TWITTER HAS BECOME ANOTHER Elonian project, which is to say, a heroic and misguided attempt to build a personal brand out of someone else’s work, and great grand ideas replacing the ordinary work of upkeep and repair. Whether it’s rockets or websites, they’re about overvaluing ideology over maintenance. And it’s becoming more and more obvious, as less of it is being done, that the everyday invisible maintenance of the moderators at twitter was critical to its success. That should surprise nobody who remembers talkback radio.

In another lifetime I studied media history. The orthodox way of explaining the function of talkback radio, which was incredibly popular and dominant as a broadcast genre from 1930s origins into the 2000s, was that it offered a simulation of an audience. Combining the telephone and the radio was a breakthrough of interwar techno-populism. Though the point of the show was the audience listing to callers who were also audience members, the number of listeners vastly outnumbered callers, by the nature of the medium. So the producer-host had to, implicitly, make a selection: sometimes it was very careful and deliberate, sometimes it was neglected, but always there. The great imaginative leap was that talkback listeners took the broadcast for representation; that these people are saying what other people are thinking! The callers are the same as me, and people like me (for better or worse)! It was the classic genre for broadcasting in a society of masses.

Callers were unpredictable by definition, and that was the point; the most popular shows were usually the ones offering the unexpected. But they were always mediated by a host, and the attraction was the engagement. A host would begin a segment by offering an opinion or a cue—‘what do you think, call in now’—and would then become the mediator of a conversation. Even on the loosest late night shows, where things got very heated, often offensive, sometimes prankish, sometimes obscene, and every now and then extremely weird, the host was central and necessary, and was often the object of an informal game of limits-testing, to see what would be put up with. The hosts were minor dictators of their hours and became, especially toward the end of the 20thC, quite politically powerful people in their own right: Alan Jones and John Laws in Sydney exercised gross influence over party and media by right of their pretence to ‘speak’ for their large audiences, to set media agendas, and to set the media cycle. Similar figures existed throughout the world. Donald Trump tweeting late at night through his Presidency may be the last true talkback mass broadcaster simulating (‘many are saying this’!) his own audience.

The fragmentary nature of smaller social media instances (fediversal ones e.g. mastodon/pleroma, Tumblr, and others) have much less potential for central, celebrity talkback hosts. The moderation, though, remains key to the experience. What will be put up with? What are the limits?



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