What Would Kierkegaard Make of Twitter?
In the weeks leading up to Election Day 2020, Twitter and other social media companies announced they would be voluntarily implementing new procedures to discourage the spread of misinformation across their platforms; on November 12th, Twitter indicated that it would maintain some of those procedures indefinitely, arguing that they were successful in slowing the spread of election misinformation. In general, the procedures in question are examples of “nudges” designed to subtly influence the user to think twice before spreading information further through the social network; dubbed “friction” by the social media industry, examples include labeling (and, in some cases, hiding) tweets containing misleading, disputed, or unverified claims, and double-prompting a user who attempts to share a link to an article that they have not opened. While the general effectiveness of social media friction remains unclear (although at least one study related to COVID-19 misinformation has shown promise), Twitter has argued that their recent policy changes have led to a 29% reduction in quote-tweeting (where a user simultaneously comments on and shares a tweet) and a 20% overall reduction in tweet-sharing, both of which have slowed the spread of misleading information.
We currently have no shortage of ethical questions arising from the murky waters of social networks like Twitter. From the viral spread of “fake news” and propaganda to the problems of epistemic bubbles and echo chambers to malicious agents spearheading disinformation campaigns to the fostering of violence-producing communities like QAnon and more, alerts about the risks posed by social media programs are aplenty (including here at The Prindle Post, such as Desdemona Lawrence’s article from August of 2018). Given the size of Twitter’s user base (it was the fourth-most-visited website by traffic in October 2020 with over 353 million users visiting the site over 6.1 billion times), even relatively uncommon problems could still manifest in significant numbers and no clear solution has arisen for limiting the spread of falsehoods that would not also limit benign Twitter usage.
But is there such a thing as benign Twitter usage?
The early existentialist philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard might think not. Writing from Denmark in the early 1800s, Kierkegaard was exceedingly skeptical of the social movements of his day; as he explains in The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion, “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.” Instead of living full, meaningful lives, Kierkegaard criticized his contemporaries for simply desiring to talk about things in ways that, ultimately, amounted to little more than gossip. Moreover, Kierkegaard saw how this would underlie a superficiality of love for showing off to “the Public” (the abstract collection of people made up of “individuals at the moments when they are nothing”); all this “talkativeness” would produce a constant “state of tension” that, in the end, “exhausts life itself.” Towards the end of his essay, Kierkegaard summarizes his criticism of his social environment by saying that “Everyone knows a great deal, we all know which way we ought to go and all the different ways we can go, but nobody is willing to move.”
This all probably sounds unsettlingly familiar to anyone with a Twitter account.
Instead of giving into the seductions and the talkativeness of the present age, Kierkegaard argues for the value of silence, saying that “only someone who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk — and act essentially” (that is, act in a way that would give one’s life genuine meaning). Elsewhere, in the first Godly Discourse of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, Kierkegaard draws a lesson from birds and flowers about the value of quietly focusing on what genuinely matters. As a Christian theologian, Kierkegaard locates ultimate value in “the Kingdom of God” and argues that lilies and birds do not speak, but are simply present in the world in a way that mimics a humble, unassuming, simple presence before God. The earnestness or authenticity that comes from learning how to live in silence allows a person to avoid the distractions prevalent in the posturing of social games. “Out there with the lily and the bird,” Kierkegaard writes, “you perceive that you are before God, which most often is quite entirely forgotten in talking and conversing with other people.”
Indeed, the talkativeness and superficiality inherent to the operation of social media networks like Twitter would trouble Kierkegaard to no end, even before considering the myriad ways in which such networks can be abused. And, in a similar way, whatever we now consider to be of ultimate importance (be that Kierkegaard’s God or something else), the phenomenology of distraction away from its pursuit is no small thing. Twitter can (and should) continue to try and address its role in the spread of misinformation and the like, but no matter how much friction it creates for its users, it seemingly can’t promote contemplative silence: “talkativeness” is a necessary Twitter feature.
So, Kierkegaard would likely not be interested in the Twitter Bird much at all; instead, he would say, we should attend to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field so that we can learn how to silently begin experiencing life and other things that truly matter.