Twitter & The Counterpublic Sphere
As far as social networking sites that most people in my direct orbit don’t even use go, Twitter has played an outsized role in my life. In fact, it’s changed it many ways.
Now Twitter itself is changing ownership, having been successfully purchased by the world’s richest man. Now is as good a time as any to reflect on how this relatively small site (in comparison to social behemoths like Facebook, Instagram, and now TikTok) made my world bigger, brighter, and bleaker.
When I first signed up for Twitter (13 years ago this month), it was primarily to follow comic book artists and writers. Following the demise of Google Reader, I started using Twitter as an RSS replacement, following my favorite sites and writers directly.
As someone who’s oriented to perusing text over perusing images, I was drawn to Twitter even as it began to be rapidly eclipsed by Instagram and other platforms. It was a way to stay “ahead of” the US English-speaking news cycles that would drive conversation elsewhere—a trend that still by and large continues today. Most cable/network news coverage of the Trump administration was driven by whatever fresh horror Trump would announce to the world via tweet, and the news/commentary cycle is still driven by the engine of Twitter, fueled on outrage and hot takes.
Via Twitter, I was able to learn by listening, or following, voices I would not have otherwise found. This became especially true in 2014, following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the protests that followed there. I could follow Black people and learn about their struggle against police violence and other forms of systemic racism in America.
My own use and experience of Twitter would change in 2016. That year, I started the Exvangelical podcast, and from that would eventually start using the hashtag #exvangelical. It was there, amid the random chaos of Twitter, that I met strangers who related to being estranged from their faith communities. One of the original admins of the Exvangelical facebook group was someone who had found me on Twitter. It was via Twitter that I connected with Chrissy Stroop, who rapidly built a following in the aftermath of the 2016 election because of her expertise in both white evangelicalism and Russian politics. She would later create a series of hashtags such as #EmptyThePews and #ExposeChristianSchools that would trend and call attention to various aspects of growing up and living in white evangelical culture. We have become friends and collaborated in various ways ever since.
It was via Twitter that I met Emily Joy Allison, who would start #ChurchToo and kick off a reckoning regarding abuse in church settings. It was via Twitter that I would meet a parade of people whom I would never have known otherwise—so many (if not most) of the people who have appeared on my shows have been people I have met on Twitter.
I highlight Chrissy & Emily in particular because their work is public and widespread—and because they both used the simple tool of a hashtag and shared their stories on Twitter, which by default is broadly public and prone to viral spread.
A key asset of Twitter has been that it gives counterpublics a fighting chance. Counterpublics are an idea presented in 2002 by Michael Warner in their book Publics and Counterpublics. It is also a useful framework to understand the role of contemporary social media, as stated in the introduction of #HashtagActivism:
“In this book we argue for the importance of the digital labor of raced and gendered counterpublics. Ordinary African Americans, women, transgender people, and others aligned with racial justice and feminist causes have long been excluded from elite media spaces yet have repurposed Twitter in particular to make identity-based cultural and political demands, and in doing so have forever changed national consciousness. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, hashtags have been the lingua franca of this phenomenon.”1
Within the context of my own work highlighting the personal stories of people who’ve left white evangelicalism & critiquing the systems and institutions that support evangelicalism, this feature of Twitter has been absolutely crucial. Without Twitter, these stories would not have received the attention of the broader media starting in 2017 (this is a small sample, limited to things that mention my work).
Corrina Laughlin mentions exvangelical podcasts explicitly in the context of counterpublics in her book Redeem All:
“Like the hashtag movements chronicled in chapter 4, these podcasts have the potential to connect and galvanize counterpublics by highlighting and amplifying voices that speak out against the evangelical power structure represented by Bible colleges, churches, and parachurch organizations and other sites of cultural power.”2
The vague fear that many people have is that the types of challenges to the powerful will be undermined in a Musk-owned Twitter, and it is not entirely unfounded.
I am not a rosy-eyed techno-optimist, though I have been that before. Twitter itself, for all that it has brought me, also disabused me of such optimism and taught me a much more pragmatic and realistic way to relate to social media overall.
Over time, as early #exvangelical culture and content was posted to Twitter, it inevitably got chaotic/dramatic/traumatic. Some things—like the initial commonality being rooted in shared/similar traumas—were specific to this population. Other forms of conflict are more general to any interest-based group: a burnout on the part of creators, a burnout among consumers/the audience about niche content after their own interest in the niche waned or their need for the content dissipated, conflicts between people, etc—and exvangelical spaces have not been excepted from this.3 (I speak in generalities here for two reasons: specific instances of online conflict or “drama” are very difficult to summarize because they require backstory and preamble and a retelling of things, and revisiting them is generally fruitless and potentially re-traumatizing.)
After my own round of “drama” that coincided simultaneously with another trauma in my personal life, I changed my relationship to Twitter and social media. I learned to recognize when my own emotions became entangled in the reactions of others. I learned to become even more articulate with my language as well as articulating the purpose of things like “community” and “following.” It’s an ongoing process, and the dynamism of social media and its role as both personal communications and broadcast platforms means that those relationships are constantly being re-evaluated. In particular, I have learned to view social media explicitly as a tool to express aspects of identity, and not as one that is the summation of identity—in this context you can be both exvangelical & atheist or exvangelical & straight or exvangelical & queer or exvangelical & other-modifier. Most terms you use—online or elsewhere—to describe yourself are not totalizing.
In keeping with Twitter’s outsized influence on bigger sites, the #exvangelical hashtag jumped from network to network. While #exvangelical started on Twitter, it later jumped to Instagram, where it has over 82,000 public uses as of this morning, and TikTok, where it has 765M views. Accounts have generated followings, groups have created communities, and all have contributed to an overall culture.
Following the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, when Christian nationalist imagery was abundant in the footage of the rioters who invaded the Capitol Building, white evangelicals began working to undermine the counterpublics that had sprung up in recent years via the constellation of related hashtags like #exvangelical, #deconstruction, #decolonize, #ChurchToo, #LeaveLoud, #EmptyThePews, and #ExposeChristianSchools, among others. Sites like The Gospel Coalition began running stories decrying “deconstruction,” David Jeremiah said exvangelicals were the sign of the end times from the pulpit, and Christianity Today ran cover stories about deconstruction.
They seek to counter the counterpublics, which is understandable from their perspective. However, the imbalances that exist in the world beyond the glass rectangles where culture wars are waged are stark, and while they are not visible in the information environment, they are visible in other areas—particularly with regard to access to political and financial capital. Entrenched white evangelical interests drive GOP politics almost exclusively, for example, and they have ample attention in and access to mainstream “liberal” media as well as their own media ecosystems and complementary coverage in the conservative media sphere.
It’s within the context of those real-world power & capital imbalances that my uncertainties lie. Will a Musk-run Twitter allow such counterpublics to flourish? Twitter already has imbalances, such as “blue-check privilege” for verified users, the natural way those with established platforms or celebrity accumulate “clout” in any new media environment they enter, etc. My fear, which you may share, is that the counterpublics that have grown on Twitter will run afoul of Musk’s supposed “free-speech absolutism” in the process of calling him or others who wield great power into account. Judd Legum has already compiled a number of examples of this:
As far as Twitter the Company goes, anyone who guesses on its future is taking a shot in the dark. As far as twitter the culture, the living thing and the lively conversation it has enabled—that is what I’m worried for. Living things change and evolve constantly, so we will see what this new evolution brings and whether it can remain host to the types of dialogue or good content that makes putting up with all its bad aspects.
Twitter has always been small in comparison to its peers, but I have loved and loathed it—just as any chronic twitter user does. It is rife with abuse and beset with all manner of chronic problems, but it was what we had and we made do with it. So even if its role in society changes, and it is eventually no longer host to “public conversation,” I remain grateful for its role in my life.
You would more than likely not be reading this, or know who I am, were it not for Twitter. I’m sure many others can say the same. Whether that’s enough to get us to stay through whatever comes next? That’s the question we’re all asking.
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Jackson, Sarah J.; Bailey, Moya; Foucault Welles, Brooke. #HashtagActivism (p. 18). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
Laughlin, Corinna. Redeem All: How Digital Life is Changing Evangelical Culture. Accessed via Scribd.
I have my own theory about this burnout, and think that algorithmic amplification/customization of content leads to an overexposure to certain ideas and language. Recommendations are based on prior engagement, and as they tailor your experience, you see more than you would like. Words themselves burnout, or the associations formed around them evolve so rapidly, that it is dizzying if confined only to the Extremely Online crowd. The Extremely Online, just like the Extremely Religious or Extremely Into Sports all make the same mistake—they assume their experience is universal.