"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

Fake Palindromes

The problem isn’t that the person claiming to be Jurgen Habermas on Twitter lied. The problem is that everyone cared about who he claimed to be in the first place.

Before everyone noticed, @Jhabermas was an innocuous enough feed: a series of links to the talks and papers that the old philosopher was (still, at the age of 80!) putting out with some regularity. For months, the tweets continued, mixing German and English and referring to Habermas in the third person: clearly an aggregator rather than an impersonator. Then, suddenly, sometime in late January, it seemed like everyone noticed at once: Jurgen Habermas is on Twitter! His January 28th tweet, “Howard Zinn was a great loss for all of us”—obligatory-sounding, yes, but also implicitly personal—didn’t hurt the buzz, and by the morning of the 29th it had reached a fever pitch. It was as if everyone was waiting for Habermas to speak.

Admittedly, it wasn’t implausible that the Twitter account was genuine, that the most famous living philosopher had taken over the username or removed the mask. Hey, anyone lucid enough to write things worthy of being tweeted was lucid enough to tweet them himself. Of course, lucidity has always been a relative term with Habermas—if you’ve never tried to read him, just know that the rumors you hear about Continental philosophers and impenetrable prose are true—and the amusement of watching a notoriously prolix man squeeze himself into 140-character increments was part of the anticipatory fun.

But the real reason everyone who knew anything about Habermas was in a tizzy was that, philosophically, it made perfect sense. In theory, at least, Twitter comes closer than any other communication medium in history to creating the “Ideal Speech Situation,” the idealized public sphere for which Habermas first made his name. Theoretically, in the Ideal Speech Situation, the ability of all participants to express opinions and introduce assertions will allow them to arrive at a consensus, as a citizenry, for which there is genuine consent from each individual.

The insane popularity of Twitter among the politically engaged and informed seems to make it ripe for the deliberation of matters of public import. Nowhere is this more true than in Washington, where I live: a company town stuffed to the gills with people who work in public affairs and who are persuaded, at least, that they are working in the public interest as well. Surely there is hope for deliberative democracy when, the day the President releases his budget for FY 2011, “Budget Request” is a local trending topic on Twitter.

More to the point, the Twittersphere is not only open to anyone with an Internet connection or a mobile phone, it’s completely horizontal. Any individual user can express his attitudes and see them rebutted or ignored on the merits—or, especially after a recent tweak made it easier for users to “retweet” each other verbatim, watch them spread.

Finally, on January 29th—to furious retweeting--@jhabermas finally issued an ambivalent blessing to the medium:

This certainly sounded like Habermas, because it was—the text, at least. As it turns out, the person behind @jhabermas had simply repurposed a footnote from a 2006 talk called “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension?” (see what I mean about the Continentals?) and sliced it up into four pieces, artfully, to disguise the references to chat rooms and other manifestations of the inferior Web 1.0 public sphere.

From there, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing unraveled. On February 1st, as reported in a smirking expose in the British Guardian, some intrepid European went to the unprecedented twentieth-century step of phoning the old man and asking if this fellow on the Internet was really him, and getting the answer (presumably in more than 140 characters) that no, it wasn’t. @JHabermas issued a sincere multi-tweet apology, but by that point the damage had been done—when the user tried to tweet about something unrelated a few days later, he was met with indignation, and by February 4th the account had been deleted.

Ironically, in a Habermasian public sphere, who @jhabermas was wouldn’t matter. If the “public sphere of readers and writers” is actually as egalitarian as Habermas and @jhabermas said it was to begin with, there shouldn’t be any difference between one saying it and the other. The outrage when it was revealed that these pearls of wisdom didn’t come directly from Habermas’ fingertips, but rather from some dude quoting him, accidentally proved that authority and status do matter, that Twitter isn’t nearly as horizontal as it claims to be. @jhabermas wasn’t “following” anyone on Twitter, but had thousands of followers himself—many if not most of whom retweeted one or more of his musings the morning of the 29th. In the end, authority makes Twitter look a lot like, well, broadcasting.

But the Washington intelligentsia who were geeking out the most about @jhabermas weren’t retweeting him because what he said was interesting—to anyone with a passing knowledge of Habermas, it was unenlightening, even banal. They weren’t retweeting to endorse or rebut or, well, deliberate. They were just reacting to the fact that Habermas was on Twitter: signaling that this was known, and it was awesome.

This is what the political Twittersphere is: not a deliberative public sphere, but a reactive one. Its attention is focused outward, on politicians and the news they make, rather than on its members’ own beliefs and deliberations (ignoring the influence of those beliefs in the process). The unspoken assumption, which comes from the “real world” of Washington daily life, is that “talking politics” means discussing not ideas but political strategy. The participants call this “pragmatic,” but as often as not it’s an excuse to justify their sports-fan-like devotion by thinking of politics as a spectator sport. As a story unfolds, the constant churn of reaction and speculation cause the conversation to build on itself: everyone takes everyone else’s information and speculation and using it to hone the savviness of his “take” on a given political event.

Is it really surprising that these “takes” congeal almost immediately into “conventional wisdom” as homogeneous as a Greek chorus, but with every bit as much acoustic power? It can even be hard to distinguish, in real time or in retrospect, between one’s own reaction to an unfolding event and everyone else’s, between what “I think” and what “everyone knows.” From a distance, this unison might look like Habermas’ “truth by consensus,” the result of exhaustive deliberation and slowly-constructed unity. But conventional wisdom is completely self-perpetuating—it has power not because anyone has deliberately consented to its truth, but because it immediately appears, retweet after retweet, that everyone else has.

Theoretically, everyone can contribute to emerging conventional wisdom; in practice, those with the power to broadcast have the power to set the agenda. It’s only here that authority becomes a problem. Habermas envisioned a public sphere to which each individual came with his political beliefs formed, if not set; in fact, the politically engaged side of the Twitter public sphere downloads its perceptions from “conventional wisdom,” which has hardened as it ricochets through the Twittersphere, propelled by a few key retweets from those in power.

Of course, this is only one corner of the Twittersphere—a “fragmentary public,” as it were. But Twitter’s Trending Topics field reminds the user that his obsessions are not universally popular (and, conversely, delights him when they are). In a city as racially, professionally and socioeconomically segregated as Washington D.C., the only reminders that not everyone is, in fact, talking about budget requests come not on the bus, but in the Trending Topics sidebar. Most of the most popular Trending Topics are massive, sprawling, amorphous riffs on such prompts as “#ilikedyouuntil” and “#youknowyoubrokewhen.” Sometimes these can get racist, sexist, homophobic or just plain mean—but more often they’re creative and individualistic, engaged in a one-upmanship that’s the opposite of the political Twittersphere’s instant homogenization. They bear no resemblance to a Habermasian public sphere, in which matters of import to the polis are debated and exchanged—but it is they, not the swarmed reactions of the political class, that best model the individuals who are supposed to populate that sphere.

Where @jhabermas warned of “millions” of “fragmentary publics”, I really only see two: the reactive political hemi-Twittersphere and the creative quotidian one. But when I tried to engage him on the topic, in the vain, absorbed hope that everyone was right and this was in fact the real Habermas, I received no response. Before he unmasked himself as a fraud, @jhabermas never replied to another user’s tweet, and thus ignored the only opportunity Twitter provides for genuine Habermasian deliberation. It is through replies, and, ideally, conversations, that the power of authority can be leveled and the fake symmetry made real. Anyone can call out a Twitter user using a reply, and if the user is responsible and clicks over to see others’ replies to his tweets, he can defend himself or yield to the point. Only during this sort of direct exchange do I see opinions staked out and defended, ideologies defined, ideas deliberated.

The fact that @jhabermas (posing as J. Habermas) never used replies did not escape comment in the side channels of the Twittersphere, but it didn’t seem to make them any more skeptical—or, once he was unmasked, any less shocked or betrayed. Instead, they retweeted him. I don’t worry that some dude quoting Jurgen Habermas on Twitter bodes poorly for the future of democratic deliberation. I’m much more worried about the thousands of dudes who quoted him.

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Re-enchanting the World