Does Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?

In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains why Twitter seems not to be as fun or as socially satisfying as some other networks. He thinks it uncomfortably and unsuccessfully “smooshes” together aspects of oral communication (spontaneity, rapidity, and interactivity) with aspects of written communication (permanence, sharability, and the capacity to reach strangers). Meyer thinks that “the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi [that should actually be magna opera], but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh. Visual conversations have stayed chatty, in other words.”

Meyer’s theorists are Walter Ong and Bonnie Stewart, but there are also hints of Habermas in the article: Ong is quoted on the “human lifeworld,” and Meyer notes ways that the public and the private “get smooshed.”

A core Habermasian insight is that there are different norms appropriate to private and public speech.

In public, you must make arguments that can persuade strangers. You must therefore provide adequate reasons and explanations for everything you say. Since you can’t assume that strangers understand your assumptions and experiences, you must make them evident. You are accountable for your remarks and should be responsive to reasonable critiques. You should (generally) take the same positions when talking to different people. When Mitt Romney complained to donors about the 49% of Americans who were “takers,” but he didn’t want the 49% to hear him, he became one of many public figures who have been caught violating the norms of public speech.

In private, the norms are authenticity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to the concrete other people with whom you have relationships. You should (generally) say what you really feel in the moment, although you are also obligated to care about what the individual who hears you thinks and feels. That may require tact. You need not fully explain your thoughts, and your explanations certainly need not convey entire, self-sufficient arguments to strangers. You are not responsible for treating everyone alike. In fact, you are obligated to favor some people, the ones you love and who love you. You have a right to privacy, so if you are videotaped saying something that you wouldn’t want strangers to hear, that is a violation of your rights.

It is dangerous to confuse these domains, to “smoosh” the public with the private. Often, marketing and political propaganda consists of pretending to have an authentic private conversation while actually influencing strangers. Voters mistakenly choose candidates based on their impressions of politicians’ private lives, which are irrelevant at best and fictional at worst. Meanwhile, powerful people privatize the public sphere by making policy decisions on the basis of personal relationships and inventing spurious justifications or avoiding rationales entirely. Prying journalists and governments violate privacy. And sometimes ordinary people retreat from the public sphere and either take no positions at all or develop irresponsible positions on public matters because they can’t or won’t interact with strangers as if they were real decision-makers.

I am not sure, however, whether Twitter exemplifies the smooshing of public and private that worries Habermas. Twitter is a fairly flexible platform. You can use the 140 characters to address the public, although that will often require embedded links. Or you can use the 140 characters to keep your close friends informed about your social plans. You can develop a persona as a public person or as a private one. The two can be confused, and awkwardness can arise. For instance, as Meyer notes, disclaimers that “RTs do not constitute endorsements” are odd ways of distancing a Tweeter from the content. But it could be that Twitter is a useful vehicle for both public and private conversations, and the feeling of tension simply reflects the parlous condition of our public life, more broadly.

See also: Habermas illustrated by Twitterprotecting authentic human interactionfriendship and politicsOstrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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