Once upon a time, around 18 years ago, a woman faxed me a death threat. Well, not so much a death threat as a handwritten message along the lines of “I hope you get anally raped and murdered”, and not so much to me as to the Sunday Times, which had published a satirical piece of mine on South African expats; the editor thoughtfully took the printout and posted it to me. But the point is, I had offended her, and she wanted me to know that she hated my guts and that I deserved to die.
I remind myself of this every time I’m tempted to chalk up the decline of civilisation to the rise of social media. Twitter does not make people horrible, it just takes the schlep out of being awful to others. Back when you had to go to the trouble of writing a letter to the editor, there was no instant feedback, and no instant visibility of the views of others. Twitter has made it breathtakingly easy for opinions to be shared, commented on and spread – and in so doing, created a feedback loop of outrage, where the more extreme the response, the better.
This matters, because Twitter is influential, and probably far more influential than it should be. Twitter is not real life – election results in 2019 made that much clear – but it shapes public discourse more than any other single platform in the world today. Mainstream news outlets regurgitate tweets as news; hashtags feature in headlines. Even those public figures who hate Twitter, and dismiss what happens there as fundamentally disconnected from real life, can’t seem to stay away.
In the 10 years and nine months I spent on Twitter before I deactivated my account, I watched it become ever more tribal and atavistic. Once the digital public square of our time, Twitter is now our most public battlefield in a war to the deplatforming death between deplorables and antifas, SJWs and the alt-right, feminists and incels; it is a scorched earth of TERF wars, #menaretrash, Stratcom and white genocide. Woke Twitter are digital equivalents of morality police, trawling the streets for the slightest hint of privilege or -phobia.
Thanks to social media, South Africa is now more of a cultural outpost of the US than it ever was during the days when everyone with a TV watched Dallas on Tuesday nights. There are the MAGA wannabes, and those who see the alt-right everywhere, and they both need one another to stay relevant, so we’ll be red-pilling and blue-pilling until kingdom come.
Everyone, and I mean everyone – regardless of where they are on the political spectrum – is a snowflake when someone tweets something they don’t like about their pet causes. Nobody ever reads what is actually written; everything is viewed through the filter of whatever narrative they cling to for dear life. If I don’t agree with you, you are the enemy, you are a terrible person, and you must be destroyed.
To survive Twitter, you must be a pachyderm, with the result that only the pachyderms – and the angriest, loudest and most self-righteous – are left. I’ve watched people who were once centrists slipping ever further to the extremes, because the extremes are where identity is most certain and the shouts of support loudest. That precious discursive space where we accept that perspectives differ, that compromise and pragmatism are necessary to live together given our history, and that disagreeing without hauling out the metaphorical nuclear arsenal is possible, dwindles into nothingness.
Can Twitter ever be less terrible? Can it regain something of the intimate, collegial culture that flourished in the early days? Recent developments – limiting who can reply and share – may help. Or they may not. The problem is that it is hard to separate the structural, technical problems from the human ones. If you wanted to engineer a text-based platform designed to amplify the worst aspects of the human character – our gleeful nastiness and our hypocrisy, our laziness and desire for instant gratification, our attention-seeking and narcissism, our biases and longing for certainty at the expense of nuance, our desperate need to be part of a club, for enemies against which we can define ourselves – and, most especially, the assumption that words amount to meaningful action – you could do worse than come up with Twitter.
Yes, Twitter can be good, and sometimes it is. It can give us a glimpse into the interior lives of people we would otherwise never meet or know, and sometimes it does. For introverts, Twitter still can offer salvation: a chance for the shy kids in the room to be heard and seen without having to walk up to strangers and introduce themselves. On Twitter, brevity is the soul of some of the best wit anywhere, right now. I miss that.
But for Twitter to be better most of the time, human beings are going to need a fundamental rethink of the way they behave on digital platforms, and most people do not think that they need to be better. If you are convinced that you are right and everyone else is wrong, you are not going to change.
Good luck to the UX designers and the engineers. Because the problem with Twitter isn’t really Twitter – the problem is us. DM