Disavowing Twitter in Covid-19 times

by Professor Dan Goodley

A smartphone with Twitter open next to a cup of coffee

The start of 2020 brought a watershed moment for me in my relationship with social media. No really. In January, I made a decision to merely lurk in the Twittersphere. This might not sound particularly seismic to you but it was quite a moment for me, I can tell you. What this meant in reality was (1) I continued to religiously follow the #nffc hashtag (someone has to), especially during Nottingham Forest games, to catch up on the latest mediocre happenings of the match and (2) I offered little-to-nothing in terms of active debate, engagement and argument. One can read this admission as the confessions of a #twittercoward and, to be honest, I’d probably accept that. My main concerns with this platform relate to matters of vitriol, misrepresentation and simplicity that I have become increasingly aware of in the tweets, retweets, likes and retorts of a host of keyboard warriors (many holding incredibly dangerous views).

I accept that Twitter is an echo-chamber; an online primal scream therapy, a cacophony of voices, a mishmash of opinions, a digital shit storm if you will. I know that many a Twitter user is reduced to the demands of the pithy posting (encapsulated in the limits of the maximum number of platform-imposed characters per tweet). I also recognise that the digital world and the real world are the same: different people express a myriad of views and contestation is the norm. Arguments blow up. Shit happens. My anxiety was and is more deep-rooted; what kinds of knowledge production, debate and dialogue is twitter really incubating? Are we in danger of being caught up in the search for the killer one-liner, the likeable provocation, the retweetable offensive-viewpoint-for-offensive-sake offering that increases online notoriety and bumps up your followers? Is this really what digital culture has reduced us too?

My worry is that the immediacy of Twitter – the digital heroine that it emits to its gagging users – promotes a way of doing community with one another that is not caring nor interested in nuanced, careful and considered conversation. The digital humanness of Twitter leaves a lot to be desired. But of course it is too easy to blame social media. What we are witnessing in the early parts of the 21st Century is a blossoming of many kinds of identities, bodies, sexes, sexualities, affiliations, communities and humankinds. The question is though: are we ready to attend to this diversity with care, thoughtfulness and community? One of the tasks of my book Disability and Other Human Questions has been to find community; alliance, interconnection and interdependency. This is driven by a strong sense of the dangers of our rapidly individualising society. In contrast, disability has the potential to reimagine our relations with one another; to remake and repair the community. I am not sure that Twitter is a suitable space for such repair. In contrast, it is through the making of safe, supportive, responsive, considerate communities where we will find our shared humanities. And through the phenomenon of disability, I truly believe we can find communities in which to belong. 

And then: #covid19

Finalising a book in the time of a pandemic has forced me to reconsider my engagements with the digital world. Clearly, one of these is related to community. Another bumps up against questions of care. By care I am thinking of the possibilities for comfort, support and alliance offered by the community. I am drawing here on feminist writings around care and community that have emphasised the need to think about our shared vulnerabilities, our human need and desire for connection and alliance; the importance of offering help to another even when we might not get back what they put in. Covid19 is not simply a health crisis, it is a community crisis. Covid19 asks real questions about the kinds of assistance that we can offer one another. The pandemic is a real test of our reliance and demands upon one another. 

Clearly, many disabled people with underlying health conditions face worrying times ahead. Precautionary measures associated with self-isolation are also survival methods. And this withdrawal from community to self-imposed isolation illuminates the worst and best of our digital lives. Twitter has been commandeered, like other social media, as an online community space to share concerns, continue communication and develop resources. I quickly realised that my coming-off of Twitter reflects my especially privileged position when many other people are relying upon this platform as a place to find comfort and connection. But the online can never simply replace the physical.

Disability reminds us of the potency of community; the ubiquity of interdependence and the necessity of interconnections. And as Covid19 places great pressures on these interrelationships it also calls for a stark realisation: that community is all we have. At times it seems that toilet paper, hand sanitiser and dried pasta are the main objects of human desire in these troubling times of a global health crisis. But, as disability has been illuminating for years, Covid19 actually shines most light on the community-embedded nature of the human condition. This is not simply being nice with each other (though that would be welcomed). Our current times demand us to centralise community in our everyday lives; to make sure that we are looking after one another’s humanity. And here Twitter might be but one community space which might be reclaimed for the making and remaking of community.

Lord knows we have a lot of work to do; not least in the UK where communities have been savaged by years of austerity and government cuts. So Twitter might be one means – one space – where necessary forms of human contact are promoted and maintained, supporting efforts in offline communities. The impacts of Covid19 are unprecedented. But the human need for a nourishing and responsive community has always existed. And this latter point, especially emphasised by the presence of disability, is something we should keep close to our hearts and minds. 

This is an extract from Dan Goodley’s Disability and Other Questions that will be published by Emerald Publishing House in 2020.

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