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Troubles with Twitter: I’m glad I couldn’t tweet when I was an idiot

Twitter might be here to stay. Those block lists, those grudges, those bridges we burn – we could be stuck with them. And that is a sobering thought.

Back when I was a young idiot the internet felt slower and more insular, like sites were the bubbles in a cold glass of beer, each a universe unto themselves. As a young idiot I’d visit websites, political forums, forums pertaining to various video games I played, and sometimes I’d read, and sometimes I’d post stuff, and sometimes I was an idiot. I was lucky, in many ways, that wiser people who I spoke to back then – people with a range of experiences from a variety of backgrounds – actually took the time with me. They answered my daft questions, they suffered my thoughtlessness and helped me begin to unpick the many layers of wrong that had built up on my world view like that scaly stuff in a kettle. It’s still a work in progress, and there is always more to learn.

I look back on the start of that process with some gratitude, because if my 20-year-old self was let loose on the internet in its current state (marauding around its vast networks like a gobshite Genghis Khan) it doesn’t bear thinking about. He’d be hoarding Bitcoins, defending rape jokes, sending emails to companies about the dark plans of “females” to take over video games, and getting incredibly upset about sexism against men and racism against white people. My young self would have sworn blind that as an atheist and egalitarian he wasn’t a racist, sexist douchebro, despite the fact that every manifestation of his personality online would imply such. I wonder how such a man might have ended up.

Twitter is a vast gathering of people way too big to be understood as a single community. There is no incentive to take the time to try to school ignorant people on why they are wrong and how, although some people still do (and they have the patience of saints). Instead, if you go on to Twitter acting like an idiot, the most likely thing to happen is you’ll find yourself adopted by idiots. Your idiocy will be embraced and your half-baked reactionary gibberish lionised.

In spite of this, it seems that Twitter is still of considerable benefit to humanity. Here is a service that almost anybody with Internet access can freely use to communicate their thoughts and feelings with anybody in the else in the world with similar access. Given how the hardware to connect to such systems is cropping up everywhere, and is only getting cheaper, it feels like the exchange of news and ideas has never been freer or more democratised than it is today.

But beyond the exchange of information and moving into how Twitter handles debate and discussion, I think that Twitter has yet to really find a proper voice. There is a sense that it is caught between two conflicting communicative styles.

On one hand, Twitter offers something comparable to the forums and bulletin boards people used mostly back when the Internet was made of wood and powered by a giant yoke. In these conversations people are not necessarily anonymous, and even those who use pseudonyms may become familiar over time through repeated communication. You might gain a sense of community from a shared interest or worldview, and this can be great, but the drawback of course is this is also how you can end up with big clusters of idiots reaffirming their idiocy. The size of Twitter and the ease with which people can be drawn together means that it’s very easy to make even groups with bizarre beliefs feel large enough that they can’t all be wrong. Twitter mitigates this by encouraging users to follow multiple interests, providing a more diverse perspective, but it’s an imperfect system.

On the other hand, however, Twitter has inherited some of the Chan culture from image boards. Born out of places like 4chan, it encourages shock value to get attention and provoke reaction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - communication boiled down to distilled expressions of exaggerated meaning works fine where this is the only means to talk. In such places there is little value attached to longer communication because everything is ephemeral. The problem is that the idea that tweets must be attention-grabbing, rather than sincere expressions of ideas or feelings, is somewhat at odds with the more lasting, community-driven side of the system.

This conflict of styles manifests itself most often during Twitterstorms, when somebody has said or done a thing and people pile onto them about it, and maybe their defenders pile back onto the accuser and everybody hates everybody that little bit more in the world. In order to be noticed people make more noise, and noise in the context of an electronic message tends to mean exaggeration. Suddenly a politician isn’t just an incompetent, he’s a monster; mild dislikes are expressed as violent hatred, and a person who offers criticism is labelled "troll" or a "harasser". The format and its inherent leaning towards an escalation in aggressive language brings through these assumptions of bad faith - indeed, it encourages hostility.

On a fast-paced and anonymous image board this is OK – a discussion can be earnest and considered, or it can be dishonest and vicious, but either way when it's over the words are lost. Nobody knows who they were talking to and everything is fresh for when the next thread starts.

The cleaning of the slate between threads, coupled with anonymity, is the strength of the image board style. Argument becomes a game, with changing teams and points of view just to keep it interesting. But on a more permanent medium like Twitter hostility can fester and factions can become entrenched, because there’s no magic reset button after each storm.

In some ways Twitter can trap the unwary with this combination. People can say a thing on Twitter thinking they are being clever or funny, seeking attention and recognition for their clever funniness. But sometimes when seen from another perspective, the thing they have said makes them come across in a less than positive way - and on Twitter the leap from doing something mildly objectionable to being considered by many to be a colossal scumbag is very short. This in itself can create problems, as the rejection of one faction can shove people towards others. A person might feel like a bridge has been burned before they even got to cross it, so maybe they’ll just saunter off to hang out with some actual colossal scumbags. The process of groups aggressively rebuffing people who do not immediately measure up to their standards can be damaging in the longer term.

There is a Malcolm X quote that springs to mind when I look at Twitter in the midst of one of its many storms: “Don't be in a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn't do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today.” This is worth remembering before replying to a clumsy comment with vitriol, or when presuming a question that seems asinine is intended in bad faith. 

But there is a flipside to this, which is that there really is very little excuse in this day and age for bothering people - especially vulnerable people, or people who often find themselves subject of harassment or abuse - with facile questions. Equally there is no excuse for taking offence when you go into somebody else’s mentions, however polite you think you are being, and are rebuffed. Twitter can be a stressful place, and it can seem like a hostile place at times too. There is no way to know how stressful or hostile a given person is finding Twitter when you speak to them. Instigating a conversation on Twitter is to enter a person’s space and it should be done with the appropriate amount of respect (which is not to say that this amount is necessarily very high).

The most important lesson I have learned from Twitter mostly comes down to reading first and hitting the send key later. If there is a person involved with an issue and you want to know more about the issue, or them, don’t ask, look. Go back through their timeline, read what they link to, read their website if they have one on their profile. Maybe, if you’re not in a hurry, just follow them for a while. If you still want to know more, then ask with the benefit of being hopefully a little more informed before you do. Does this sound stalkery? Maybe, but if the alternative is lumbering into a person’s mentions to pick their brains about a subject like they’re some sort of social justice tech support department, I’d rather do my homework.

The final concern with Twitter is that it might be here to stay. Those block lists, those grudges, those bridges we burn - we could be stuck with them. And that is a sobering thought.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile