Drawing of Johnson Chapel covered with many Twitter logos, in front of trees that say "Amherst"By Dan Adler

Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013

After 19 years of what biographers may one day refer to only as “The Dark Ages,” I created a Twitter account in June of 2011. Having lived out my high school social life through my Facebook newsfeed, always chasing that next “like,” I was ready for my social media identity to evolve.

I quickly discovered that there’s something in the nature of the current state of Twitter that lends itself to more earnest forms of self-expression, as far as social media goes. The stakes are lower when one produces content on Twitter, simply because so much content is produced: You’d tweet something way before you’d make a Facebook status about it. Twitter doesn’t feel so conspicuously and self-consciously ordered (if only because it’s comparatively new) in the way that Facebook may—you might call it the Wild West of social media. In my experience, Twitter also tends to erode online pretensions. For reasons that remain unclear, Twitter cover photos, unlike their Facebook counterparts, haven’t yet become the default way to express the depth of one’s aesthetic experience. Twitter, in short, is the least mediated social medium.

So, with the aim of finding something out about how Amherst expresses itself, I propose to undertake a brief survey of the Amherst Twitter landscape. We could talk about the big guns: @AmherstSports has 1,568 followers; @meadartmuseum has 1,022; @AmherstCollege has 4,651.

But anyone who tweets at Amherst knows that the real action goes down in the darkly intriguing Amherst Twitter underworld. @HerstHappening was consistently funny and relevant last year, before its tragic decline. I haven’t been to a Mr. Gad’s show in a while, but I endorse its members’ Twitter accounts as variously perverse and disturbing. And what to make of Tony Russo ‘15’s cornering of the market for our indie music commentary via a Machiavellian interplay of three Twitter accounts? I haven’t the slightest idea.

By all accounts, there also exists such a thing as an unlikely Twitter relationship: those wonders of nature that, as one modern classic would put it, occur when one Twitter account recognizes its counterpoint in another. My tone reflects the ironic distance from which we usually approach social media interactions, but I think this phenomenon matters. You’d follow someone you don’t really know on Twitter (this is surprisingly frequent) way before you’d friend him on Facebook (social suicide unless it’s before orientation, right?), and that leads to the sort of haphazard, spontaneous interactions that you’re allegedly supposed to have in college.

I imagine that most everyone has a list of people at Amherst that he doesn’t “get”—people whose motivations and desires elude what he had previously conceived of as being a reasonable (or possible) set of motivations and desires. In fact, the existence of my list is probably my favorite thing about Amherst. Twitter can shed some light on the people on these lists—a thought that won’t make any sense to you unless you’ve already been tweeting with the rest of us—in ways that Facebook rarely does and Val never, ever does.

Which is all, of course, to say that Twitter needs to be our model for the fallout from Professor Dumm’s recent article in The Amherst Student, “The Elephant in the Room,” as well as campus discourse more generally. Content of the debates aside, what’s striking is that the opinion pieces on both sides of the argument consistently feel stilted and self-conscious, reflexive and reactionary. For instance, the comparison between being a male athlete who plays a sport at an elite private college and being a historically oppressed minority is as morally repulsive as it is intellectually sleazy.

I don’t want to further engage with that comparison, both because I came here to write about my Twitter account and because I don’t think there’s much to engage with: As Professor Sanborn later wrote in The Student, after summarily dismissing the comparison, “This is so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up.”

But I do want to suggest—quite seriously, mind you—that the source of such claims consists in the difference between the way we use Facebook and the way we use Twitter.

Now, one way to criticize these claims is to call them thoughtless. But I also want to suggest that these claims actually emerge from a particular kind of thoughtfulness. I’m referring to our thoughtfulness about our social identities in our community—who we are, what we do, what motivations and desires we inherited by virtue of our entering into this community.

In my view, the entire point of explicitly constructing and referring to a “meaningful campus dialogue” is to force ourselves to consider—if for but one moment—a viewpoint that is beyond the scope of those to which we’re immediately inclined. And trust me, I get that that seems corny. In particular, I suspect that theorizing about why and how we should have a “meaningful dialogue” feels as hackneyed to me as it does to anyone else.  But I think that there’s a way out of that self-consciousness; I think that there’s a way to meaningfully participate in a dialogue without being constantly assaulted by the recognition that you’re supposed to be participating in a “meaningful dialogue.”

And I think it has to do with thinking through our impressions of our community rather than what’s at stake in our communal identities. A little intellectual and social vulnerability, a sense of humor, an openness—all those features of the Amherst Twitter community that make it, I must admit, the first thing I check on when I wake up—will go a long way. I don’t mean to say that we ought to live our lives through Twitter, though I’m intrigued by the possibility. Quite the opposite, actually: I mean to say that we ought to keep those features in mind during our real-life conversations.

But, I suppose if I’m going to literally editorialize, I’d better weigh in on the current debate. I’m genuinely unsure of what to make of the evidence that Professor Dumm points to, but all the relevant research literature bears out the conclusion that 90 percent of my tweets are about pop and rap music, iced coffee, the politics of love, the politics of social life, and Liverpool FC (see, I’m by no means anti-sports). If any of this interests you, I’m accepting followers at @dadlerler.