This talk asks what Twitter is, what it does, appending it to a longer literary-theoretical history. It isolates Twitter’s principle of design, available for anyone to see: that it visibilizes, publishes, and records speech acts and reactions to speech acts, all in real time and at scale. At scale, this formatting has implications for natural human language and, in turn, for modern society (as an engineered object that generates and responds to data).
Thus while ideological siloeing, censorship, harassment, disinformation, and geopolitical sabotage remain among the top complaints against the platform, regardless of corporate changes, Twitter’s moral hazard and transformative potential lie outside, and prior to, these issues of content management and formal control. Twitter, or anything that borrows its principle of design, clarifies the consequences of modern society’s technological outsourcing of moral interpretation, and brings to a head the digital management of the public sphere and the greater republic of letters. As an object of study it belongs to the field of literary theory because literary theory pays the closest attention to the dynamic between recorded human communication and social design, looks most carefully at the beginnings of engineering, wherever it may occur, that wants to determine the purpose of natural human language, and the point of understanding it.