Following Searle on Twitter: How Words Create Digital Institutions

Following Searle on Twitter: How Words Create Digital Institutions

by Adam Hodgkin

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Twitter allows us to build communities, track celebrities, raise our social profile, and promote a personal brand. Adam Hodgkin thinks Twitter is much more than a mere social media tool—it is a terrain ripe for a conceptual and theoretical analysis of our use of digital language. In Following Searle on Twitter, Hodgkin takes John Searle’s theory of speech acts as Status Function Declarations (SFDs)—speech acts that fulfill their meaning by saying the right words in the right context—as a probe for understanding Twitter’s institutional structure and the still-developing toolset that it provides for its members. He argues that Twitter is an institution built, constituted, and evolving through the use of SFDs. Searle’s speech act theories provide a framework for illuminating how Twitter membership arises, how users of Twitter relate to each other by following, and how increasingly complex content is conveyed with tweets. Using this framework, Hodgkin places language, action, intention, and responsibility at the core of the digital culture and the digital institutions that we are constructing.
Combining theoretical perspective with a down-to-earth exposition of present-day digital institutions, Following Searle on Twitter explores how all of our interactions with these emerging institutions are deeply rooted in language, and are the true foundation of social media and contemporary institutions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226438351
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 358 KB

About the Author

Adam Hodgkin is the Chairman of London-based Exact Editions. He was previously a philosophy editor, electronic publisher at Oxford University Press, and cofounder and employee at Cherwell Scientific Publishing, xrefer, and Exact Editions. He lives in Italy and tweets @adamhodgkin.

Read an Excerpt

Following Searle on Twitter

How Words Create Digital Institutions

By Adam Hodgkin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-43835-1


Philosophical Tweets

Philosophy and Twitter

The Services that Twitter provides are always evolving and the form and nature of the Services that Twitter provides may change from time to time without prior notice to you.

Today philosophy has more to tell us about Twitter than Twitter has to say about philosophy. But Twitter is growing and changing and one cannot exclude the possibility that interesting philosophy will be done with Twitter. There have been some philosophical tweets and there will be more. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that Twitter is irredeemably trivial or only for small thoughts just because, as we all know, no utterance in Twitter can be more than 140 characters. Thoughts can be short and deep, and short sentences can express profound truths. Just because a great deal of Twitter, most of what is said in Twitter, is undeniably trivial and intentionally ephemeral, we should not assume that Twitter is trivial. Twitter has important moments.

Even if Twitter were thought to be irredeemably trivial and all tweets were taken to be of marginal and ephemeral interest, there would still be some philosophical interest in Twitter. In the first place, Twitter has shown that a new form of language use can take hold of all the world's cultures very quickly and that a distinctive and purely electronic form of digital writing and reading can be used by hundreds of millions of ordinary people. Philosophers have reason to be interested in the way that we use language, and Twitter is now a prevalent and significantly new way of using our language and expressing our intentions and interests. It is a prime example of our digital use of language.

In the second place, Twitter deserves more philosophical and sociological attention because it is an example of a new kind of institution, a digital institution that is being constructed by its users interacting with the software and databases designed by inventive entrepreneurs and mission-driven digital activists. There are many other new institutions that share with Twitter the fact that they are almost entirely digital (Wikipedia, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Uber being obvious examples). These new and in many cases enormous institutions have grown so fast and furiously because they are essentially digital. They could not have grown at light speed if they had required regulatory approval or more than click-through consent. They launch with beta versions and the beta version may be more than good enough. They innovate by experimenting, tapping user feedback, and making public mistakes, quickly corrected. They eschew plant and lease before they buy. They prefer to outsource and they insist on scaling. They build audience before they build value, and they build value before they charge for profit. They do not require five-year spreadsheets, planning permissions, or tariff agreements; and their mode of operation works mostly beneath the radar of established laws and state control. They evade or jump over borders. They go global by being first to market and by dominating a space. They engender new forms of commerce and tend to avoid conventional forms of investment and management. They breed new forms of relationship and friendship. They track their users and build identities. These institutions appear to us to be free, but in many cases they are selling the attention and the recorded preferences of their users, so they may be more systematic, more invasive, and less free than they appear at first sight. They subvert privacy and harvest customer data.

Twitter, the corporation, does, of course, own some server farms and has multiyear leases on midsized office buildings in California and elsewhere, but it is a shining example of the way in which a digital institution can be constructed in the twenty-first century and become an elaborate social structure simply through the use of language, a language whose shape and pattern the Twitter software system subtly manages and controls. Twitter has made nothing physical, it has paid little in sales taxes, there is no manufacturing plant, it has no stocks or warehouses, and if it disappeared tomorrow, it would leave nothing but an amazingly large amount of recorded language, billions of short texts, as its contribution to world history. And those texts would not be very visible, and even less audible. Twitter has exploded through the use of remarkably little plant or physical structure; almost everything that matters about Twitter reduces to the ways in which its users and its programmers use the language that Twitter channels and enables. As we shall see, Twitter's social structure and its changing institutional shape can be understood and effectively explained once we see how Twitter is built and evolves through the language of its users.

Philosophers are interested in the ways in which we use language, and as we shall see, some contemporary philosophical notions, in places quite technical and abstract, shed a direct explanatory light on the ways in which Twitter works, and especially on the ways in which Twitter has become a new form of communicative engagement. For it is readily apparent to any serious user of Twitter that it is a system of communication and language use that is unusually innovative and unlike what has gone before and, at the same time, curiously imitative of earlier, nondigital language systems. For this reason, Twitter is a good domain in which to explore and test some philosophical theories of language.

The principal thesis of this book is that the speech act theories of J. L. Austin and John Searle offer us ways of understanding Twitter. Speech act theory helps to explain the way in which Twitter membership arises: we execute some very specific linguistic acts when we join Twitter. Speech act theory also helps to explain the ways in which members of Twitter are related to each other, especially through the institutional-digital act of "following." And finally, Twitter messages are all, each and every one of them, individual speech acts, and the institution of Twitter is constructed from Status Function Declarations (also known as tweets) that brick by brick are making before our eyes a new kind of digital institution, deep in content, individuality, system, and scale. Some basic insights from contemporary philosophy can help us to get a better grip on what Twitter is becoming. The practical application of these contemporary philosophical theories to Twitter is intriguing and surprising, but the applicability of these theories may also lead us to reflections on the philosophical theories.

John Searle and J. L. Austin

When I say before the registrar or altar, &c., "I do," I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it.

What are we to call a sentence or an utterance of this type? I propose to call it a performative sentence or a performative utterance, or for short a "performative."

John Searle is one of America's most distinguished and influential philosophers. He has taught for fifty years at the University of California at Berkeley. For all that time he has been developing a theory of speech acts, an approach to the philosophy of language through which our uses of language are viewed as ways of doing. Californian by adoption, Searle's philosophical roots are in Oxford in the 1950s, where he was a student of the then leading figure in the Oxford school, J. L. Austin. Austin pioneered the linguistic approach to philosophy, sometimes called "ordinary language philosophy," and outlined a theory of "speech acts," which subsequently became Searle's territory. In the twenty years following Austin's premature death in 1960, Searle was very active in fleshing out an Austin-type approach to the philosophy of language that became influential with linguists and psychologists and also had considerable impact on Continental philosophers (especially the French) who were not otherwise in sympathy with analytic, Anglo-Saxon philosophy as pursued by Austin, Searle, and others. In the second half of his career, Searle has paid much more attention to the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of action, and, in the last decade, a philosophy of society and culture that gives prominence to the way in which language is used to form and shape institutions. If one looks at Searle's philosophical trajectory, it is clear that he has covered a lot of ground. Starting from an apparently narrow theory on the borderlands between philosophy and linguistics, he has moved rapidly over many other philosophical topics and fields in working toward a grand view of the role of language in thought, action, society, and culture. Searle has not at all abandoned his core starting point in the theory of speech acts; for his philosophical journey toward a big theory about what institutions are is really an elaboration of the original insight that our use of language is profoundly social. Much of this is grounded in the Austinian theory of speech acts.

Austin was a brilliant man with a very English sense of humor and a philosophical approach highly typical of Oxford at that time. The title of his first book, Sense and Sensibilia, makes a joking allusion to his near namesake Jane Austen, and he was Austen-like in enjoying detail, precision, qualification, mockery, indirection, and subtlety. His second book, How to Do Things with Words, captures in its brilliant title the essence of his theoretical position: language for Austin was a way to do things, of course, with words.

We can quickly get our arms round the "speech act" idea if we oversimplify. The oversimplification is that the speech act approach to the philosophy of language was reacting to an earlier consensus that humans use language the way scientists use scientific theories or explorers use maps. Before the idea of speech acts caught on, philosophers of language were interested only in a picture, or a model, of language, thought, and meaning in which the human use of language was primarily about making statements, establishing propositions, proving theories, exploring meanings, and establishing truth. This was as though language was really all about describing or picturing the world in much the same way as Google Maps describes the world, mapping even the smallest geographical feature, topographical detail, satellite view, and street scene, from an infinitely variable scale of resolution. Many philosophical theories of language in the twentieth century took it as obvious that the big issues in the philosophy of language were problems about the way in which we can use language to describe the world, to name objects or refer to them, to express truths and to verify or prove them. According to this cartographic or pictographic model of the way language relates to the world, there is an underlying reality that language describes, on which we superimpose multiple layers of language that allow us to view and navigate the spatiotemporal universe through an enormously comprehensive and extensible set of representations of the underlying reality. Anglo-Saxon philosophers in the mid-twentieth century seemed to be completely preoccupied with language as a way of stocktaking or auditing innumerable truths or facts either about the world or constructed from our experience. It is as if the function of human language were to build a set of theories or to weave a descriptive carpet by means of which meaning, truth, and objective reality would correspond and interact. Austin, in his precise, conventional, painstaking, but disruptive way, punctured this picture. Language is not like this, and Austin's book is full of subtle points on the ways in which our language use enacts various ends and may run into various mishaps and infelicities. Austin was very interested in the ways that language might not work well for us because it does not work as it is expected or intended to do. Yet it can also work very well for us, since we are always doing things with words, and our use of language — to promise, threaten, abuse, assign, judge, define, mollify, warn, prove, reclaim, pretend, etc. — shows us that language can change the world as much as it can be used to describe the world. Austin was well versed in the mainstream interests in language as a descriptive and truth-oriented system; before he wrote his own books, he produced a translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic, which is one of the earliest and deepest texts in analytic linguistic philosophy. But he was considerably more interested in the way in which we use language to do things. Austin did not at all reject the traditional thrust of the philosophy of language, nor has Searle, but they have both chosen to focus on the questions of how we do, in practice, use language to make things happen.

Philosophers also have their own speech acts. They have their characteristic linguistic tics and foibles. Most philosophers are very adept with language and with their conversational presence. They do things with words philosophically by lecturing, by questioning and answering, by writing papers for specialist academic periodicals, by reading and refereeing the papers of others, by marking exams and examining theses, by writing books and, occasionally, by tweeting. As a very industrious and productive philosopher, John Searle has published over three hundred articles and a dozen books in his professional career. He has lectured at scores of universities, there are plenty of YouTube videos of his presentations and lectures, and he has produced a few tweets. If we were to add up all Searle's recorded use of language, we would find that there is a substantial corpus to be studied. In the next generation, graduate students who study Searle in order to write theses about "Searle's analysis of intentional action" or "the Turing test and Chinese rooms" or "free will and speech acts" may be able to make use of a computerized Searleana extending over several million words. This digital "collected works" may well be completely realized, replayed, and accessible through something like our contemporary World Wide Web. These scholars and doctoral students may have at their hands subtle tools that allow them to search and analyze, compare and contextualize, Searle's work and its relationship to the work of others in enormous detail. They will not ignore the relatively scant evidence of his tweets. They may even find some internal evidence that suggests why Searle toyed with Twitter while he was writing an ambitious book on the formation of social institutions and the making of human cultures. Searle has produced very few tweets and has left his account dormant for years; it is unlikely that Searle will resume his use of Twitter, in which case the tweets in the totality of Searle's language use will be a tiny fraction of the whole — not even a hundredth of 1 percent of his total recorded language use. But as we shall see, Searle's philosophy has quite a lot to tell us about Twitter, in particular, and about our use of digital language, in general.

Searle toyed or dallied with Twitter over a period of ten months a few years ago, when Twitter was already well established but more of a novelty and a conundrum than it is now. Twitter remains, as we shall see, something of a conundrum, but it has been gradually maturing and losing some of its mystery in the six years since Searle was sending out his tweets. Over those ten months he emitted only seven tweets, and in spite of their scarcity and their intermittent projection, these few Searlean remarks reveal something about the philosopher, they can show us something about Twitter, and they can even help us to shed some light on the topic of speech acts. As this is a book about Twitter, about Searle, and about what follows from Searle's theory of speech acts and his story about institutions, I start by following Searle on Twitter — treading in some of his tweets.

Searle using Twitter

Tip: What you say on the Twitter Services may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!

Searle's first tweet, on 19 April 2009, was the soul of brevity: @JohnRSearle: writing books

This is not even a complete sentence, but in its context it is a pretty straightforward tweet and a decent speech act, though one that might be taken in several different ways. It is not quite a sentence since it lacks a subject, but we know from the context that Searle is tweeting — his written words appear immediately following the name of a Twitter account "@JohnRSearle," so that it must be he, John R. Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, the owner of that Twitter account, who is writing books. Or it might just possibly be an impostor, someone pretending to be the famous philosopher, but I will come back to that. At that time, Twitter encouraged and advised newcomers to start by tweeting what you are doing. Searle did not pick the fatuously obvious comment that he was "writing his first tweet" or the marginally less fatuous "sitting in my study in California," which is what he was doing at that precise moment (I am guessing). He chose to focus on the broader, larger goal for him, that of writing books. Not one, but several books.


Excerpted from Following Searle on Twitter by Adam Hodgkin. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Philosophical Tweets
2 What Twitter Really Is
3 “Following” Makes Twitter’s Social Structure
4 “Almost Everything You See Today in Twitter Was Invented by Our Users”
5 Referential Complications
6 Twitter’s Content and Twitter’s Context
7 Twitter’s Constitution and Twitter’s Shape
8 Digital Institutions
9 Digital Language
10 A Natural History of Digital Institutions
11 Since We Make These Digital Institutions . . .


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