I will be the first to admit that twitter is a fascinating and useful platform, but few will argue that it can bring out the worst in people. It is not, however, simply the shield of the internet, or even our ever-growing echo chambers that are the chief source of the problem. One frustration many have is that there is no coherent harassment-prevention policy and a lot of people get heckled, or bombarded with rude and crude tweets. I am mostly a casual observer and have no twitter following to speak of, so that is not something I’ve personally experienced. You should know that I’m on the outskirts of this here town and don’t really know anyone important enough to get yelled at on twitter.
Let me give a quick caveat to my concerns, then I’m going to explain the problems with, not twitter itself, precisely, but what it cultivates in us.
When I first heard of twitter, I didn’t remotely understand its purpose. I heard people praising it in connection to the protests in Iran circa 2011, so I assumed it was some sort of news outlet, rather than—essentially—a string of abrupt personal status updates. It took me years to grasp the concept, and I only dipped a toe into the platform in 2014 so as to better follow the vagaries of the publishing industry.
Now, I have seen people say and do positive things on twitter. Not just nice hashtags, but efforts of real value. I have seen people support someone who is discouraged or harassed. I have seen people unselfishly advocate the work/art of others. I’ve been linked to many a good article (while ducking and dodging the click-bait). I have seen people talk sweetly and kindly about those they love. I have seen some good comedy and, all too rarely, some wise and compassionate social commentary. So there is that. Let it not be said that I was unfair.
The problem is not with Twitter itself, precisely, but with what it necessarily cultivates in us. The very brilliancy of such a platform is also its villainy; that which makes for great wit and instant updates also makes for terrible consequences in many other areas. There are four main characteristics of Twitter that put us on our worst behavior.
1. Brevity: The space for a punch-line is the same space given for a complex argument so, for the most part, there are no complex arguments. The platform encourages stereotyping, over-simplifying, broad-sweeping generalizations all in the service of the required brevity. Yes, you can do a tweet-storm, but at that point you are sort of using a loop-hole, and it’s still one sentence at a time, and scanning eyes will skip around to find the thing they want.
2. Emphasis: The platform also encourages over-emphasis. Since you usually can’t make a many-bulleted, complex, full-scale argument, requiring step-by-step data and logic, but you really, really want to prove your point as succinctly as possible, most people just use extreme language. Hyperbole is used instead of reason—since there’s no room for it—and then, over time and frequency of usage, it eclipses reason. Reason is no longer invited to the table. We come to believe the extreme language we employed for mere expediency, and so do others. What was once recognized as hyperbole for the sake of emphasis, simply becomes “the truth” and fie upon all those who dare question it. We begin to believe our own lies.
Not only do we exaggerate to emphasize, but we begin to crave that everyone match the extreme nature of our language. It becomes a Cold War of hyperbole-turned-“reality.” The stronger you feel, the more extreme language you want to use, which pressures others to do the same, lest they fall behind. It’s a lot like when one sends e-mails…you start by using one exclamation point, so they they use two (so you won’t think they’re under-enthusiastic) and by the end of it, the whole text is riddled with meaningless punctuation. Eventually the truth—the proper temperature of the given sentiment—is lost entirely. Everything boils over and kills whatever value was present to begin with.
3. Immediacy: A platform like twitter is designed for instant feedback. Something happens, you tweet it right then—whether it’s newsworthy, funny, infuriating, or false. This leads to two big problems. In the moment of reaction, emotions are at their highest peak, reason often at its lowest. You know this if you’ve ever gotten in a knock-down, drag-out argument with someone you love, where they’ve really gotten under your skin. You get so hot and angry, you start exaggerating, making outrageous accusations that don’t line up with reality, and using “always” and “never” where you really mean “sometimes.” (“You NEVER listen to me. You ALWAYS get what you want!”)
That’s one thing in a personal relationship, where you can mend it, and move on. But the nature of the public platform makes it that much harder for anyone to apologize and acknowledge their untruths. The height of anger, rage, meanness, hurt, confusion and frustration are all on display because the platform encourages it. Yes, it is possible to be disciplined just as it is possible not to drink too much at an open bar, or not to watch too much Netflix when the next show only gives you 17 seconds to stop it before you’re hooked on the next one. But when you’re angry and the option to spill your anger is right there at your fingertips, and you might get a lot of back-patting feedback to boot? Well, the temptation is strong, and only grows stronger each time we blast our in-the-moment emotions onto the internet. We get to the point where we can’t not do it.
The second thing that happens is that bad information is circulated just as swiftly as good information…nay, faster. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” Incendiary, angry, snarky stuff—whether true or not—will get around a LOT faster than a calm, measured truth. Falsehoods, false equivalence, and funny lies get traction, so we’re tempted not to scrutinize the things that we already want to agree with.
4. Public Space and Publicity: None of this is being done in the privacy of your mind or your home. It is ALL on display. The good, the bad, the ugly. Even if any given sentiment expressed is genuine—you’re supporting a cause you 100% believe in, boosting a signal that you 100% support, or encouraging someone that you honestly admire and want to help—there is often still some part of you that is doing it for the feedback: the thanks, the favorites, the accolades, or even just the general atmospheric impression you give of “being a good person.”
Being a good person on twitter consists in garnering favorites, retweets, links, and adulatory comments. You don’t have to go very far out of your way to prove that you’re on the “right” side of an argument, or that you’re angry about the same thing everyone else is angry about. The platform provides tremendously easy access to a pleasing (and passing) sensation of goodness. Of course giving an impression or getting feedback are things we all desire for almost anything we produce: writing an article, or a book, or making a piece of art.
But once again, the brevity and immediacy are what make the key difference here. When creating some art (a novel, a painting, anything) time and effort and thought wear on the piece of art like water, shaping it slowly over time. You don’t just spit it out in two seconds. You have to wait a long time for feedback, or for it’s intrinsic value in the grand scheme to show itself resilient. You have to do the work without any accolades at first.
Not so with twitter and like platforms. Public interaction in the form of feedback and accolades are immediate, so it tends to shape what we say and do far more than we realize. The distance between creation and subsequent response is reduced almost to nothing. Room for deep thought and careful creation—without thinking about what others will say about it—is essentially lost.
When you write about that good thing you did, are you doing it because you’re trying to encourage others to do the same, or because you want everyone to know you did something. Probably a bit of both? Even if it’s the former, you’re doing it to prove you have the right to encourage others to act…and eventually, it’s more and more of the latter, because it feels good to be praised for doing something, rather just doing it and never letting the right hand know what the left is doing.
Thus Twitter becomes an external archive to prove to others that we hold the correct opinions and are doing the correct things in the correct way. It’s almost as if we’re in a perpetual state of building our own public defense. As if…we’re expecting to be brought to trial in a court of public opinion and need to have evidence for our public persona.
I think that says an awful lot about both the way this platform seeps into our thinking, and about where we are as a culture. We all think we’re on stage, waiting to be praised or booed—wanting to know instantly what people think of our thought-of-the-moment. And, if we’re not careful, we’ll become the marionettes who just do and say that which we know will garner praise, likes, retweets…or simply the mere absence of censure.