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The Twittering Machine

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A brilliant probe into the political and psychological effects of our changing relationship with social media

Former social media executives tell us that the system is an addiction-machine. We are users, waiting for our next hit as we like, comment and share. We write to the machine as individuals, but it responds by aggregating our fantasies, desires and frailties into data, and returning them to us as a commodity experience.

The Twittering Machine is an unflinching view into the calamities of digital life: the circus of online trolling, flourishing alt-right subcultures, pervasive corporate surveillance, and the virtual data mines of Facebook and Google where we spend considerable portions of our free time. In this polemical tour de force, Richard Seymour shows how the digital world is changing the ways we speak, write, and think.

Through journalism, psychoanalytic reflection and insights from users, developers, security experts and others, Seymour probes the human side of the machine, asking what we’re getting out of it, and what we’re getting into. Social media held out the promise that we could make our own history–to what extent did we choose the nightmare that it has become?

250 pages, Paperback

First published August 29, 2019

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About the author

Richard Seymour

47 books119 followers
Northern Irish Marxist writer and broadcaster, activist and owner of the blog Lenin's Tomb.

Seymour is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party.

He is currently working on a PhD. in sociology.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 92 reviews
Profile Image for Craig.
66 reviews19 followers
December 15, 2020
More like about 3.5. I’m of two minds here, and trying to be fair to this actually rather good book and avoid faulting it for ultimately failing to be something it doesn’t actually set out to be:

On the one hand, this is an excellent account of how we got into the predicament we’re in online, with so many of us vainly and desperately shouting into, and listening for congratulatory echoes from, the great void of social media—what Seymour, borrowing a phrase from Paul Klee, calls the “Twittering Machine” in which we are all noisy parts: “immense, impressive, playful, polyphonic, chaotic, demotic, at times dread-inspiring.” In a series of short chapters (which, to my eye, actually grow a little weaker as the book proceeds), Seymour shows with compelling evidence and a light but forceful rhetorical touch how We Are All, to one extent or another, Connected, Addicts, Celebrities, Trolls, Liars, Dying, and—a term that ends up playing a less central role in Seymour’s claim than it seems at the outset—Scripturient: “possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.” It’s another jeremiad about the catastrophic psychological, cultural and political disease that is the “social industry,” the companies that comprise and dominate the regnant regime combining Nick Srnicek’s “platform capitalism” (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism” (Google, Amazon, Facebook again, etc.). And unlike Zuboff’s magisterial and heartily recommended book, which is far more readable than it looks but is also intimidatingly massive and shrouded in footnotes, this is more like a handful of digestible think-pieces on related themes. Its readership is still likely to be the choir, the same flock of converted souls that are reading Zuboff, Lanier, O’Neil, McNamee, etc., but because it’s so much more approachable, it might well reach a much bigger choir.

On the other hand, as persuasively as it makes its case about the problem, it has no real suggestions for solutions. Any one author can of course be forgiven for this, especially one like Seymour who traces these problems to deeper and more pervasive forces and ultimately argues that our addicted, antisocial, narcissistic, polarizing tendencies on social media are symptoms rather than causes of a greater psychological disease:

The Twittering Machine may be a horror story, but it is one that involves all of us as users. We are part of the machine, and we find our satisfactions in it, however destructive they may be. And this horror story is only possible in a society that is busily producing horrors. We are only up for addiction to mood-altering devices because our emotions seem to need managing, if not bludgeoning by relentless stimulus. We are only happy to drop into the dead-zone trance because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living. Twitter toxicity is only endurable because it seems less worse than the alternatives. "No addiction," as Francis Spufford has written, "is ever explained by examining the drug. The drug didn’t cause the need. A tour of a brewery won’t explain why somebody became an alcoholic."

It is telling that the book as a whole, like many of its paragraphs and sections, ends not with a statement but a question: “What if our reveries were not so productive? What if, in deliberate abdication of our smartphones, we strolled in the park with nothing but a notepad and a nice pen? What if we sat in a church and closed our eyes? What if we lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do? Would someone call the police?” This is agreeable stuff for the choir who come to this kind of book already on side for a bit of twirling in the park with our notepads instead of rage-tweeting and doom-scrolling. But this kind of suggestion is bringing a dull little knife to one of the biggest gunfights of our age. Won’t it take something much more than high-minded appeals like this to counter the forces of these hypnotic, brainstem-weaponizing forces of addiction and psychological corruption? Pace Spufford’s point about what does and doesn’t make a drug addict, all the same, what actually stands a chance of unmaking one? Imagine arguing a similar case in other all-too-closely-related contexts. “Heroin addicts, what if, instead of shooting up, you strolled in the park with nothing but a notepad and a nice pen?” “Radicalized white supremacists, what if we just said no, and meditated our way out of this racist reverie?”

Something so much bigger is needed, and with increasing urgency. Again, it’s not as if Seymour isn’t allowed to write about the problem unless he’s got a practicable solution to propose. But someone’s going to have to find a way of reaching many more people, of unifying and mobilizing governments who might be able to bring regulatory force to this, etc. Books are probably just a small part of the way forward, given the tiny choirs they tend to reach—but even the massive Netflix viewership that showed up for The Social Dilemma didn’t come away with much more than high-minded appeals to self-determination, Thoreau-style deliberate living, and the advice to switch our phones to greyscale mode.

One of that documentary’s producers, Tristan Harris, was asked on camera if we could actually solve this problem. His answer? “We have to.” No kidding. That we do. I hope we’ll soon start to see suggestions for how. Alas, engaging and compelling though it is, this book hasn’t got any either.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
September 26, 2020
Completely escaping the influence social media use is not really possible or necessarily desirable for most people today. What we should do however is use these platforms thoughtfully and with full understanding of their biases and the imperatives of their creators. What tech companies seek is engagement, nothing more and nothing less. It doesn't really matter if people are using their platforms out of rage, depression, or joy – all that matters is that they use them. Studies show that negative emotions might even drive more engagement, and, if so, all to the good. The platforms was deliberately designed to mimic the dynamics of slot machines and casinos, keeping you hunting for some sort of symbolic rewards and trapped in a virtual zone insulated from the flows of natural time.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't use social media or that there is no benefit, there clearly is. But it's good to keep in mind what you're doing while doing it, especially when considering the clearly stated motives of the platform designers. I plan to write a larger review of this book at a later date. It was a bit dark and maybe even went overboard on some counts but the reminders it contains are in themselves useful for all of us living in a connected world.

Profile Image for David M.
442 reviews390 followers
December 15, 2019
What we call addictions are misplaced devotions; we love the wrong things.

We keep {our smartphone} close, charged at all times. It is as though, one day, it’s going to bring us the message we’ve been waiting for.

Not alarmist but deeply melancholy, this book is the best thing I’ve yet read on the subject.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,865 reviews1,900 followers
November 2, 2022
The Publisher Says: A brilliant probe into the political and psychological effects of our changing relationship with social media

Former social media executives tell us that the system is an addiction-machine. We are users, waiting for our next hit as we like, comment and share. We write to the machine as individuals, but it responds by aggregating our fantasies, desires and frailties into data, and returning them to us as a commodity experience.

The Twittering Machine is an unflinching view into the calamities of digital life: the circus of online trolling, flourishing alt-right subcultures, pervasive corporate surveillance, and the virtual data mines of Facebook and Google where we spend considerable portions of our free time. In this polemical tour de force, Richard Seymour shows how the digital world is changing the ways we speak, write, and think.

Through journalism, psychoanalytic reflection and insights from users, developers, security experts and others, Seymour probes the human side of the machine, asking what we’re getting out of it, and what we’re getting into. Social media held out the promise that we could make our own history–to what extent did we choose the nightmare that it has become?


My Review
: The author, a trenchant leftist social and political analyst, refers in his choice of title for this book to artist Paul Klee's watercolor painting, "Twittering Machine," from 1922:

Art critics have deeply divided opinions and interpretations of this small MoMA-owned piece of paper infused with artistic imagination, ink, watercolor paint, and gouache. Biomechanical pastoral, oppressive and unnerving enslavement of nature to the machine, triumphant use of machine for nature's purposes...it's not clear to anyone (except the Nazis who labeled it "degenerate art") what we should make of this cool-blue musically evocative strangeness.

In many ways, Author Seymour couldn't have chosen a better image to hang his leftist social analysis of social media on. The facts of modern social life are such that we're enmeshed in the internet to a greater degree than even when he was working on this book, or even when the publisher brought it out in September 2020...the middle of the crisis times of COVID-19's ongoing plague. I literally can not interact with the bureaucracies that control my life without internet access. My assisted-living facility has always provided wi-fi access and a bank of desktop computers...recently they've upgraded our wi-fi to better serve an increasingly online population of elders. This is the best time to think about the issues surrounding social media's impact on the societal world we all, regardless of age or level of active participation, live in.
If the social industry is an addiction machine, the addictive behaviour it is closest to is gambling: a rigged lottery. Every gambler trusts in a few abstract symbols—the dots on a dice, numerals, suits, red or black, the graphemes on a fruit machine—to tell them who they are. In most cases, the answer is brutal and swift: you are a loser and you are going home with nothing. The true gambler takes a perverse joy in anteing up, putting their whole being at stake. On social media, you scratch out a few words, a few symbols, and press ‘send’, rolling the dice. The internet will tell you who you are, and what your destiny is through arithmetic ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘comments’.

It is this weird truth that dictates our modern media landscape. It is a symptom and a cause, simultaneously. Gamblers don't gamble because gambling is available, they gamble because they must. Addicts aren't getting high, in whatever way they do so, because the means to do it exist; they do it because they must.
The Twittering Machine may be a horror story, but it is one that involves all of us as users. We are part of the machine, and we find our satisfactions in it, however destructive they may be. And this horror story is only possible in a society that is busily producing horrors. We are only up for addiction to mood-altering devices because our emotions seem to need managing, if not bludgeoning by relentless stimulus. We are only happy to drop into the dead-zone trance because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living. Twitter toxicity is only endurable because it seems less worse than the alternatives. "No addiction," as Francis Spufford has written, "is ever explained by examining the drug. The drug didn’t cause the need. A tour of a brewery won’t explain why somebody became an alcoholic."

What this book does, and does well, is present the case that the social media landscape, while it requires social media to exist, doesn't exist in a vacuum but in an economic system that needs growth of use and therefore numbers of users to make its owners as powerful as they desire to be. The platforms offer us a digital space that enables connection and rewards separation from all but those we most want to be like.
Yet, we are not Skinner's rats. Even Skinner's rats were not Skinner's rats: the patterns of addictive behavior displayed by rats in the Skinner Box were only displayed by rats in isolation, outside of their normal sociable habitat. For human beings, addictions have subjective meanings, as does depression. Marcus Gilroy-Ware's study of social media suggests that what we encounter in our feeds is hedonic stimulation, various moods and sources of arousal—from outrage porn to food porn to porn—which enable us to manage our emotions. In addition that, however, it's also true that we can become attached to the miseries of online life, a state of perpetual outrage and antagonism.

What I enjoyed about this read was the sense that, in detaching his analysis from blaming Social Media™ and attaching it to the capitalist profit-motive driven mindset, he validated my sense that it's all, au fond, about greed...theirs for money and power, ours for meaning and purpose. The result is, as Elon Musk tweeted after his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter was completed last week, a situation in which a capitalist says that Twitter "...cannot become a free-for-all hellscape." I quibble with "become" in that sentence:
...if we get hooked on a machine that purports to tell us, among other things, how other people see us—or a version of ourselves, a delegated online image—that suggests something has already gone wrong in our relationships with others. The global rise in depression—currently the world's most widespread illness, having risen some 18 per cent since 2005—is worsened for many people by the social industry. There is a particularly strong correlation between depression and the use of Instagram among young people. But social industry platforms didn't invent depression; they exploited it. And to loosen their grip, one would have to explore what has gone wrong elsewhere.

How this Brave New Twitter will cope with the simultaneous free-speech absolutism of Musk, the capitalist need to growgrowgrow , and the social need to reduce harm to the people who make up the ailing Body Politic will be a fascinating collision to watch. Armor yourselves against the smaller pieces of social-fabric shrapnel with the wise words of a man of principle, intellectual clarity, and a powerful communication style.

I'll leave the last words to Author Seymour at his most openly anti-capitalist (thereby closest to my heart):
The internet's history also shows us that when we rely on the private sector and its hallowed bromide of 'innovation,' quite often that will result in technical innovations that are designed for manipulation, surveillance and exploitation.

The tax-evading, offshore wealth-hoarding, data-monopolizing, privacy-invading silicon giants benefit from the internet's 'free market' mythology, but the brief flourishing of Minitel shows is that other ways, other worlds, other platforms, are possible. The question is, given that there's no way to reverse history, how can we actualize these possibilities? What sort of power do we have? As users, it turns out, very little. We are not voters on the platforms; we are not even customers. We are the unpaid products of raw material. We could, if we were organized, withdraw our labor power, commit social media suicide: but then what other platforms do we have access to with anything like the same reach?

Profile Image for Donald.
85 reviews269 followers
October 26, 2021
I was an early adopter of online discussion boards and toiled away in relative obscurity in the nihilistic take mines. The pseudo-financialization of Twitter helped train me to game the metrics to reach a much wider audience. I always thought of this benign trolling as a mild form of monkeywrenching. That was a self-serving view. Anyway, it's an achievement to write a good book that includes the word "meatspace".
Profile Image for Mariko.
61 reviews
January 23, 2021
Short review: Sometimes opaque and repetitive but overall provided a fascinating and repellant deconstruction of social media use. This is a work of theory and not self help (ie how to unplug etc).

Long review:
I expected this to be more along the lines of Sarah Jeong's Internet of Garbage. In fact it felt much more like a work of lit theory, for reasons that are clear within the first couple pages with how Seymour defines writing in our present moment for the purposes of his argument.
I have mixed feelings. For the negative, I felt this was too long and underedited. A number of times almost identical sentences were used to explain a given concept, or a subject that had been explained already was introduced again as if for the first time. The overall structure of this book did not work for me. I am sympathetic to what Seymour might call the metastatic nature of the subject creating difficulty here. Many of the topics flow back into one another naturally, but rather than feeling like connections were being made, points often felt redundant. In particular I found myself rolling my eyes at the constant rehashing and re-examining of the online pile on. This is a subject worth examining to be sure, but after the initial discussion there's not much new ground covered. The chapter on trolling, while also offering a good overview of the subject and some quite cutting insights, felt to me almost punitive in the descriptions of depravity. I suppose that is part of the purpose, and does pointedly recall the image of the twittering machine, but it was still a lot to read. TW for discussions of sexual violence and suicide, and anything else you imagine would turn up under the heading of trolling.

As for what I did like quite a lot: The point that social media addiction is much more similar to gambling addiction than substance abuse was incredibly well made and frankly kind of chilling. I particularly found the description of "playing not to win but to stay in the machine zone where nothing matters" to be uncomfortably familiar. Anyone who has gotten sucked into scrolling only to look up and see three hours have gone by will understand the idea discussed here of "dropping out of time."

There's also the assertion that users of social media are its workers as well as suppliers of its primary product (namely, attention and data from which to mine advertising dollars). We are both the means of production and the product itself. This is a miserable fact but one I have not seen put quite as well anywhere as it was here.

For the two above points it was a worthwhile read for me. I struggled with Seymour's style which felt occluded to me but I don't believe in any intentional way. Anyone who is terminally online will perhaps not find much new in the basic points being made. But I think the overall perspective taken here, against sensationalism and questioning rather than providing answers, is a good contribution of the literature of social media.
152 reviews
December 12, 2019
I love the ideas under this book, which the author describes as an essay. The clever approach to references gives confidence that the foundations on which the conclusions are based can be verified, but the text is not littered with footnote markers.

Key points for me:

The twittering machine (social media and more generally digital communications between people) has been consciously constructed as an addictive time sink.

The whole three ring circus - celebrities, influencers, presidents, trolls, fake news, evaporating irony ("the transition from pure irony to zero irony is fast and fritcionlsess") - is a chimera which gives participants a short-term stimulus.

This excess of information actually reduces knowledge and meaning - participants have no capacity to think, assess or do anything above the noise. (I liked the fact that this point referenced Shannon's theory of communications, which was a foundation of my masters studies). the social industry has stolen our capacity for reverie.

The overall effect is like a long drunken conversation which creates enlightenment in the moment and a vacuum in hindsight (my analogy, not the author's); but the conversation never ends and the result is a "hollowing out" of social relations and identity.

He also makes a fascinating point that we are collectively writing more than ever before (more content, more literacy, and a change in what writing consists of) - actually a democratisation of what was once a class-based privilege.

He castigates Facebook for saying that depression and anxiety from social media use can be solved by more engagement. "No addiction" as Francis Spufford has written "is ever explained by examining the drug. A tour of a brewery won't explain why somebody became an alcoholic"

The diagnosis is crystal clear, the options for change are hinted at. This is a reasonable place to land given the chaos that has been unleashed - it seems that we have finally arrived at the information revolution. There is no going back, but the challenge of forseeing the future is of a similar magnitude to predicting the impact of the printing press, the industrial revolution or the telephone as they were created.
Profile Image for Ryan Denson.
176 reviews4 followers
April 16, 2020
Utilizing the titular metaphor based on Paul Klee's painting, The Twittering Machine (1922), Seymour delves into many harmful aspects of modern social media. This well-written essay looks a considerably wide range of internet phenomena from the celebrity culture of Instagram influencers to psychological and sociological consequences of online trolling to the social media algorithms that have aided the alt-right.

The underlying focus though is the highly addictive nature of modern internet platforms. Addiction though is rarely ever an isolated force that can be examined by only looking at the supposed addictive substance. Seymour, therefore, goes further in looking at psychological and sociological patterns of why we are drawn to such platforms. What is it within ourselves and our culture that make these online escapist routes so attractive to begin with?

In taking a more nuanced position, Seymour is able to outdo the deluge of the popular articles that have been written on this same subject. He further avoids a trap of becoming a neo-Luddite critic, which also plagues other authors of the subject. Through looking at the example of the French Minitel system, he is able to show that there was a possible alternate path for the internet to take and that the blame for the addictive nature of modern platforms rests on all of us, not just the physical technologies.

The framing of the proliferation of the internet as a new stage in the evolution of writing is also noteworthy for linking it to a historical context. Whereas writing was once a skill known by only a few and used for only things deemed essential, it has now become commonplace in many societies and used for even trivial things. As Seymour puts it in contrast to the drought of writing centuries ago, now "we are swimming in writing. Our lives have become in the words of Shoshana Zuboff, an 'electronic text'" (p. 23). Such a change has, of course, impacted the way humans now perceive reality. For people now learn and experience things through the medium of writing at greater degree than at any other point in history. This is why the harmful impacts of social media have a more profound impact on society than most would think. Overall, this is an fascinating read that manages to combined an informed and relentlessly thorough examination with a lively and entertaining writing style.
Profile Image for Edmund King.
2 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2020
Richard Seymour claims to have written this book in a state of "monastic isolation." That might suggest a certain disconnect between the relentlessly social nature of the "Twittering Machine" and the standpoint of the author himself. However, Seymour's larger point is that the logic of social media lends itself to singularities. Twitter dogpiles and community blog flamewars alienate people and dissolve solidarities and movements. Engagement or "time on device" leads to depression (that most individualising of mental states). Multivarious points of view are focused and honed into a single, hive opinion, one whose ever narrowing boundaries of acceptable discourse are policed by other members of the swarm. The result is an endlessly fractal process of splitting and alienation, in which the user is ultimately left exhausted, demoralised, and alone.

That might suggest that this is a depressing book. And to some extent it is (though I'd say that it's more about depression, and the mechanisms within the social media apparatus that generate or perpetuate that state of mind). In that respect, it's a kind of companion piece to some of the works of the late Mark Fisher.

I read much of this book outside (if still under COVID lockdown), alone in the sunshine of a late English spring. I relished the slow, regular rhythms of the turning page (in contrast to the rapid, unconscious thumb movements of the distracted iPhone scroll session). Seymour ends by suggesting that we don't quit social media exactly (in one of the ironies of our age, that's a luxury increasingly reserved for those who run social media), but that we reduce our time online while enabling other sorts of time to re-enter and permeate our lives. The time to wander in a park, watching the leaves; to take pleasure in small things without feeling a need to frame them in the lens of a device and upload their image to Instagram.
42 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2021
There's a growing collection of anti-tech / social media literature and this work is indispensible. It situates social media's emergency in terms of variety of political, social-psychological, and capitalist forces. It very much delves into examples which illustrate the more abstract claims in Byung-Chul Han's Psychopolitics, another important read on contemporary capitalism. By making a significant exploration of the psychology of social media addiction, Seymour explains the mechanisms of capitalist control in the emerging Psycopolitical regime with a distinctly human bent. Seymore is a Luddite, properly interpreted - lamenting the machine's ascension to being our master, rather than serving as the technological foundation that uplifts humanity. Deeply insightful, synthetic in how it fills in interstices of preceding tomes, and (as many other reviews point out) deeply melancholic.
Profile Image for Noé.
44 reviews6 followers
June 8, 2022
Instead of watching the sensasionalist move The Social Dilemma I recommend reading this instead. Sometimes I feel like it goes in circles or doesn't reach a conclusion, but in a way it feels apt as a parallel to the dark spiral that is social media. Some of the insights here are very interesting and it gives me the takeaway that engaging with social media with hopes of changing anything is not the way to go. Social media often shows our worst facets. A good reminder to log off every once in a while and to always enter the social-verse thinking of it as a casino. You probably won't win anything but at least you might get a kick out of it and meet someone on the way.
Profile Image for Scott Neigh.
779 reviews14 followers
July 6, 2022
There is practically an entire industry devoted to churning out think-pieces, studies, books, and articles expressing concern about the impacts of social media and the broader spectrum of information technology of which it is a part on our lives and our world. It comes in lots of flavours, many neither convincing nor useful, some downright eye-roll-worthy, though others identifying real problems even if their analyses are often ultimately unsatisfying. But the fact that so much of that writing fails to say much that is useful does not negate the fact that there *are* lots of reasons to be concerned about the impacts of social media. This book, I think, is a useful preliminary step in developing ways of thinking and talking about social media – or, the social *industry*, in Seymour's terminology – that begin to capture, in materialist ways, what it is all actually doing.

A key element of this book's approach that I think is a great insight and that also meshes well with ways of thinking about the world that I already hold is his analysis of the social industry as being primarily about us *writing*. Yes, we consume endless amounts of online media, but that is part of the bait or the reward, and it is our writing that the system really wants. Some of this is writing in an easily recognizeable sense – the data about ourselves that we give up each time we update Facebook or even send an email, for instance – but it also includes every mouse movement, every checked box, every click, every filled form that we do not necessary think of as writing, but that gets stored away on some distant harddrive. Creative or not, comprised of words or not, all of those are enduring inscriptions, and we give them up to institutions that, in all sorts of ways, rule us. Which means that ruling regimes know far, far more about us today than the mass bureaucratic systems of the 20th century, and so mechanics of ruling are shifting accordingly. The book also explores themes recognizeable from other work on social media, smartphones, and so on, like the way in which the social industry deliberately cultivates our addiction, the way it has created frightening new opportunities for collective cruelty, related changes in our knowledge and our knowledge systems, and shifts in our politics. (He argues that it is much too early to pronounce in a definitive way on how all of this will impact our political systems, but certainly lays out plenty of evidence that those of us on the left are no doubt mostly familiar with that the early returns are far from encouraging.)

I don't agree with everything in the book, of course. It is careful in how it words such things, but it seems to me like it under-values the role of some manifestations of collective online rage as forms of speaking/striking back at power by oppressed people. I am also not a huge fan of psychotherapy-derived theory, which some on the left seem to like, and while there isn't too much of that in here, there is a bit. I also think there is a lot more to say about the ways in which different organizational forms in movement contexts have used the tools presented by the social industry, with varying levels of success – I can't help but think Seymour's Trot past might have something to do with his scathing take on horizontalist forms, for instance, for all that he does make some excellent points. I could probably flip through the book and find lots more that I would quibble with. But while I might differ on specific details, overall I think the book is thoughtful and very useful. As well, I have always enjoyed Seymour's writing, and this book was no exception. So I would say that it is definitely worth a read if you are trying to think about social media and the ways it is shaping our world. And I think I may read it again in a couple of years – it is relevant to a writing project that I have been vaguely contemplating, and if I do end up committing to it when I'm done writing my current book, then I will come back for another go at this one.
Profile Image for Jesse.
449 reviews
January 23, 2021
There are some really good, fascinating, thought-provoking ideas in this book--there just aren't enough of them (to the point at which i gave it up), particularly compared with the bad ideas, and the truly mediocre ideas. I came to this after a friend posted a particularly trenchant passage that reframed my understanding of social media in terms I'd previously never considered. On the strength of that passage alone I ordered the book, and perhaps expecting to spend the whole book being as blown away as I was by that particular paragraph placed me in a position of unreasonable expectation. But still.

I finally gave up on this book at the halfway point, after which my marginal notation had gone from noting good points (certainly a few) and weak points (many more), and noting to myself why I felt Seymour's arguments fell short, to simply writing "oh fuck off" in the margin.

From my perspective, this book enters its phase of critical failure in the second chapter, "We Are All Addicts." The first chapter held me rapt enough, but the problem with the second chapter is I know a bit about addiction--and clearly a bit is a good deal more than Seymour knows. According to his bibliography, he appears to have read three books about addiction prior to premising his second chapter on it. The books he read--by well-regarded experts Bruce Alexander, Marc Lewis, and Stanton Peele--are all excellent starting points for study in addiction, yet Seymour appears to have treated them as end-points skimmed hastily while primarily aiming to generate commentary on social media. He doesn't engage with the reality of addiction as a post-traumatic human phenomenon (I've spent 11 years doing in frontline outreach with people on the street and cannot see it first as anything else) but he also doesn't engage with the academic study of addiction beyond the three authors he quotes. Certainly, Alexander, Lewis, and Peele have made serious contributions to understanding what addiction is and how it works. Yet they represent one part of an enormous body of scholarship on addiction that considers many factors--few of which interest Seymour, since he has no apparent real interest in addiction.

Seeing an author turn complex human trauma into a metaphor for a consumer trend he finds unpleasant is distressing; seeing an author as engaged with ideas as Seymour abandoning study the moment he's confirmed his existing beliefs is really dispiriting. I flew into this book excited by its ideas and expecting to be carried away by it only to arrive at the second chapter with the chilling realization that, when it comes to addiction, Seymour has very little idea what he's talking about. Startlingly, he makes a detailed discussion of addiction and "addicts" the core of his second chapter without acknolwedging most or all recent scholarship converges on the idea that addiction is a response to trauma, primarily trauma in early life. Seymour would rather turn this into a lesson about capitalism (were he a better writer, he could easily draw obvious conclusions about trauma and capitalism, but he doesn't bother), which indicates to me he cares as little about addiction as he knows. And worse, he sincerely had the opportunity to learn but his bibliography makes clear he didn't take it. Seymour wants to make a point about the failure of behaviourism and the study of addiction seems to present him primarily with the opportunity to make that point, not to learn or understand the actual human problem of addiction both to drugs and alcohol and to behaviours that become maladaptive.

Seymour's framing of addiction--and "addicts" and "junkies" as he calls them, though virtually no one doing research into addiction and certainly no one involved with harm reduction in the last decade or more has been comfortable with those terms--is simplistic and insulting to people who use drugs. But as a critical failure early on in the book, his simplistic, binaristic reading casts into doubt the entirety of the rest of his scholarship. I don't know very much about BF Skinner, but having watched Seymour mangle conclusions about the study of addiction, I started worrying Seymour was as self-serving and wrong about Skinner... and everything else?

Certainly Seymour is wrong in his choice to present descriptions of both suicide and sexual violence in sensationalist and exploitative terms that help him hammer home the moral of his jeremiad. Having reported for over a decade on Indigenous communities in which risks of suicide are sometimes advanced due to particular traumas, I have been forced to learn a lot about how to report responsibly on suicide so as to avoid suicide-contagion (those who want to know more about this should google "suicide reporting guidelines for media"), which Seymour acknowledges as a problem even as he resorts himself to the kind of lurid terms as sensationalize suicide and exploit the trauma of sexual violence for the cheap victory of winning some ideological, theoretical point. Watching Seymour acknowledge concerns about reporting on suicide even as he flouts those concerns (perhaps imagining his learned readers must be intellectually immune to suicide?) is galling. He clearly knows better, but finds no compulsion to hold himself to an ethical standard even in a book of arguments about ethics. It’s fucking baffling.

That would be morally questionable to begin with even if Seymour's theoretical points were all as trenchant and profound as the one my friend shared that caused me to buy this book. But far more often they're vague and aphoristic generalities he fails far too often to adequately support or defend, such as "The 'like' button seems to have facilitated a form of detached involvement in spectacular cruelty." Statements like these are less effective in circumscribing the moral concerns Seymour wants to raise and become more about Seymour presenting himself as a confrontationally verbose teller of deep truths, yet too often the weakness of his argument never makes it seem that Seymour has actually arrived at any truth in particular beyond finding some dramatic statement to yell.

There's an edge of moral panic, albeit Marxist moral panic, in Seymour's concerns about social media. One of this book's most painful ironies is Seymour's indignation over trauma such as streamed suicides and rapes (which he describes in disturbing, prurient detail) "[producing] floods of monetizeable attention" for platforms like Facebook. This would be easier to take were Seymour not choosing exploitative language with a similar sensationalism to sell rhetoric. Many survivors of sexual violence or addiction, or those who've lost loved ones to suicide, may argue reducing their traumas and tragedies to commentaries on consumer behaviour will always be callous and unforgiveable, but it's somehow worse when the conclusions simply aren't profound or intelligent enough to merit the author's returning over and over to sensationalist language to prove his point. Seymour seems to think it's very bad when Facebook derives corporate profit from human misery, and I happen to agree with him. But don't think it's that much better when one more white guy with an opinion to share highlights the garish details of human tragedy not to foster empathy but to get you to agree more forcefully with the declarations he’s making in the printed consumer commodity he’s selling (i paid CDN$36 for mine).

When I learned the author wasn't a scholar but rather a blogger, it made sense of it: this book has the hasty, slapdash misreadings and failures of argument we're used to from the social medium of blogs (which Seymour hadn't managed to include much in his critiques of social media by the time I gave up on the book). Like many blogs, this book presents argument without believable evidence, and seems to stand above all for its author's presentation of himself as a great thinker rather than of the great ideas he's thought. I came into this with high hopes and exited it halfway intent never to read Richard Seymour again.
Profile Image for Daniel.
68 reviews3 followers
September 30, 2019
A brilliant essay on what we are really doing when we scroll through social media feeds. Seymour gets into the philosophical side of the proliferation of 'writing' through smartphone technology, and even 'writing' our data as we scroll and scroll, and the creative/metaphysical nature of words. Social media and the data behemoth is described as the 'twittering machine' that we feed our lives into, with its constant need to consume our time and attention as its fuel. It is designed to be addictive, to use extreme reactions to material to increase our engagement

I just think this book is vital for many to read in this age. It should make the blood run cold of anyone who works in comms, media, marketing, or political campaigning - all rely on the cynical use of this twittering machine. Anyone who spends hours a day scrolling through feeds (most of us) and who tries to find something interesting to get people engaged in our posts.

One part that stood out is that we are so busy crafting our online identities that we forget to live life itself. At the end, his proposed solution is not more monitoring, regulation, or alternative networks - it is to deprive the networks of our time, to take a walk in the park without our phone, to lie on the grass, and just stop for a bit.

Also kudos to Seymour for avoiding falling into the trap of making it all about Cambridge Analytica and Trump.
Profile Image for Ryan.
86 reviews8 followers
April 20, 2021
This is excellent, even if it trends toward a certain amount wishing to put the genie back in the bottle. It does a good, if not exhaustive, job of explicating how social media manipulates our interests and gathers our data, while pumping us fuller and fuller of content.

I think the notion, often mentioned here but only occasionally considered at depth, of social media and the internet making us all writers is a smart and interesting one.

I did blanch at times of a tendency toward ludditism and what feel like over and re-heated takes on cancel culture, including referencing Fisher's Vampire Castle essay. It's not that these takes are wholly incorrect but that they are clearly incommensurate to the challenge they painstakingly recount.

Regardless, ironically, this is all a lot of useful data that I will gladly add to my personal algorithm of considerations toward modern life. As such, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
Profile Image for Sarah  :).
412 reviews25 followers
January 2, 2021
I think I've read too much on the subject, but I wanted something more out of this. It's by far the most readable of Verso's books, but I think it could have actually benefited from being slightly longer.
Too much time is spent on the symptoms of social media. I know it makes you an addict, I know it's destructive. I wanted to know why. The end provides some insight into this, but it's not entirely enough. Why is social media like this? How can we improve it? Is it possible that it can be improved? Ultimately, too much time is spent on the symptoms of social media addiction and not enough spent on an examination of why capitalism and society have built such a product.
Profile Image for Katie C..
179 reviews4 followers
January 30, 2021
THIS. THIS IS THE BOOK I'VE BEEN WANTING TO READ. This is the smart, intelligent, theory-filled book I wanted on social media/technology/industry. Fuck your how-to's on deleting social media, give me all the why's and questions of why we're so addicted in the first place.
Profile Image for Alyson Podesta.
66 reviews
May 26, 2021
scary stuff for the most part, but felt pretty spot on in most ways.. warning for lots of discussion of real-world violence and suicide
Profile Image for Archita.
Author 12 books28 followers
September 4, 2022
Excellent book on why you should quiet quit social media ASAP. Recommended for everyone.
Profile Image for rabble.ca.
176 reviews45 followers
April 8, 2020
Review by Cristina D'Amico:

Once upon a time, the left was briefly but strongly enamoured of the radical potential of social media. This author counts herself among the enchanted -- the opportunity for collective organizing and political movement seemed immense. Yet nearly a decade after the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, social media has little to show for itself in terms of its ability to facilitate material change. Even more unsettling, those groups that have tended to fare best in the online environment support the worst forms of right-wing, reactionary and misogynist politics.

Has something gone wrong, or was there a flaw in the machinery all along?

In The Twittering Machine, author and broadcaster Richard Seymour offers a compelling response to this question by taking into account the economic, structural and formal mechanisms of social media.

Keep reading: https://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2020/...
Profile Image for L L.
276 reviews7 followers
October 4, 2020
The Twittering Machine is ambitious in its scope, attempting to develop a language for describing what is happening in our world with social media. It treads alot of familiar ground, referencing ideas from Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and recent research on social media, happiness and addiction. The Twittering Machine is the name of a 1922 painting by Paul Klee, where a small row of birds on a mechanical axle lure victims to the fiery pit below them. A metaphoric image of our relationship to social media-- it draws us in willingly to our own demise.

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma came out while I was reading this book, evidence that its central critique of social media capitalism has growing popular support. Social media lures us in with the illusions of connection and importance-- dopamine hits in the form of Likes, and the promise of fame. Rather than being our liberation, social media traps our attention through its addictive mechanisms, so that our uncompensated labor of "electronic writing" can be data-farmed and transformed into a marketable product. While we may be tempted to think first of the classic saying "If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product", Roger McNamee on the Social Dilemma corrects this thinking. It is neither us, nor our attention that is the product: "It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product." And that is the true threat of social media to democracy and freedom, one that Zuboff strongly warns us of. This gradual reprogramming of our behavior shapes our habits, often without our knowledge, or in some circumstances, in such a way that we happily consent, as an easy fulfillment of our consumerist desires. (That is all too telling from my own "Recommendations from the Kindle Store" feed on Amazon)

Buying books and more ethically produced clothes seems like a benign outcome, a natural extension of previous forms of advertisement, justifiable by the economic benefits of satisfying demand and increasing global unity. The Twittering Machine, however, easily drives people to darker actions in the real world, by drawing people into their own echo chamber, through its profit-driven algorithms. The proliferation of information contributes to a skepticism towards a consensus on truth. The initial success of ISIS in drawing recruits, the rise of the alt-right, Pizzagate, growing incidents of mass-shooters motivated by social media, are all evidence of this. Seymour draws a direct route from the current state of social media to fascism. His chapter "We are all Trolls" is particularly strong, with a cultural analysis of trolling, and highlighting parallels between mostly right-wing trolling and public shaming tactics of the left.

Seymour's most valuable inquiry is into the concept of writing, which he broadens to include our production of all sorts of electronic text (e.g. scrolling, lingering over an image, Like buttons, emojis). For most of human history, writing was a tool to oppress and exclude, as few people were literate, and the printed word was a way to control which perspectives actually got elevated and propagated. With social media, we are both writer and reader, and the proliferation of content suggests that there is an underlying desire to write-- an impulse to express ourselves, to shape the world, and to connect to others.

From the book: "Language is mysterious’, writes the religious scholar Karen Armstrong. ‘When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh; speech requires incarnation – respiration, muscle control, tongue and teeth.’ Writing requires its own incarnation – hand–eye coordination, and some form of technology for making marks on a surface. We take a part of ourselves and turn it into physical inscriptions which outlive us. So that a future reader can breathe, in the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘air from another life and time and place’. When we write, we give ourselves a second body."

We have a desire to write. And that desire has been captured by attention capitalism, so that we labor extensively, without much joy, and say alot, without saying anything meaningful. Seymour asks: "The question is what, collectively, would such a reinvention look like? How could we acquire new and better habits, better ways of writing to one another? If we’ve written our way into this situation, how can we write our way out of it?"

While Seymour offers promising possibilities, he doesn't go in depth, perhaps because we as a society have yet to fully imagine it. But his theoretical framework atleast recognizes the limited redeeming outcomes of social media-- greater connection and voice for marginalized voices, a key tool in the emergence and growing acceptance of several social justice movements (#BlackLivesMatter, #metoo), perhaps the ones that drove our initial optimistic and utopian hopes for the medium. The problem is not the machine itself, but rather that we have allowed the machine to control us, rather than for us, to control the machine. And reasserting control over the machine requires not just individual behavior shift, but collective re-imagination and political change.

This book is a valuable addition to existing critique on social media. I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in a deeper cultural meditation on social media. For a legal and political commentary and history, Zuboff's books is the best. And for practical guidance on how to manage your own social media practices, I'd recommend Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism.
Profile Image for Ivan Monckton.
494 reviews10 followers
January 25, 2020
Interesting, but dense and intense with far too many “as *** puts it/said/writes” and very little in the way of solutions to all the problems outlined.
Profile Image for Red Dog.
79 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2021
Social media is a cesspool, an endless bin fire in which strangers scream at each other with no hope or desire of ever seeing each other’s point of view. And if you’re not amongst the screaming, you’re being cossetted by the soothing sounds of an echo chamber agreeing with your every word, one of the people for whom the soma of shared opinions raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds”. Of course, you’ve heard this all before, and may indeed share these opinions, otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in reading Richard Seymour’s book. Nobody comes to a Marxist critique of what Seymour rightly calls the “social industry” if they weren’t already aware of the fact that “what the Twittering Machine produces is in fact a new hybrid. The voice is indeed given a new, written embodiment, but it is massified”. And there is a lot that is true in Seymour’s critique – that “the Twittering Machine invites users to constitute new, inventive identities for themselves, but it does so on a competitive, entrepreneurial basis”, or that “whether or not we think we are addicted, the machine treats us as addicts” – and he goes into great, well-written, detail about how the forces of late capitalism have warped the (admittedly utopian) promise of being able to connect more widely with people across the world via the internet.

But it is only in his discussion of some of the difficulties in grasping what narcissism is, and how it is facilitated by the social industry (on page 95), that Seymour begins to come anywhere near to wrestling with the fact that many of his arguments deny the agency and meaning people bring to their display on social media. For me, whilst he is pushing at an open door in terms of highlighting how we are being sold as commodities by Twitter, Facebook and the like to advertisers, from the very start of the book I was asking if this new, written embodiment is being encountered in the same way by all users of the various platforms? Is the entrepreneurial basis the only way identity online can be formulated, despite the best efforts of the platforms to make it so? What about people who don’t see huge numbers of followers, retweets, or likes as the main arbiter of “success” or value on social media? Yes, as Seymour says “…it would be foolish to discount the aggregate impact of propaganda. Like advertising, it has to work on someone, otherwise the industry would die”. And yet like many analysts of social media, he seems overly attracted to the more egregious examples of misuse and hatred on social media, ignoring what the more everyday majority might do, which ultimately could leave the reader with the impression that Seymour is wallowing in the very prurient clickbait that he goes to great lengths to excoriate.

Equally, how much of this “new” in the wider sense of how people communicate, and indeed how capitalist realism (to borrow a phrase from Mark Fisher) has shaped the way in which we interact? Seymour posits that when we post a tweet or a status update “we have little control over the context in which it will be seen and understood. It’s a gamble” And yet when have we ever been able to control the wider context of what we say, write or do beyond our immediate social circle (and sometimes not even then)? Similarly, in pointing out that what we produce on social media, even the most hate-filled and antagonistic material, “is true of all commodities produced under capitalism: investors are in principle (never entirely in practice) indifferent to content provided it increases the return on investment”, should we cast a critical light on the platforms in and of themselves, or on the workings of our wider society? Perhaps this is all an analogue of the fact that for many users of the Twittering Machine, it does all still seem new, because we can remember a time before it existed. But then getting caught in the headlights of the car wreck that social media can seem to be at times always runs the risk of blinding us to all of the structural contradictions, problems and fissures that brought us here in the first place.
Profile Image for Steve.
94 reviews9 followers
February 5, 2022
What a fantastic analysis of Twitter, or perhaps, all of social media under the construction "the twittering machine."

Seymour doesn't offer a philosophical, sociological, or economic account here, which makes it refreshing. Instead, this is a materialist analysis of how this system of things - algorithms, advertisements, networks, and more - compels us to act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves, democracy, and peaceful people everywhere.

It's really so well done because of Seymour's excellent criticism of typical liberal explanations of things like trolling and fake news - most liberals argue we need "more facts" or bemoan that people have become "stupid" or have abandoned "rationality." Seymour rightly points out that such accounts are worse than bad explanations as they dismiss a complex relationship between writing and being that all humans contend with.

As a materialist argument, the book is overflowing with case studies, data, incidents, quotes, and more. It's a fantastic reference book to the crimes supported and perpetuated by facebook and twitter and the like throughout the first part of the 21st century. If they are not criminal, they aided and abetted a number of heinous acts. The book made this clear to me, although it's not fair to say that Seymour is making that argument. He is much more interested in identifying this system, politics, or modality as a "machine" that is operating and moving us around.

We do not Tweet; we are pushed to write by the demands of the machine. This is a pretty good case that he makes well. The only weak spot in the book is the end. Instead of a nice comprehensive analysis of the different ways people have theorized the act of writing, we get some open-ended speculation that we should walk outside with a notebook and try to be poets. It's a real let down versus the keen insights he had earlier about how social media drives us to engage and write in ways that sew our own misery.

Instead, Seymour could have looked to the long 20th century list of books and papers theorizing composition and writing. What does it mean to have voice? What is a text? He's obviously more than passingly familiar with critical theory - he cites Lacan and Baudrillard - so why is the last part of the book lacking in the cutting research he's obviously capable of?

One last thing - his take on Baudrillard is cringey, it reminds me of the undergraduate college take upon reading it the first time. No fault of his, it's difficult to get the argument down. It's just not necessary, and hurts his argument to not understand Baudrillard as a recognition in a shift in how to see and understand capitalism, not a disconnect between reality and representation.

This is a great book for sparking a conversation on social media that avoids the simplistic, saccharine liberal takes that "people are just dumb" and fact-checking journalists are going to save us all. It's good to have a book like this out there!
14 reviews
October 1, 2020
The Twittering Machine is made of us. Our actions write the internet, using actual language and coded data. Algorithms read and use our writing to feed us with more content. Always more. As Seymour explains, "We write to the machine, it collects and aggregates our desires and fantasies, segments them by market and demographics and sells them back to us as a commodity experience."

One of the fundamental problems of the internet is that it's designed to commodify attention rather than edify or connect. It is built for the advertisers and capitalist interests. We are the products not the customers. As such, its managers and its algorithms don't care about the content of the writing they spread because all the money is made in engagement.

Another problem is that this medium, this simulacra, as an environment designed for addiction, is doing weird things to us. We're exhausted, bored, overstimulated, distracted, narcissistic, and screaming into the void. We're violent, image obsessed, self-conscious, voyeuristic trolls, and we're all complicit.

The writing here is lovely, frightening, and exciting. Seymour says many banal things in beautiful ways that help you as the reader look at subjects with new eyes. But you're still looking at the same old subjects. If you already feel anxious and afraid of the machine Seymour explores, then you probably won't really learn anything new here. What you will get are some wonderful translations of your inchoate fears into plausible seeming Freudian analysis. The book doesn't ever claim that it's going to answer the question of what is to be done, so maybe it's unfair to deduct two stars because it didn't. But let's be honest, if you're the kind of person who's reading The Twittering Machine you're also the kind of person who'd like a few suggestions about how we get out of this situation.

So what we end up with is a name for the monster. Maybe Seymour will tell us how to vanquish it in the sequel.
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