I’m not a scientist and specifically, I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist so I welcome any criticism from people in those professions. But I have a thesis about Twitter and its role in the rise of the culture of hysteria and outrage that we’re witnessing in the world of social media.
First I’d like to note that the assertion that there is, indeed, a rise of hysteria/outrage is subject to scrutiny. Many media outlets are desperate to convince me that everyone is constantly outraged by everything and as proof you need look no further than Twitter — the last, best barometer of the current zeitgeist. However I don’t see any evidence of this in any of my day-to-day human interactions, and I interact with lots of people and travel all over the place. So I have to ask, if a racial slur falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is it still offensive? My impression is that there is a highly specious feedback loop between the media, with its voracious appetite for anything that draws in eyeballs and the most salacious and hyperbolic expressions of a variety of anti-social viewpoints and the collective blowback to same.
It works something like this:
1) Someone of little to no consequence says something provocative and/or unpleasant on Twitter.
2) Some small (but real) number of people agree with this sentiment and re-tweet it.
3) Media Outlet X notices the tweet and reports on it as though it’s an actual thought trending through society.
4) A much larger number of people take in this report than saw the original. Most of them sigh and say to themselves, Who cares about this?
5) But some smaller subset of this magnified audience reacts with horror and outrage and are compelled to voice their views on what is now a public “controversy.”
6) Media Outlet X (and now Y and Z too) run a second story noting just how many people are now discussing this “extremely volatile” topic (that they created).
7) Somewhere between steps 4 and 6 almost everyone involved either accuses someone else of being a Nazi or is accused of Nazism themselves.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Before I beat up on Twitter for being a malicious part of this deeply unhealthy feedback loop I want to note that there are some things that Twitter does exceptionally well.
For starters, there has never been a mechanism for rapidly disseminating information in a multitude of important and life-improving situations. Twitter has given a megaphone to people who are stranded in a variety of horrible situations across the globe and brought attention to their plights. There’s a case to be made that this factor alone justifies Twitter’s existence.
And of course it’s a brilliant showcase for comedians and public intellectuals who can share amusing and/or useful ideas. I guess I have to caveat that this was true until it turned out that everything you tweet has to remain wholly inoffensive and politically correct for FOREVER. Jokes or ideas that were perfectly harmless ten years ago are now routinely dug up and discovered to be so fantastically offensive that they can ruin your life. This makes me very sad because I am certain that in my comedy Twitter feed there is already a tweet which will ultimately make it impossible for me to direct Guardians of the Galaxy XII and I was really counting on that gig. The trick, of course, is that I don’t know which tweet will turn out to be the killer.
C’est la vie.
There are other positive aspects to the platform but they’re all drowned out by the way Twitter raises the volume on a cacophony of irrelevant noise, elevating voices that add no real value who spend their time shouting about subjects of no real interest.
Why does it work that way? The answer, as with all interesting and complicated things, is multifaceted.
First, some biology. (Did I mention that I’m not a biologist?)
The human animal took millions of years to evolve an astute survival mechanism that takes notice when a large part of the herd is upset about something. This makes sense as an early-warning mechanism. Let’s say you’re a caveman happily banging one rock against the other. But then you hear Mog and Og shouting from down the hill. Maybe they’ve seen something dangerous. And paying attention to the ruckus they raise gives you a head start from the saber-tooth tiger or rival rampaging tribe or cod forbid you miss out on the arrival of the monolith and subsequently being taught how to use femurs as clubs and soon thereafter you’re dead! Our ancestors were the ones that noticed the commotion. The ones that didn’t? They didn’t make it. Yay evolution!
But at the same time, as animals, we’re not very good at statistics. We have all sorts of cognitive biases, like anchoring and clustering and risk compensation. So our challenge is to figure out . . . just how many people from our herd making a ruckus is enough for it to rise to the level of our concern?
That’s one of the problems with Twitter.
Let’s say you have 2,000 followers and you see a Really Bad Tweet that’s been liked by 200 people. That’s 10 percent of your entire follower count. That seems like a lot! Maybe you ought to be concerned!
Except that there are about 66 million active monthly users on Twitter in America. (By our best guess.) Maybe you’d be less concerned about that Really Bad Tweet if Twitter told you that it was only liked by 0.0003 percent of Twitter users? That would be the equivalent of Caveman You being out foraging with several thousand fellow cavepeople and hearing one person shouting. You would know that it probably wasn’t a sabertooth tiger going on a rampage; it was just Og being dramatic again.
A change like this might (or might not) be bad business for Twitter but it would be a life improvement for the rest of us.
Better still — it would be excellent if Twitter let users call BS on, well, the BS! That’s right, along with the “like” button, there should be a “this is a big nothingburger” button.
Louis CK has returned to stand-up? #nothingburger
Some weatherman somewhere mispronounced MLK Jr.’s name? #nothingburger
A random person tweets out a bad joke before getting on a plane? Talk to the #nothingburger cause the face ain’t listening.
If Twitter could show that 0.0003 percent of users liked a tweet, but 0.001 percent called it a nothingburger (and if this could be a pie-chart, because decimals are probably not Twitter users’ strong suit), then both the algorithm and the carbon-based life-forms at Media Outlet X could see that this isn’t something they need to bring attention to. And if Media Outlet X tries to turn it into a story anyway—because let’s be honest, lots of media outlets are garbage—the pie-chart of shame would be right there, sitting in the embedded tweet they’re trying to puff up.
Of course, none of this takes into consideration how malicious users would use a nothingburger button to create different kinds of havoc. But that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is knowing which users are malicious and which are even real users!
Anonymity is baked into Twitter’s DNA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People living in dangerous places need anonymity if they’re going to be able to use Twitter safely to, say, organize against an oppressive regime. But the problem is that everyone on Twitter gets to wear this cloak of anonymity. Even if they are in no peril; even if they want to use it for ill.
And there’s one other problem: brevity. It’s the platform’s original sin. Because Twitter was never designed for long-form discussions, it limits users’ statements to an absurdly short blurb — too short to say anything of meaning or consequence. But just long enough to express a thought which can be easily misconstrued or a little nugget of disdain.
If you use Twitter you will perhaps have noticed this sort of thing.
So consider your day to day life on Twitter. You’re probably anonymous. The person you’re interacting with is probably anonymous, too. You have only a few words to express yourself . You’re in a constant state of high-alert, knowing that bad actors are everywhere. Put it all together and what you have is effectively a platform for serialized civilizational road-rage.
But it’s even worse than road rage! Because when someone cuts you off in traffic and you give them the finger, at least you still have a moment of face-to-face contact. You see that the other person is a real human being. Maybe you see that they have a kid in the back of the car. Maybe you see a bumper sticker from the same college you went to. Maybe you can tell from their expression how harried they are. Maybe they give you a look that says, Jeez I totally didn’t see you. Sorry. And maybe you’re able to intake all of this information fast enough to keep your finger from popping up and instead you wave and everyone goes on with their day, happy that they didn’t get into an accident.
Twitter makes even this tiny bit of humanity harder to achieve. Human communication is critically dependent on facial expressions. But Twitter robs us of this vital aspect of our interactions. We can’t get any contextual information about the person we’re communicating with. (Also: we know that there’s a better-than-average chance that the “person” on the other side of the conversation is actually just be a bot.)
Finally, after stripping away our ability to send and receive non-verbal cues and vocal intonations, Twitter forces us to express ourselves with the written word. A skill that—at least judging by what I see on Twitter—most people are really bad at. (Maybe that’s why the use of gifs seems to let the air out of unhealthy Twitter interactions.)
And the traditional media takes all of Twitter’s built-in limitations and magnifies them by showing them to a wider audience, out of context, and inviting even more reaction.
But here’s the thing: Real people (read: you) aren’t like “this.” Just like the majority of your driving experience doesn’t include waving your middle finger and gnashing your teeth at other drivers. Consider how people behave when someone accidentally cuts them off in traffic. Sometimes we get the happy scenario I just painted for you. But most of the time our emotions take over and it’s angry birds all around.
Now consider how people behave when someone accidentally cuts them off with a shopping cart in a grocery store. It’s the same general principle, but since the two people share physical space and can communicate, these interactions almost never turn out negatively. One person says, “Sorry!” The other person smiles and says, “No worries!”
When’s the last time you saw someone saying “sorry—I misunderstood you” on Twitter? When’s the last time you said that? I’d bet it was pretty recently. But I’d also bet it wasn’t on Twitter.
Twitter is the functional equivalent of shoving tens of millions of people into a closet, wrapping them in barbed wire, and pumping them full of PCP. It’s a miracle that anyone makes it out alive. The very fact that we volunteer to go in there is a testament to how badly we want to connect, and be heard, and maybe even understood because we feel like we’re standing here, all alone, shouting from the wilderness.
So don’t fall for the narrative that humans are all a bunch of ill-tempered, arrogant, imbeciles filled with rage. Definitely don’t fall for that narrative if the evidence for it is Twitter. We’re not.
Under the right circumstances these qualities, which exist to some small degree in everyone, can be illuminated and brought to the fore. Twitter is practically engineered to bring the worst out in people. But the real you is the one in the grocery store, not the one being cut off on the 405.
The real you isn’t an asshole.