Every group of humans has a shared state. You know where you stand with the members of your family, your work team, your diving club. Every two people has a shared state that generally gets referred to as a “relationship,” and in larger groups of people you’ll have “relationship” state with several individuals in the group, but also a relationship state for the group itself.
Engaging with a group means sharing that state with other members of the group via a mix of public and private conversations. The shared state about the group is, as far as I can tell, what the group *is*. You can have bylaws and mission statements and leaders and clubhouses, but what the group *is* is that constantly-moving set of information about who feels how about who, what everyone’s doing and wants, and how everyone thinks about what’s happening.
I think if this process of sharing state as “The Discourse.”
We share a Discourse with our families and friends, but there’s also a Discourse at higher levels: Your membership in a subculture depends on your keeping a shared state and participating in that subculture’s Discourse. Your citizenship in a nation comes with a Discourse; your belonging to a larger cultural grouping — Anglophones, Europeans, Jews, et cetera — has a Discourse state stored in your mind, and a set of protocols for comparing your state with others’ and updating it accordingly.
Since 1440, the civilizational grouping that I belong to has used the published, printed word as part of the largest instances of The Discourse. Any group that you belonged to would have a newsletter, or similar method of broadcast, which allowed a sort of centralized feed of state changes to be gathered up and sent out, and everybody who consumed those updates would be able to keep their Discourse states up-to-date.
Starting with BBSes and Email and Usenet, extending through Reddit and Facebook and Twitter, there has been a radical shift in the way we do Discourse: Instead of organizers and leaders and formal organizations gathering up a central feed, we’re doing direct peer-to-peer exchange of Discourse state. This is, of course, the way we instinctively handle The Discourse at a very local level, but now for the first time we can do that at national, cultural, global levels, and it’s gotten weird.
Peer-to-peer systems have emergent properties that are very difficult to follow along with, much less explain or predict. Leadership in this kind of environment is a sort of art form, like surfing on waves made of other surfers. The shapes of the groups we belong to, and share state with, can change in the blink of an eye, and our mental models of that state struggle to keep up.
This style of Discourse, this way of forming cultural groupings, makes it very difficult and complicated to make formal, conscious, deliberate decisions about anything. By the time anyone manages to come up with a solid and self-consistent articulation of what a group is doing, it’s already deeply out of date, and the very existence of the articulation creates a new round of eddies and whorls so that it acts to make itself obsolete just by existing.
I think one of the things people have struggled with in talking about what the has been going on with the Trump movement is that Trumpist Discourse is actively disruptive to more traditional forms of discourse. Having a Trumpist as part of the Discourse of any other group makes it impossible for that more traditional style of Discourse to happen.
That’s not by accident.
It’s a form of warfare, meme vs meme. The Trumpist Discourse — which is a descendant of the NeoCon Discourse, which was a descendant of the Reaganist Discourse, et cetera — follows patterns that are supposed to make it difficult for the groups they interact with to effectively come to grips with them. Their “echo chamber” style of internal Discourse is aimed at generating ideas and ideologies that tumble around getting sharpened and shaped to be as deadly as possible to other Discourses, while also making those participating in that Discourse less susceptible to other Discourses.
You can think of Cancel Culture as part of a meta-discourse about who is allowed to participate in the Discourse, and at what level. Instead of formal inquiries and trials, in the current mode we just knock a leader off their surfboard and send them back down to struggle in among the waves.
Twitter turning off Trump’s megaphone, and the mass exodus of Trumpists to Parler and Gab and wherever else, has had an incredible effect on the Discourse as seen by Twitter and Facebook. It’s like the world suddenly makes sense again. I can hear myself think again.
The Discourse is no longer under active attack.
As we talk about having exercised that emergency override on the Discourse, and talk about who ought to have the ability to activate it, I think it’s important that we have a word for what it actually is we’re talking about when we talk about what we’re doing with Social Media or Call-In radio or newsletters or chat rooms or general meetings or whatever.
It’s The Discourse. Social Media is the latest tool we have with which to engage in The Discourse. It’s how we go about sharing the state that tells us who we are, collectively.