The Game of Twitter

For a Generation Xer born 34 years before Google, Anthony Weiner seemed to have a younger man’s knack for Internet culture. In merely 20 months using Twitter, the virtual social club that now has more than 200 million participants, Weiner managed to interest some 77,000 people in subscribing to his dispatches, jokes and provocations on topics ranging from hockey to finance to Israel’s borders.

Weiner, whose trafficking in vulgar online communiqués may have ruined his political career, may not deserve to stay married. But he should not be pilloried forever. He was a skilled and even advanced Twitter player, whose politics and erotic life, like those of so many Americans under 40, were centered in digital culture. At a time when political analysts like James Carville, who said recently on CNN that he’d never seen Twitter, flaunt their ignorance of the Internet, we need more thoroughly digital minds — even if, like all minds, they periodically turn dirty — in public life.

Heavy users of Twitter, as Weiner used to be (he hasn’t posted since June 1), play a complicated strategy game. Like World of Warcraft and Halo, Twitter is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, but with higher real-world stakes. It is grounded in the first principles of game theory, including variations on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. You have to give to get; you have to get to give. Managing these ratios — deciding how much of your attention to expend to win attention to yourself, say — is the lion’s share of the Twitter action.

Players of Twitter risk their reputations, their careers and their relationships. But incentives to keep playing Twitter abound, too, as Weiner discovered. Twitter can burnish reputations, as it did for Weiner when he broke news; gave fast, fresh takes; and used links inventively. It can build careers, as it also has done for Weiner, whom Newsday praised as the architect of a “new political paradigm.” And it can develop alliances, as it did by connecting Weiner to another sophisticated Twitterer, Meghan McCain, over their mutual support of gay marriage.

Anthony Weiner went from a junior congressman to a politician of national significance, thanks in large part to his use of new media. By following back some of his most ardent fans, the way a teen idol might oblige his fans with signed photos, and otherwise working the apparatus of Twitter to drive up his followers and get a hearing for his issues, he managed to create an online persona using the same tricks — digital versions of gerrymandering, triangulating and earmark — that politicians use. Twitter handsomely rewards those with a capacity for risk and an aptitude for the social sciences, especially economics, game theory, psychology and sociology.

In August, 2009, Weiner burst onto Twitter with a candid resolution to let loose, and “to Twitter w/o telling my minders.” Like millions of others, he found in social-networking liberation from traditional cultural restraints, the “minders” who might monitor his message — a sanctioned form of mischief in a symbolic order that let him walk a line between spoken and written language, political life and personal life, politicking and transgressing. On Twitter, “conversations” among users are staged for a broader audience; you always live in the flicker between personal and public.

Weiner on Twitter was like an amateur pianist on an improv tear. He posted sometimes dozens of times a day, trying out the conventions of Twitter as if he were practicing themes and variations. He especially liked the hashtag and @-reply tricks that help a Twitterer cultivate a readership. He was also self-effacing. He chose a deliberately homely teen photo of himself as an avatar, and apologized whenever he screwed up. “#CarelessMistake,” he admitted, last month, when, in making an elliptical joke, he mistook a detail of the career of Dwayne Roloson, the hockey goalie.

In March, way back when Weiner had a mere 15,000 subscribers, Time magazine named his Twitter posts among the nation’s most influential. In short order, then, Weiner had come to live and breathe the heady, speedy air of the so-called Twitterverse. This immersion in Twitter was considered, by many media outlets including The Times, a canny political move for congressman looking to serve his constituency and consolidate power in New York. Residents of the state of New York use Twitter some thirty percent more than the national average, and New York City, for per capita use, is considered the Twitter capital of the world.

But Weiner’s Twitter game was far from perfect. After Weiner’s revelations, Time magazine quickly amended its article praising Weiner’s use of Twitter, saying, “Perhaps we overstated his savvy just a bit.”

#CarelessMistake indeed.

It seems Weiner’s made a serious rookie error: he took the idea of “followers” seriously, as if having people who click “follow” after your name, and thus are privy to your bulletins, were akin to having the kind of followers that gurus and cult leaders do. While cult followers are much more devoted to their leader than, say, constituents in a democracy, Twitter “followers” are much, much less devoted. They’re better thought of as readers or subscribers — and each figure they “follow” is almost always one among hundreds or thousands more.

In the form of hashtags, Weiner also brought up subjects and invented half-funny one-liners that rarely got picked up by others, which suggests that he used hashtags prolifically but not shrewdly.

Finally, in broadcasting a link to an intimate self-portrait that he meant to send directly to another user, Weiner made a common but still stupid mistake. Like faulting at a serve in tennis or losing a pawn in chess, the mistake of accidentally tweeting a direct message in Twitter — some Twitterers now call that error “pulling a Weiner” — can be trivial or, as we now all know, extremely costly.

So Weiner’s Twitter game was mixed — energetic and sophisticated, but flawed. Weiner and other men in their 40s, as Marc Tracy put it recently in Tablet, “lie in the sweet spot that makes them unusually prone to this sort of Social Media Age gaffe: Too young not to be fully engaged in this hyper-fast, hyper-linked world, but too old to fully, intuitively understand its hazards.” At the same time, even Dick Costolo, the chief executive of Twitter, has admitted he doesn’t know exactly what Twitter is for. And if we don’t know what Twitter’s for, we can’t know who puts it to the best purpose. That’s why Twitter is more usefully thought of as a game than a service. Like all other immersive games — including tennis, fantasy football and chess — Twitter is spellbinding when you’re in it, and seems nuts and like a sicko waste of time when you’re not.

In the days immediately after the Weiner revelations, according to the statisticians at TweetCongress, posts by Republicans went down 27 percent, while posts from Democrats dropped 29 percent. That’s too bad. In Weiner’s apologia speech, he urged the media not to blame social media for his personal and sexual habits. We shouldn’t. There’s nothing intrinsically immoral about Twitter. It doesn’t have to be given up like drugs. But people who use Twitter do need to improve their skills, and, more than ever, we need people who understand the massive new online game, like Anthony Weiner, to help explain it all to us.

By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
The Newyork Times

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