What is Twitter, anyway? – The New York Times

What is Twitter, anyway? – The New York Times

What is Twitter, anyway? - The New York Times

I thought of Maxwell’s Demon when thinking back to the “Star Wars”-Le Creuset affair, and how clear it was that no one involved had even been particularly angry. It’s in episodes like this that Twitter manages to break the discursive law that until recently prevented random Aussies from yelling at you when you’re trying to go to bed. In the real world, you can go 30 years without ever encountering the sensibilities of the “Star Wars” cookware community. But Twitter can, if you tell it just the right thing, shoot every last one of you through a small door, creating a pocket of extreme heat with little intention of anyone doing anything. This is perhaps the central paradox of Twitter: it can produce huge results without significant input.

I happen to know Maxwell’s Demon only because he makes an appearance in Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”, a 1966 short story centered on a clandestine communications network used by a bewildering array of people (anarcho-syndicalists , techies, perverts and eccentrics assorted) and seems especially popular in San Francisco. Instead of mailboxes, it works through a system of containers disguised to look like trash cans; the only one the protagonist finds is somewhere south of the market, a few blocks from where Twitter is said to have originated. This is a book I read 20 years ago. If I had come here more recently, I doubt the mention of Maxwell would have stuck in my mind, thanks to normal aging or irreversible damage to my brain from watching Twitter.

But I’m glad I remembered, because what I read when I pulled my copy off the shelf was the best way to think about Twitter I’ve come across. In the short story, an East Bay inventor named John Nefastis has designed a box, complete with two pistons attached to a crankshaft and a flywheel, which he claims contains the molecule-sorting demon. It can be used to provide unlimited free energy, but it only works if there is someone sitting outside watching it. There was, Nefastis believed, a certain type of person, a “sentient”, able to communicate with the demon inside as it gathered its data on the billions of particles inside the box – positions, vectors, excitation levels. The sentient could process all of this information, telling the demon which piston to pull. Together, the demon and the sentient would move the molecules back and forth, creating a perpetual motion machine. The box was a closed system, separated from the outside world, but it could still run on anything it was connected to.

Pynchon’s protagonist tries, and fails, to operate the Nefastis machine. But when I open Twitter, I see a lot of people who can speak to this demon; who can process, intuitively, the positions and attitudes of an unimaginable number of others; who know exactly what to say to the demon to make things happen; who are happy, or close enough, to spend hours sitting with the box, watching the pistons pump. Activists, politicians, journalists, comedians, snack brands and Stephen King, all took turns at the box. Labor organizers, venture capitalists, graduate students and amateur historians – they could spin the wheel. Nobody even has to do much to make it move. But none of us have the power to stop it either. And at some point – before we really knew what we were doing – we hung these pistons everywhere.

And while Twitter itself seems unlikely to disappear, the powerful mechanism it has become over the years – the one that made an often unprofitable business so valuable in the first place; the one who allowed a collectively invoked illusion to transform the real world – seems to sputter and creak, and all the noise makes it difficult to communicate with the demon within. The rig could continue to function in some form, even if the mechanism slowly rusts or eventually stops. If that happened, the world would feel exactly the same – and be completely transformed. And I, and others, and maybe you too, would have had to deal with what we had really been doing all along: staring into a box, hoping to see it move.

Props designer: Ariana Salvato.

Willy Staley is a story editor for the magazine. He has written about the effort to count the nation’s billionaires, the TV show “The Sopranos”, writer and director Mike Judge and professional skateboarder Tyshawn Jones. Jamie Chung is a photographer who has worked on nearly a dozen covers for the magazine. This year he won awards from American Photography and the Society of Publication Designers. Pablo Delcan is a Spanish designer and art director who is now based in Callicoon, NY. His work blends traditional and modern techniques through mediums like illustration, print design, and animation.


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