I’ve never muted a person or topic on Twitter. I’ve constructed an entire social media philosophy around this: If I need to mute someone on Twitter then I believe I shouldn’t be following them at all, and if I find myself wanting to mute a bunch of phrases or topics then it’s probably time to recalibrate my broader approach to the platform or just log off entirely (blocking is different, although I’ve been fortunate not to need that either). Another way of saying this is that if I’m spending a meaningful portion of my waking life on a site like Twitter—which I am—then I want to know exactly how awful it is while I’m there, and if I decide it’s irredeemable, then I’d like to think I’ll stop showing up (although I haven’t yet). This may seem masochistic but I’m comforted by the fact that people who do mute aggressively don’t seem to be enjoying themselves any more than I am—which could be wishful thinking on my part, but maybe also suggests that many of us are bad at identifying what we specifically hate about Twitter or the various other digital environments we inhabit. The algorithm always seems to be one step ahead of us anyway, finding new ways to surprise us with content that we don’t want to see. If you mute one topic, that just creates space for something even worse. And maybe it’s not the word “NFT” you really want to tune out, but something more fundamental and abstract, perhaps something inherent to Twitter itself—OK fine, a vibe.
Ever since Twitter introduced the mute feature in 2014, it has felt janky to me—like a hack that became necessary to resolve the platform’s contradictions, or a collective failure to properly recognize what Twitter actually is. Unlike Facebook, where the default connection between two users is symmetrical and bidirectional, Twitter’s connections (and those of most other social networks) are one-way. We’re not here to make friends, Twitter originally implied, and even today most of my real friends aren’t on it at all (they’re on Instagram). By freeing users from the shackles of their IRL networks, Twitter enabled us to follow whomever seemed most interesting or funny—the quality of the content they posted was the only criterion. That distinction, more than any other, explains how Twitter and Facebook have diverged over time. Facebook is the people you used to be friends with and Twitter is the people you wish you were friends with: the uncomfortable past vs. the aspirational future. Guess which arrangement encourages better content. Over time, of course, Twitter users started becoming actual friends, and as wonderful as this is, it has made Twitter more like Facebook, which in turn makes the mute feature more necessary: the pressure to keep following mutuals or professionally relevant contacts makes it harder to unfollow someone when you grow weary of their tweets, and this diminishes content quality as an overall priority. On Twitter, unlike Facebook, online and offline existence have gradually converged and that has arguably made Twitter worse. “The internet is magic when it’s not real life,” as Sean Monahan has written.
I sort of lied when I said I’ve never muted anyone. Before I started writing this post, I checked my Twitter mute list and found a handful of accounts I had no memory of muting and don’t even follow (they were all crypto accounts, incidentally). If I’d muted hundreds of accounts I still wouldn’t have known why I did it. And I also don’t know who has muted me, obviously, or which topics I’m tweeting about that others have muted and will never see. As a pure negation, the mute’s utter invisibility in Twitter’s public realm means that we never know what we don’t know, or what others don’t know, or what they don’t know about us not knowing—like the haunting sensation of a groupchat that has gone dormant and reformed without you in it. This mutedness (not mutability) is one of the essential qualities of digital space that distinguishes it from its physical counterpart: In the latter you can usually perceive the voids and gaps and inquire why they exist. But the internet’s unfettered barrage of information also makes muting or something like it necessary, because we lack the refined social mechanisms that, in the embodied world, help us filter that information in elegant and nuanced ways and thus inhabit a shared reality. For the most digitally literate, perhaps, the available tools facilitate an equally nuanced control of one’s online experience, but I’ve just never believed that I could create a better version of Twitter for myself using an intricate ensemble of muted phrases and people—and if I somehow did, I’d be there alone, in a sense, gradually forgetting what I’d even done or why I’d done it. But maybe by refusing to mute anything I’m committing an even greater fallacy: pretending that the internet should resemble a coherent version of reality at all.
This newsletter is supported by paid subscriptions, which give you access to an extra issue (in addition to the free Friday issue). Sign up to get the full experience.
In recent subscribers-only issues I’ve written about ‘90s rave flyers and urban serendipity, Williamsburg as accelerationist gentrification eating itself, and Google Maps dividing cities into “interesting” and “uninteresting” zones.
Memento Millennial: Ayesha Siddiqi on the end of the millennial zeitgeist. See also: her brilliant 2016 review of the movie We Are Your Friends, which examined the same zeitgeist while it was still ascendant.
Chenoe Hart on how the real metaverse is already here: ubiquitous screens in the physical world.
I don’t think I have anyone on mute; segregating everyone into/onto lists sort of eliminated that for me. If I did, I think “NFT” would be one of the first?
P.S. Love the Wire reference!