Is Twitter a Breeding Ground for Thoughtlessness and Contempt?
Glenn Reynolds announced via his USA Today column that he has deleted his Twitter account.
Glenn Reynolds announced via his USA Today column that he has deleted his Twitter account.
All social media have their issues. The “walled garden” character they create is the antithesis of the traditional Internet philosophy of openness. They are actually consciously designed to be addictive to their users — one company that consults on such issues is actually called Dopamine Labs — and they tend to soak up a huge amount of time in largely profitless strivings for likes and shares. They promote bad feelings and bad behavior: I saw a cartoon listing social media by deadly sins, with Facebook promoting envy, Instagram promoting pride, Twitter promoting wrath, Tinder promoting lust and so on. It seemed about right.
But as someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and whose social media experience goes all the way back to the original Orkut and Friendster, I think that Twitter is the worst.
In fact, if you set out to design a platform that would poison America’s discourse and its politics, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more destructive than Twitter. Twitter has the flaws of the old Usenet newsgroups, but on a much bigger scale.
As someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, I’ve certainly seen a lot of poisonous discourse. But, having long consumed it mostly through curated lists on TweetDeck, I get a rather high concentration of really smart folks sharing useful insights and links. Still, Glenn has a point when he compares it to older alternatives:
Even the “blogosphere” of the early 21st century, in which independently run blogsites posted items on news, and responded both to Big Media stories and to each other, was more like traditional media in some respects than like Usenet or social media. To read content on blogs, readers had to go there. To interact, bloggers had to read each other’s sites and decide to post a response, generally with a link back to the post they were replying to.
If you didn’t like a blog, you could just ignore it. A story that spread like wildfire through the blogosphere still did so over the better part of a day, not over minutes, and it was typically pretty easy to find the original item and get context, something the culture of blogging encouraged.
As James Lileks wrote, ”The link changes everything. When someone derides or exalts a piece, the link lets you examine the thing itself without interference.”
Bloggers often encouraged their readers to follow the link and “read the whole thing.” In addition, a story’s spread required at least a modicum of actual thought and consideration on the part of bloggers, who were also constrained, to a greater or lesser degree, by considerations of reputation. Some blogs served as trusted nodes on the blogosphere, and many other bloggers would be reluctant to run with a story that the trusted nodes didn’t believe.
In engineering parlance, the early blogosphere was a “loosely coupled” system, one where changes in one part were not immediately or directly transmitted to others. Loosely coupled systems tend to be resilient, and not very subject to systemic failures, because what happens in one part of the system affects other parts only weakly and slowly.
While there’s a certain “get off my lawn” quality to we oldsters lamenting the good old days, I share Glenn’s nostalgia for the state of the blogosphere as it was from roughly 2002-2006. There was a communal quality to it that’s long since disappeared and there was indeed, at least among the blogs that I followed, a tendency to “follow the link” and “read the whole thing.” And, in the days before aggregators (most notably, Gabe Rivera’s memeorandum) we tended to read one another, link one another, blogroll one another, and otherwise engage in a way that still happens on Twitter but not nearly in the same way. That, in turn, led to considering bloggers with opposing viewpoints as actual human beings with whom one could have respectful conversations in a way that Twitter allows but does not as strongly incentivize. (And, indeed, makes next to impossible for those with high followership, simply because of scale.)
Over time, various pressures transformed the best blogs into essentially independently-published magazines. The incentives were to crank out ever-more content but also to do longer pieces rather than the Instapundit-style short excerpts or summaries with a “Heh, indeed” or “Read the whole thing.” And most were reading the same aggregators and reacting to mainstream stories rather than one another.
Tightly coupled systems, on the other hand, where changes affecting one node swiftly affect others, are prone to cascading failures. Usenet was one such system, where an entire newsgroup could be ruined by a spreading flamewar. If a blogger flamed, people could just ignore the blog; when a Usenet user flamed, others got sucked in until the channel was filled with people yelling at each other. (As Nick Denton wrote, the blogosphere “routes around idiots” in a way that Usenet didn’t, because if didn’t depend on the common channel that a Usenet group did.)
Twitter is more like Usenet than blogs, but in many ways it’s worse. Like Usenet it’s tightly coupled. The “retweet,” “comment” and “like” buttons are immediate. A retweet sends a posting, no matter how angry or misinformed, to all the retweeter’s followers, who can then do the same to their followers, and so on, in a runaway chain reaction.
Unlike blogs, little to no thought is required (the character limit discourages it), and in practice very few people even follow the link (if there is one) to “read the whole thing.” The “block” and “mute” functions on Twitter are intended to protect against Usenet-style flamewars, but to the extent that they work, they also put people in bubbles of similar thinkers, which tends to encourage the spread of misinformation so long as it matches the thinkers’ prejudices.
I more-or-less agree with Glenn’s assessment here. While I’ve curated the lists I follow precisely to avoid the idiots, the retweet function leads to a lot of low-quality viral content. Snark is valued more than substance and I must admit to frequently re-tweeting myself without following the underlying link.
Oddly, President Trump himself has contributed to a lot of this. While I don’t follow his Twitter account, one simply can’t engage in political—or even foreign policy/national security—Twitter without getting an inordinate amount of his content in one’s feed. Mostly, this is in the form of quote tweets where people append snarky, virtue-signaling comments of their own atop the President’s. It’s rather exhausting.
Then again, the Trump effect has damaged media writ large. I’ve cut way down on listening to my favorite foreign policy podcasts, for example, because they’ve become so predictable. 45-60 minutes of “Trump is so awful” gets exhausting even when one agrees that Trump is indeed awful. Indeed, because Trump is inevitably the subject of pretty much every post, it’s been hard for me to muster the energy to blog the last couple of years. It all feels so repetitive. And futile, since those inclined to oppose the President are just having their views reinforced and those inclined to oppose him seem oblivious to evidence.
Worse yet, the heaviest users of Twitter are journalists and political operatives. They tend to have lots of short episodes of downtime — waiting on hold or in line for a congressional hearing, say — and fill them with Twitter. There’s a big psychic reward to issuing a bon mot — usually a put-down — and being cheered for it by your friends and political allies. But the end result is a lot of off-the-cuff meanness. Few tweeters even follow the links they retweet to read beyond the headline. And spending hours a day in this environment can’t help but affect their other work.
Some say the sharp partisanship we see on Twitter from allegedly objective journalists is a useful revelation: Finally, we’re seeing their true selves. While there’s some truth to that, I also think that Twitter actually makes people meaner and less thoughtful. People I’ve followed both on Facebook and Twitter are generally much meaner on Twitter, where they’re in the political arena, than on Facebook, where their friends and family are a big part of the audience.
These are interesting observations and there’s something to them. While I have many more conversations with fellow national security professionals on Twitter, Facebook is the venue where I have the best exposure to Trump supporters. By “best” I mean that, because they’re people I went to school or went to war with, it’s much harder to dismiss them as bigots and jerks.
I don’t mean to give Twitter all the blame, as our political discourse has been getting worse for some time. But it does seem that its decline steepened sharply around the time Twitter appeared.
This isn’t a call for banning Twitter. But it is a suggestion that maybe our time is better spent elsewhere. Since I got off Twitter, I’ve filled the downtime I used to fill with tweeting by going what I did pre-Twitter, reading novels on the Kindle app on my phone. It’s better, and I’m happier.
Because I have so much valuable interaction with others in my field on the platform that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere, leaving Twitter isn’t a serious consideration for me. On balance, I don’t find it nearly as much “a breeding ground for thoughtlessness and contempt” as Glenn.
I do, however, share his closing concern that it can be an unproductive time suck. Whereas blogging often led to my writing longer-form essays that I published elsewhere, Twitter often gets my instant reactions to news and unfolding conversations out of my system in a way that leaves behind no meaningful work product. I need to do better at striking a balance on that front.