The end of the individual, the dawn of the idea: why Twitter is changing the way we think


Today I’m eating humble pie. I’m joining Twitter. My ramblings have been surrendered to a website I once mocked for providing vain, attention-seeking users with a platform to spout about their monotonous life. But there’s no denying that Twitter is now a powerful tool in shaping how we think, argue and reason. If you’ll excuse the cliché, it really is changing the world, 140 characters at a time.  

A quick Google search yields countless news stories originating from Twitter in some way – whether it’s Richard Dawkins attacking Islamfeminists receiving vile rape threats, or the Pope trying to bolster his social media following (who knew he was so vain?). It is clear that Twitter now dominates so many aspects of our lives. Articles have attributed Twitter’s influence to the voice it gives to ordinary people; after all, it allows literally everyone to express their views. Yet the social media site goes beyond this. Twitter is providing a platform not so much for individual people (how much of a personality can you really express in 140 characters?) but is acting as a platform for individual ideas.

This may seem like a pedantic distinction at first, but it appears to have huge consequences. History has been dominated by individuals – and our thinking has always followed these individuals. We’ve subscribed to Marxism, to Nietzscheism, to Freudism, to Thatcherism, clinging to figures to provide us with a set philosophy to buy into. But now this is ending. No longer is a publishing contract needed to express an idea, and no longer are ideas judged by where they came from. The time when we trusted an intellectual or a leader to draw parallels and produce a manifesto of beliefs is over. We can now dismiss someone’s tweet as easily as we agreed with their last. Perhaps Twitter is finally relieving us of our obsession with personality, and instead providing us with a real opportunity to debate ideas – and not their provenance.

Of course it’s not all positive. The lack of a clear, reliable source causes havoc when news stories break, and media outlets now face a real struggle in ensuring accuracy. Furthermore, the anonymity Twitter provides seems to encourage certain users acting in disgusting ways, exemplified by the rape threats we saw a few weeks ago, or the death threats recently sent to an MP. But like all of human nature, a community on Twitter provides positive opportunity as well as these negative aspects.

For instance, the events of the Arab spring have surely been shaped by Twitter’s ability to help spread revolutionary ideas. Though what is interesting in these events is that they often lack a leader – look at the power struggle in Egypt, or the diverse collection of rebels fighting in Syria. In the past, manifestos have been written to spark a revolution, and this often replaced tyranny with tyranny. Now we have opportunity for something else. Although the situation in Egypt may appear tumultuous for the time being, perhaps their reluctance to cling to a single leader is a good thing, until a regime is formed which will focus on their beliefs, and not on a figurehead.

There is no doubt that Twitter is providing us with a huge opportunity. Throughout history we have bought into philosophies of intellectuals, of individuals, and by doing this we have surrendered our ability to scrutinise them and act rationally. We didn’t question individual ideas for their merit, but for their association – we submitted our ears to a voice just because we had agreed with a point it had made previously. But now we are no longer relying on somebody else to draw inferences and parallels before presenting us with a dogma to subscribe to. We now have that ability; we can now build our own philosophy. Twitter really is changing not just the power that we have, but the power that ideas have.

Now to fit that into 140 characters…


One Comment Add yours

  1. @tgtheradioman says:

    One of my criticisms of twitter which is not addressed in this interesting blog is the fact that twitter users don’t see or read 90% of tweets, missing many gems but also saving time in trawling through detritus. The trap many twitter users fall into is to follow people who are already figureheads, celebrities or famous in the non twitter world. Such people, with few exceptions, give little away on twitter, knowing their image is at stake. If twitter is, as you suggest, a future means of political and democratic change, it will require a mass following of a potential leader who only becomes potential by being followed en masse. In the past the great political leaders became popular through oratory at public hustings where people could poke their flesh and question them. The odd crank or demagogue sneaked through. Latterly through television, one may recall in the 2010 British general election how the British electorate were fooled into giving mass support to the goon of the three who came over the best. He turned out to be nothing but a liar and is facing extinction in 2015. I think it would be very difficult for a nobody to cut through via twitter to become a popular leader. However, ’tis not impossible. The person who does it will have a team behind them, jumping on trending bandwagons, and being clever with who they follow and what tweets they re-tweet. You are right to point out the falsehoods and the evil that twitter can spread. Though Governments will try to regulate it, twitter is beyond the last chance saloon of the internet, which is more wild than the wild west.


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