a simple, built-in method for signaling approval—”liking” on Facebook, “favoriting” on Twitter, and so on. Reddit distinguishes itself by providing a corresponding method for signaling disapproval, the down vote, and that has resulted in a distinct etiquette that pertains almost exclusively to Reddit.
Up to a point, designers may tweak the platform to indirectly adjust the local etiquette. That’s what Reddit administrators did this week when they gave moderators the ability to hide certain kinds of votes for up to 24 hours. But certain rules of etiquette can’t be built into a platform without undermining that platform’s utility. That sometimes means preserving behaviors that would break most good rules of etiquette. When you get right down to it, down voting can be pretty rude, but Reddit can only restrict the practice so far before it invalidates its own platform.
In most cases, the best we can ask for is a kind of built-in neutrality, but the same logic that pushes us toward a platform-specific etiquette will also discourage good practices if they happen to conflict with the site’s functionality. That’s why Leigh Alexander’s call is likely to go unheeded. It is by no means unreasonable to worry that we feel “no obligation on the part of the audience […] to consider the recipient of their attention as a human being,” but the promise of Twitter as a platform is to break down the once neat boundary that divided people off into audiences and main attractions. That can make it very difficult to decide when you’re Tweeting as one or the other, particularly since the act of retweeting often promotes a person to main attraction in spite of themselves. The safest conclusion may be simply that you’re never just an audience when you tweet.
Moreover, it is in Twitter’s interest to keep it that way. The platform survives on polyphony. If the greater part of its audience were to suddenly consign themselves to audience status, half the appeal would be gone. Worse yet, half the audience would likely disappear as well. Why, after all, would a silent consumer of information stick with Twitter when you can get the same information in fuller, flashier form some where else?
In the end, that may be the most viable solution. If we want a particular etiquette, we’re probably better off on a platform designed to those specifications—or, at least, one that’s etiquette neutral. The extent that we stick to Twitter is the extent to which we’re willing to sacrifice a social ideal for the utility it provides. “I do my part in the contract,” Alexander writes. “I make myself available.” There is no contract, though: just whatever we get in the messy act of participation.