I’m a writer. I have a publication, a newsletter, a Twitter account, and soon, a podcast (it’s not quite Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” — but it’s something). It is very important to me to be able to avoid intellectual capture.
By that I mean putting myself in a position where I have to professionally censor what I really believe due to investors disagreeing with it, or advertising people not approving of it, or an audience not appreciating it. It is of paramount importance to me to avoid ever being in a situation like this.
That’s not because I have particularly explosive beliefs. It’s because the lifeblood of a writer is being able to think and write freely.
One indicator I use to gauge whether I’m on the path I want to be on is who my audience is.
My followers list on Twitter is very ideologically diverse. I don’t have the analytics to determine whether it’s one of the most ideologically diverse, but it really is a mix of folks from all over the spectrum. And I’m proud of that, though not for the reasons you probably think.
A person might say something like what I’ve just said as a disguised way of suggesting that being a centrist or a moderate or whatever is superior to someone more ideologically constrained. I do think that it’s better for us, on average, to have people in our orbit who don’t think like we do. But that’s not why I’m saying that. I’m not saying: “My list is more ideologically diverse than yours, therefore, mine is better than yours.”
I’m proud of the range of folks who follow me for one simple reason: it means I’m being true to myself. It means what I say on Twitter lines up with what I actually believe. And that I’m not performing some sort of bit, some song and dance, some scheme for bucks.
Being what people pejoratively call “balanced” is very often not a commodity in the discourse these days (“both-sides-ism” and all that). As a matter of fact, being fiercely antitribal has been a continuous source of “unfollows” and an active inhibitor of success. For every account that tells me it’s refreshing to see someone who doesn’t fit neatly into a discourse-standard box, there are two or three or ten that unfollow likely due to feeling betrayed over a particular take. Sometimes they’re even kind enough to tell me so in a parting note on their way out the door.
There are costs to alienating, at different times and in various ways, basically everyone on my followers list. It would be professionally advantageous to cast my lot with one group or other. But it wouldn’t be me.
Most of my positions are in the center-left to center-right range. I also have some views that are farther left and farther right than that. For me to have an account that didn’t reflect this would be a textbook case of bad faith.
So, that’s the main downside: this way of being makes it harder to come by an audience. The upside, though, is that I am a Free Tweeter™ — well, a free thinker, and tweeting is just one facet of that.
When you join a specific side, there is remarkable pressure to not go against their interests. This is the most concerning element of being intellectually captured.
For people who are naturally tribal, and want to continue to be, this isn’t really an issue. For them and their supporters, there’s a perfect synergy of writer inspiration and audience expectation.
But if you’re not naturally a party man, a tribal person, then it is crucial for you to struggle mightily against the system. The architecture of social media does its best to box you in. You are promised likes and shares when you say something your followers like, but unfollows and scorn when you say something they don’t.
The solution is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where the makeup of your audience is so incongruous with who you are as a thinker, so unrepresentative of where you actually land on the issues, that it disinclines you from sharing what you actually think. The reality is that if you know most of your followers would disapprove of a tweet or post, that can create remarkable pressure to withhold it — or, worse, to assert its opposite.
One thing all of us can do is routinely subject ourselves to a basic self-inventory test. A kind of online audit.
Declare to yourself what your views are. Something like: “I am a [fill in your philosophical or political position here]. And I believe x, y, and z.” Now ask: “Does my followers list, does my audience, line up with that?”
If not, maybe try to restore the balance somehow, so that you don’t impose a barrier against your own creativity. Try to arrive at a more representative followership. If you’re a “the Republicans and Democrats are each right 50 percent of the time” type of person, then it won’t serve you at all for 90 percent of your followers to be conservative. Cultivate a space in the discourse that syncs up with what you actually think about things.
I don’t think a Twitter followers list should be the prime indicator of who you are as a thinker. But audience capture is one of the oldest pitfalls in media. It can easily come to influence, for the worse, a person’s ability to be true to themselves.