I see a mill gleaming amid the alders
the roar of mill – wheels
cuts through the babbling and singing.
Welcome, welcome, sweet song of the mill!
How inviting the house looks, how sparkling its windows!
And how brightly the sun shines from the sky.
Now, dear little brook, is this what you meant?
Halt! from Die Schöne Müllerin, by Johann Müller
The Ever-Pumping Mill of Content
If you’re relatively new to twitter, like a friend of mine, then it’s an alluring, bright, sparkling and confusing place. I know, because that friend is now asking me a lot of questions about the layers of meaning, codes and shorthand being used by seasoned twitter users. Last year, she obtained mastery of the TikTok algorithm and went viral with excellent, funny Content. This same friend has, this year, become even more incredibly passionate about social issues, especially about the way women have been sidelined and abused by powerful men. The events around the rape of Brittany Higgins and subsequent women’s marches has been her radicalising moment. As a result of this, as well as a sense of frustration about the portrayal of Melbourne across various media outlets, she has thrown herself onto the never ending (Tread)Mill of Content and it’s difficult to hang on. So this blog post is written partially for her, and for anyone else who wants to be a successful producer of Content, or perhaps want to understand their position as an audience member.
Turning People into Performative Products
For anyone not familiar with the notion of a Mill, it has become a metonym for anything that emerged in the production of goods and pretty much the advancement of society, whether it be the dark, satanic mills of Blake or the constantly whirring mills spinning through the imagination of poet Johann Müller and composer Franz Schubert in the song cycle Die Schöne Mullerin.
In this extended metaphor, the Mill of Content is the endlessly cycling, voracious requirement social media has for content. The most brutal and unforgiving Content Platforms are TikTok and YouTube, but also possibly its most pure, in terms of the distance between everyday human interaction and a performative version of it – most with sustained success on both of those have an artifice, brand and style that helps establish their engagement and fan base.
On Twitter, however, it is considered an insult if a twitter user is accused of being “performative” and that their interactions, and Content is a product of artifice, repetition and strategy, rather than spontaneously human expression. Understandably, as many with large follower counts are spontaneous and genuine, but also naturally gifted at attracting attention with that spontaneity and genuine warmth. However, these people are rare, and the timeline and archives of most successful twitter Content producers do show evidence of some consideration and positioning in the way they craft and pitch their tweets.
The product at the end of the day is performance, of people performing in response to issues and events of any given day. In order to have sustained success with a twitter account – especially for those without other media platforms – it is the result of daily, repetitive work in producing up to date, savvy Content. After a while, it is clear to see what serves as grist for the Mill of Content.
The Process of Content Production
Step One – The Initial Content
There are many approaches to becoming a Twitter Content Producer. And many that aren’t in this post. These are the ones, however, that have become obvious over my time on twitter. This also refers to Australian political twitter, as that is my experience.
Minor Media Figures / Twitter Famous
What is remarkable about the bigger, more popular Content producers on Australian twitter is how big minor media figures are on the medium. People who have small or fringe jobs in on mainstream media, but pump out wildly popular Content. Examples are people like Tonightly writer and performer Greg Larsen, Utopia secretary Nina Oyama, sometime Chaser fringe dweller and occasional Feed sketch guest Ben Jenkins. Their roles might be small in the media outside twitter, but they really work hard on their Content, as to collect a big following. An advantage for them is that they aren’t known well enough outside twitter to attract a swarm of haters / admirers / stans which would give them more freedom to be edgy and critical of politics and the media. They aren’t being monitored by News Limited and Liberal Governments as much as people like Leigh Sales, and there is also less for them to lose if they make a mistake of tone. For the most part, these minor media figures will occasionally appear on panel shows, but mostly will stay stars of twitter.
An exception to this rule was Yasmin Abdel-Magied, who like the other popular Content producers was a largely unknown (and very happy, upbeat) presenter on a Sunday morning cultural program that sat somewhere near Offsiders and televised church programs. However, because she had worked for the ABC, and not on a comedy program, her innocuous tweet about Anzac Day meant that News Limited could feast on it for their own performative outrage purposes.
There are also those who have built their profiles with Twitter to gain larger profiles. Jan Fran and Mark Humphries are two in this category, successfully taking their relatively small roles and using twitter to make themselves and their Content better known more widely. Fran in particular is showing herself as being adept at understanding issues and repacking it as Content on the ABC’s Question Everything. Humphries has used his physical appearance of being an every(white)man figure from a John Brack painting to create extended grotesque (and accurate) presentations of the power given to such white men in Australian society.
Journalists Making Their Reputation
The same principle of minor players in media organisations being Big on Twitter also applies to media employees who are skilled Content accumulators and producers. The better ones are mostly younger reporters, making their name and reputation on the back of their twitter efforts. Eliza Barr and Josh Butler, for example, are particularly skilled at using twitter to create Content. Sophie Elsworth did the same thing with her twitter account in 2020, becoming a lightning rod for right wing dissent from the actions of the Victorian Government and thus obtaining more exposure in other News Ltd platforms. It could be said that Sharnelle Vella, Channel 7’s state political reporter, fits into this category, but her role on television was already fairly significant. Sharnelle is, however, one of the most skilled Content producers on twitter at the moment. Matilda Boseley, of the Guardian, as a contrast, is making her mark more on TikTok, perhaps recognising that it is a more attractive and accessible medium for younger media audiences.
The Gruen Principle
At this point, it would be instructive to see how the notion of minor performers using social media to make themselves as presences on Australia media are the people who appeared on Gruen / The Gruen Effect. It has proven to be one of the most successful engines for making minor media figures into players on other media platforms. Dee Madigan, Jane Caro, Rowan Dean, Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson have all managed to launch themselves in various ways. It was probably natural for each of them to be good at providing content, as they are all advertisers. (At this point, I will not quote from TISM’s Greg the Stop Sign, as tempting as that may be).
It is useful, however, to see how they have all managed to set up their own Content pathway – and Twitter’s role in it. Sampson has barely used it, and has had multi platform success. Dean used it to an extent, but realised “editing” The Spectator Australia and being on Sky is more lucrative than Twitter. Howcroft doesn’t need twitter to build his brand, but has dabbled in projects that suit his business minded content.
On twitter, however, Madigan has managed to become strategist for Labor, and uses her twitter account to provide informal and colloquial Content that is intended to boost the party’s brand and set the agenda and tone for its supporters. Caro has managed to carve herself on twitter a position as a spokesperson for public schools, progressive issues as well as a reliable, regular commentator on The Drum, which continues to be a neat showcase for the takes produced by various producers of Content. Caro’s Content, usually, is not as calculated as many. Hers is more a natural ability to attract comment and response. A recent example can be found with this tweet.
Twitter had two days with of content in response to this tweet, where Caro was raising an ages old, classist dichotomy between liking sport and not liking sport. It wasn’t original, but it was timed well.
The people who have well known roles on the media – Dave Hughes, Leigh Sales, etc, have a different road to travel. Almost every one of their tweets attracts comment – praise, criticism and everything in between. They don’t need to work that hard to produce Content – there’s enough people out there to take their tweets and riff from them. One or two tweets is often enough – they have bigger platforms that demand their time and skills at producing popular Content.
The Professional Content Harnessers
There’s a number of people who work in media and outside it who are very good at harnessing Content. They are able to see the issues of the day and spin their takes to the extent where their views become the focus of discourse for the day on twitter. They are also very good at timing.
News producers and editors are very good at this. I got an insight into their world when, for five years, I used to catch a train to work from 6.40 to 8.10 am and then back from 4.20pm to 6pm (never again, by the way). My twitter account became very popular for Content, because I was able to set up a good timeline on Twitter for good news sources and was able to package up information and throw in a perspective as a tweet or retweet. This is why radio / podcast producers and editors like Matthew Bevan and Osman Faruqi are very good at seeing what is news for the day and how to set off a discussion about those issues. Their jobs are to read, understand, chunk down and then write short form explanations about complex issues on broadcasts. So it goes on twitter, they know how to attract attention. The latter in particular is very skilled at stirring discussion in all sorts of directions, including with the timing of his takes, so his work attracts attention throughout the day, from fans and dunkers.
The Experts and Specialists
One group of people who have benefitted from twitter are experts and specialists in fields that usually are not provided with much exposure in media outlets, due to their relative obscurity. Their content is usually valuable and helpful. There are many experts who are very good at chunking down their messages. They are also able to be personally engaging, like the next group of Content producers.
The Socially Popular
There are people on twitter who are just good at being engaging and popular, and all of their Content is liked. They generally aren’t in the media, just ordinary people, but ones whose lives, views and interests are similar to their friends, and later, their fans. They can look at the developing consensus view about issues, can pitch their take to fit into that consensus, and time their takes well enough to accumulate more agreement for that position. After a while, with a development of their popularity, support and confidence, they also make opening pitches for a consensus view about an emerging event and / or issue. They are also, as people, generally warm, personable, respond positively to those who agree with them. These are the kinds of people that have reached the height of popularity referred to in this tweet.
The Socially Popular – CONtent or conTENT?
The personas of these socially popular Content Providers can either be genuine or performative – or, in many cases, a mix of both. Is the persona a con? Or are being allowed inside the tent of their real life? Twitter, by its nature and demands requires a level of performance on a daily and weekly basis. In addition, exaggeration and hyperbole gets more attention and cut through.
This style of Content production that brings no financial or work benefit to the ordinary people behind the accounts does come at a personal cost, however. The sheer number of mental health cries for help, breaks, deactivations and alt accounts are testament to the pressures created for those who choose to place their heart and soul (even if it is a little bit exaggerated and / or performative) onto something like Twitter. However, even that could be performative. Truth is, we don’t know as audiences whether it’s CONtent or conTENT. And mostly, audiences don’t care – they just like the Content pouring out.
I have written extensively about “Megaphoning”, which is to take a simple message and continually repeat it, collecting more and more voices that agree. That process continues, even if the players on the Megaphoning treadmill change in time. The latest example of this phenomenon is PR Guy 17, whose Content is constant, calculated and frequent. There is enough evidence from the tweets that the account is run by an enthusiastic Labor supporter – whoever runs it has made too many mistakes and has strayed from Labor social media policy and practice for it to be a paid Labor operation. For all of the dunking and opposition that the account has attracted, it does produce a lot of very popular Content. Whoever uses it is also not afraid to do a bit of dunking of its own. A crucial part of the tactic being employed by PR Guy is the use of Hashtags, which helps to signal to the audience where the action is in terms of whipping up collective anger. Hashtags are deeply unfashionable amongst highly experienced twitter users, but for those who don’t use it as much, they act as a very handy search tool. Whoever runs that account it is also good at engaging with and responding to supporters and the odd critic when it suits their purposes, having a touch of the Socially Popular approach.
Step Two – The Feedback Loop
After these initial tweets of Content, the Mill then kicks into action, where the feedback loop kicks in. And it’s the feedback loop that can really punt Content into the trending stratosphere.
This process is one of the first steps of creating a social media brand, on the back of Content produced by others. The people who do this are the dunkers. These are the people who wait for a take from anyone that has been referred to – public figure, politician, media star or other well known person on twitter – and will come up with a clever dunk, as a quote tweet in order to get a block or snarky response, or via screenshot. Nick Schadegg is one of the great masters of the dunk – the second one being a dunk on Jane Caro’s take.
The Political Dunkers
There is a a subset of dunkers who have a political agenda and social media strategy behind their dunking. They are those people who seem to sweat over the tweets of politicians such as Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, Daniel Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian, Scott Morrison, et al, just so to dunk on them. They will either dunk by replying, or quote tweeting, depending on their intent. The speed at which some people respond to those tweets would indicate they set up to know when those tweets are issued. Then they are used as a rallying call for the supporters of that dunker to continue to spread the negative response, building a momentum of criticism. A look at the replies and Quote Tweets for politicians will reveal all sorts of social media approaches and tactics.
One of the most notorious seekers of affirmation for their views was Joe Hildebrand, who relentlessly tweeted supportive tweets for his takes. So much so that “Hildebranding” was the term for it. He is not the only one to do that, however, instead authors giving out likes and the occasional quote tweet, thus providing approval for their fans, as well as satisfying a need for affirmation by the authors themselves. This is not something restricted to the socially popular, but they are more likely to be appreciative of the support.
Another excellent producer of Content is the process of Shunning. One thing that the socially popular Content producers have as an advantage over many is that attract a number of passionate supporters who would do anything for them. It is often the case that this shunning process happens as a part of the feedback loop.
This is the way is works. If the socially popular Content producers decide that someone needs to be shunned by their supporters and fans, they can make that happen. It’s not a difficult process – it usually requires one of the following:
- Someone responding out of spite, aggression or jealousy to someone who is socially popular. That person can then quote tweet, or screenshot that reply, ensuring that the supporters will then set upon attacking and / or shunning that person
- Providing a quote tweet or screenshot of a tweet that is deemed to be offensive / out of step / not “reading the room” and then making it clear why that person needs to be criticised and / or shunned
- Selecting to get into an argument with a critic, so to raise the stakes and temperature of the situation, exposing the critic to more attention, and hence, hopefully for the socially popular person, more shunning.
In this context, the term “cancel culture” is worthless, because people are not “cancelled” by twitter campaigns. Not all that much real world power is not wielded by everyday people with twitter accounts. Johnny Depp is still winning awards and living from his royalties, as is J.K. Rowling. Graham Linehan is still living from his royalties for Father Ted and IT Crowd. Pauline Hanson continually appears on various platforms, because she produces Content that attracts audiences. PR Guy has been the target of many “cancel” campaigns, and they plough on regardless.
What the shunners do have, however, is the power to shun people on their platform, just like any religious community, school playground or in the Mean Girls universe. That doesn’t mean that it can’t hurt to be shunned, but it’s not “cancelling”. Those who are “cancelled” can still have friends and supporters, just not with a certain group of people on Twitter. If they want that support, however, it’s usually too late. Shunning, if done effectively, lasts a long time.
What the process of shunning DOES do above everything else, though, is produce great Content for the audience.
Convo Twitter v Broadcast Twitter
There is another issue, however, with feedback – that nexus between audience response and Content producers who are of good faith. As the excellent expert Dr. Emma Beckett points out in these tweets, it would be nice if twitter was about talking to people as people, not at them. Convo Twitter as opposed to Broadcast Twitter. Twitter’s algorithm does hide a lot of replies, and can distort the tone of feedback.
What is “Good” Content?
Who are the audience for all of this? What makes “good” Content? What makes Content “good” is purely in the eye of the audience. That’s it. The Mill produces Content that appeals to all sorts of audience members. Like with radio, TV, movies, there are many demographics and interests. There’s fans of snark, fans of the earnest, fans of stirrers, fans of dunking, fans of “eating a burger!”
That is why it’s probably a bit of a waste of time complaining about people in those different demographics. Each of us pick and choose what we decide is lame and what is acceptable. For example, if people choose to cling on those outdated water drop emojis, it indicates they are still annoyed about the fact Angus Taylor is still a Minister. There are people still stung by plot line resolutions in 1990s television shows and movies. Others are still salty about the whole last season of Game of Thrones, which went to air at the same time Taylor’s water issue came to light.
Audience as Wannabe Content Producers
For most twitter users, they aren’t skilled producers of Content. Or at least, constant producers of continually high quality Content. As my opera singing mum would say to people who said they wished they had mum’s abilities, “performers need an audience”. There is a twist to this, however. For a lot of the audience of twitter, they are widely dissatisfied with the way “mainstream media” packages and features news. They sense that some stories and perspectives gain the upper hand while many stories they believe are important fall between the cracks. That is the narrative that the likes of Ronni Salt promotes, and her supporters believe. These same people also believe the illusion that Twitter is a platform that provides unfettered, unfiltered access to journalists and the famous for the ordinary person ; as well as a platform for anyone wishing to create Content.
It doesn’t, and it isn’t.
The Impotent Cold Call Fury of the Waterdrops
Most of the audience who use water drops as emojis are people angry about what they see as the unchecked corruption of the Liberal Party and go onto twitter for some sense of solidarity and support for their anger. Their @ responses to journalists they believe are biased is a misguided and attempt to have someone acknowledge that their concerns are being heeded. There are also a number of people who are the “I am just asking a question troll type” to which Dr. Beckett is referring. The combination of the anger, the Twitter algorithm, and trolls, these cold call replies to most experienced Twitter users have been rendered almost pointless.
Some media professionals, especially this year, have been annoyed (some performatively) by the flooding of their notifications of angry, powerless people. High profile people like Leigh Sales have struck back, criticising them and highlighting the numbers of people angry with her tweets and work on 730. It didn’t have the effect of stopping the criticism. It hasn’t stopped Sales from hosting 730, nor using twitter. It did, however, create more Content.
Likes – The Rorschach Inkblot of Audiences
If you want to see who the audience are for certain Content producers, one of the more reliable indicators is who likes what on twitter. While it is true that likes don’t necessarily mean approval or agreement, over time, patterns emerge of the audiences and fans of those key Content producers. And certain tweets stand out like Rorschach blots, revealing the personality of those who like them. Or, alternately, who dunk on them. That was certainly true of the Jane Caro football tweet, who flushed out supporters and opponents of her doing all kinds of rhetorical gymnastics as a response.
Getting On or Off the (Tread)Mill of Content
If new or inexperienced twitter users are frustrated or confused by twitter, it is much easier to see twitter as a constantly moving treadmill of Content, dominated in Australia by savvy, experienced users. Some people are very skilled at persisting in staying on it each day. So many of them have to be.
For the rest of us, we need to make decisions about our approach and attitude towards the Mill. Do we continue to provide Content, or are just happy to consume it? Or just drop off completely?
On this point, I don’t really want to make this post about me. The intent also is not to settle old scores. These are reflections on my observations over the years of having an account that produced Content that developed a reasonable following. I used a number of the approaches listed above. My attitude and feelings about having such a position as a Content producer might be illustrative for others. And because I love classical music, I wanted to use bits of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin to express that perspective.
I was once attracted to the sweet song of the Mill of Content, and encouraged to contribute to it – the dopamine hits were awesome. However, these days, I feel more like the wanderer from the opening song – seeing how the water never ceases to move, seeing how heavy the stones of the mill are. Unlike Schubert’s miller, though, I am going to now stick to my wandering. And I want to stick to Convo Twitter, rather than Broadcast Twitter. I can see, though, why being one of the Producers in the Mill of Content could continue to dazzle and fascinate.
To wander is the miller’s delight; to wander!
A poor miller he must be who never thought of wandering, of wandering.
We have learnt it from the water, from the water!
It never rests, by day or night, but is always intent on wandering, the water.
We can see it in the wheels too, the wheels!
They never care to stand still but turn tirelessly the whole day long, the wheels.
The stones themselves, heavy as they are, the stones!
They join in the merry dance and seek to move still faster, the stones.
O wandering, my delight,
Master and mistress,
let me go my way in peace,
Wandering, from Die Schöne Müllerin, by Johann Müller
N.B. Thanks to Anne, Ben and Dick for ideas and feedback for this post (and yes, I do realise they sound like characters from an Enid Blyton book)