Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Message of the Medium

Why the left loves Twitter

Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan in 1964 coined the brilliant phrase “the medium is the message” in his most widely known work “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” He proposed that the medium itself, rather than the content it carried often had the greatest impact on society. He described the content as a juicy piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. In keeping with the times he focused on movies and television but the concept remains as relevant today as it was in 1964.

Perhaps the biggest development in mass communications in recent years has been Twitter, allowing users to fire short messages of up to 140 characters to anyone who will listen. “Hashtag” has entered the language as a way of addressing a certain subject, and @ has become a form of address in written media. And if you’re unlucky enough to be watching the BBC or reading the Guardian you would think that the internet existed for no other reason.

It’s a striking difference from blogs, which enjoyed a similar cult status for a brief time in the liberal media but were gradually abandoned as the “blogosphere” became increasingly dominated by conservative bloggers. Twitter however has suffered no such fate, and since launching in 2006 has rapidly become the go to source of many mainstream journalists in need of a “voice of the internet.”

The problem with this is that Twitter gives a very skewed view of what “the internet” is saying, and it’s usually skewed to the left. And it’s not just me saying this, people as diverse as Suzanne Moore and the excellent Peter Hitchens have noted the left wing bias on Twitter, while in 2012 Dr Rachel Gibson of Manchester University proclaimed it was because Twitter users were “early adopters who have higher levels of education than the rest of the population, so tend to be more progressive and open.”

If this last explanation stood up then surely by now Twitter would be veering to the right as happened with the blogging community? Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case and Twitter remains stubbornly the domain of the left.

It is not the sequence of adoption, or as Gibson suggests the intellect of the users but rather the nature of the medium that makes Twitter so beloved of the left. You see to write a political blog post you generally have to take an idea and develop it in some detail. It wouldn’t be enough to simply report the news with your spin on it, as this is well covered by the traditional media organizations. And because these blogs are usually open to comments from readers you tend to find that huge leaps or flawed logic are challenged. Although high profile commentators have blogs, most bloggers tend to be hobbyists writing about what interests them.

Then along comes Twitter –a running commentary on events as they happen, in 140 characters of fewer. Not enough of course to actually develop a point or idea, and because it’s fast moving little room to challenge fallacious ideas.

You can tweet that it’s all Thatcher’s fault that you didn’t get a pay rise, and never have to explain how. You can tweet that Esso kills penguins without ever having to show any evidence of it. You can Tweet that Nigel Farage is Adolf Hitler, that Cameron’s modest public spending cuts are causing a famine in Britain, and any other ridiculous assertion you like without ever having to explain or defend it. And this makes it a happy hunting ground for the left.

It’s happy hunting ground because left wing ideas tend to collapse under scrutiny, yet be appealing in slogan form. “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” is a classic example. A “Tweet” from Louis Blanc in 1851, retweeted by Karl Marx and liked by many since, right up to the present day.

It has an initial appeal to our innate sense of human decency. Those with great ability should help those with great need. In most families those with the ability to do so will help those in need, and in any functioning medieval village surely those who enjoyed a bumper harvest would help those whose crops were blighted, out of both basic humanity and the expectation that the favour will be reciprocated if fortunes are reversed. So why not apply this decent principle to the large, complex industrialized societies we now live in?

Well because it inevitably means that it falls to a state employed bureaucrat to determine the relative abilities and needs of various people in society, on a group level, with very limited information and virtually unlimited, mostly negative consequences.  A point that would be made within the first 3 posts on any blog or message board, and a fatal flaw that is as true now as it was when it was written in 1851.

By contrast free market ideas tend to be initially unattractive, yet start to make sense on further reflection. “Stop helping the poor” won’t get you many retweets or likes, but well reasoned arguments against welfare and the dependency culture it creates are hard to dispute on logical grounds, and borne out by reality.

On Twitter, ideas succeed not on their merit but on their instant appeal. The meat that distracts the watchdogs of the mind in political discourse on Twitter consists of short, pithy messages often posted under the name of some bien pensant celebrity, but the message of this banal medium is “Don’t think, we’ve done that for you. Don’t analyse as that’s all been done. Like. Retweet. And show the world that you’re trendy and with it.” A message made by and for the left.