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The Conversational Downsides of Twitter's Structure

Over the past couple years, as I've had a steady writing job and ascended from "utter nobody" to "D-list pundit," I find it harder and harder to have discussions online. Twitter is the only social network I like and where I talk to people the most, but as your number of followers increases, the user experience becomes steadily more hostile to conversation.

Here's my theory as to why this happens. First is Twitter's powerful tendency to create cliques and groupthink. Back in forum and blog comment section days, people would more often hang out in places where a certain interest or baseline understanding could be assumed. (Now, there were often epic fights, cliques, and gratuitous cruelty on forums too, particularly the joke or insult variety, but in my experience it was also much easier to just have a reasonable conversation.) On Twitter, people rather naturally form those same communities of like interest, but are trapped in the same space with different groups — many of whom absolutely despise each other.

Twitter is also much faster and wider than those more restricted communities. Not only can one comment reach nearly the whole world in a matter of minutes or seconds, outside media also pays very close attention to what is trending on the platform. That places a huge premium on the funniest jokes, the most savage put-downs, the wildest breaking news, and the most overheated reactions — but much less premium on accuracy (though large corrections do generally circulate quickly), and almost no premium on good faith or considered thought. As Dave Weigel once said, "Twitter is a much more dangerous cauldron of groupthink than happy hours or dinners. On Twitter the reward comes from agreeing or loudly disagreeing with the joke, or the 'smart take.' In person you hash things out."

It makes Twitter a great place for instant communication, funny content, and witty writing — one of the reasons I continue to like it and stay there.

But it also combines to make the platform a potentially bottomless pit of hostility and bad faith. The dissociative properties of all internet-mediated communication are even stronger here. Cliques can and do spend hours obsessing about their enemies' annoying tweets. The high premium on amusing cruelty and hysterical overreactions tends to create a Manichean bifurcation in perception, where people are either perfect and good allies, or vile enemies who deserve zero sympathy or fairness. Often a transition from the first category to the second happens purely as a result of shifting clique politics and guilt-by-association.

When I was totally unknown, I would often see an odd-sounding accusation about someone or something I knew, and find (after untangling the thread of internet telephone and tendentious bullshit) a severe distortion or even the complete opposite of what was being claimed. Now that happens to me on a near-daily basis, in addition to the usual tide of insults, and I confess it is pretty damn obnoxious. Where before I would often attempt to reason with people, to prevent a lot of wasted time and annoyance I now just mute anyone who is at all hostile. I just don't have time for that anymore. (Unsurprisingly, that in turn gives people a new angle of attack, as me not wanting to talk to the 47th egregious asshole that hour becomes an unwillingness to listen to good faith criticism.)

Now, of course I often participate in these sort of bad habits as much as anyone. It's a feature of the platform and while I try to be a bit more generous, it's very easy to get sucked in. I hope that by thinking about these structural effects, we on the left (myself very much included) might be a bit less willing to spend so much time on pointless axe-grinding, and focus a bit more on substantive discussion.


  1. Ryan - your thoughts and mine parallel. I've noticed that humor itself somewhere along the line transformed into snark, bully and insults which are seen as fine and normal by those raised on internet forums and social media, and adopted by those older generations for social media acceptance. I'm in my 40s, and modern humor would be considered bullying when I was in high school and fist (or cat)fights would ensue. We've become less tolerant and more hostile as a whole because the web and social media gives us the freedom to speak our minds without recourse, no more "count to 10 and breathe deeply before speaking" as my generation was taught. I, like you, have resorted to muting some (those in a temporary meltdown but usually reasonable in their tone) and flat out blocking people who simply troll and throw vile insults and threats. I confess to starting initially with those on the "other" side but find myself applying the mute and block more and more to "my own". I use quotations as there should not be only two sides, but people feel threatened, the inability to speak freely in real life without facing being filmed by a phone, recorded, doxxed to an employer has created this Twitter cage match mentality. We all need to stop this. Reliving sins of the past, predicting sins of the future, blaming everyone of today for both. It's reached levels of insanity. Maybe switching to decaf will amp things down, lol, but we need to stop trying to dismantle everyone else's opinions, beliefs, and thoughts. 99.9% of us are not legislators. The opinions of others have no power over us but we act as if simply being around someone who thinks differently is a threat to our lives and families. Many empires have fallen from internal rot, and we are falling. Our children will live in a terrible world, today's are already inundated with political vitriol from grade school online, at school, listening to parents, media etc (again "both sides"). Just saying - we need to all think.

  2. Why would you ever want to print your publication in grey on black. I couldn't read it as much as I really wished to do so. Perhaps it had something worthwhile for me to read; I certainly hope YOU thought that that was so.


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