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A Theory of Communicative Twittering

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Friday, Jan 29, 2010

I think it’s safe to say we can finally all throw out our two-volume edition of The Theory of Communicative Action, as Jürgen Habermas is now Twittering, and finally—finally—anything worth knowing that he has to say will be properly distilled to a few pithy sentences.


Some will interpret Habermas’s use of Twitter as an endorsement of the medium—I can’t tell if that’s what Tyler Cowen means to imply by linking the appearance of a Habermas feed with Habermas’s notion of an “ideal speech situation.” I was coincidentally reading a paper called “Uniting Critical Theory and Public Policy to Create the Reflexively Defiant Consumer, ” by Ozanne and Murray, which offered this explanation of the ideal speech situation:

  


Habermas reasoned that as we enter into dialogue with others, we anticipate that (a) others will speak so that we can understand them (i.e. the norm of comprehensibility), (b) they will communicate their true intentions (i.e. the norm of sincerity), (c) they will communicate based on a shared normative context (i.e. the norm of legitimacy), and (d) they will speak the truth (i.e. the norm of truthfulness).


If these norms are met, we can communicate without “distortion,” as long as there is “general symmetry” in the ability “to select and employ speech acts.”


Do Twitter’s arbitrary limitations help accomplish the norms and general symmetry?  It seems they do the opposite, that they serve as an alibi for distortions, using technology (and the convenience-minded brevity it inspires us to chase, in a fruitless quest to always consume more) as an excuse to drift further from the ideal situation. Though it puts anyone with steady internet access on equal terms with regard to broadcasting their messages and gathering those willing to be counted as reading those messages, and it provides an ostensibly public and broadly accessibly place in which a conversation among equals can occur. But that comes at the cost of truncating thought and curtailing its deliberative component—the point is to concentrate one’s expression or make it copious. It seems designed to reduce comprehensibility, sincerity, truthfulness in favor of the legitimacy that comes from publicity itself, from participating in a real-time expression of the zeitgeist and knowing your post may be come up a real-time search for the au courant meme or hashtag. It redirects expression toward the goal of promoting one’s own timeliness. It quantifies one’s sense of being relevant, and offers new ways to express existing hierarchies that subvert democratic ideals. In short, the Twitter medium is not a window through ideology; it is ideology.

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