‘Life After a Twitterstorm’

I’ve greatly enjoyed Twitter in the past 18 months or so. I’ve had many interesting discussions on there, ‘met’ plenty of interesting and entertaining people and been introduced to countless brilliant pieces of writing, music, television etc. Yet of late I’ve felt a fatigue about it and the linked piece above touches on some of the reasons why. The authoritarian aspect is something I’ve written about before and it certainly seems to only be getting worse. What’s most depressing is that you would probably expect the Left to be most vocal about the worrying criminalisation of the ‘wrong kind’ of speech/writing, yet few people seem to care. It’s understandable – who wants to be seen to be making common cause with such figures as have been jailed – yet the principles at stake are so enormous that the silence has still surprised me. Similarly yesterday I could only put the almost complete silence on George Galloway’s claims that he was targeted by a MET police infiltrator down to his being an undesirable point of origin for discussion of the issues raised.

It’s interesting to look at the issues which you think are potentially explosive and receive little or no reaction, given the ease with which Twitter seems to reach collective outrage. Now, I’m of course largely constrained on Twitter by whom I follow and what they share but nonetheless I find the article’s premise that ‘Twitterstorms’ are becoming more frequent to be quite compelling. Absolutely furious responses to something someone has said or written are commonplace to the extent where I increasingly find myself looking at the object of outrage and thinking ‘so what?’ A couple of years ago I might have joined in – now I wonder what is gained by more and more people repeating the same outrage at the same target in the same manner.

The worst Twitterstorms are reserved for the so-called ‘social issues‘ and it’s here more than anywhere else that Twitter’s position as an echo chamber is made clear. Most decent people would believe that they are not sexist, not racist, not homophobic. Further, they would probably believe that they would challenge these things when they encounter them. On Twitter, they do. Again and again and again. The problem is that there is only so much you can do with a tweet and so, inevitably, the responses blend together and become a homogeneous mass of self-righteous outrage. It’s not engaging or challenging, it’s just a turn-off. The ‘debate’ becomes two calcified ‘sides’ repeating their stances ad nauseam. I don’t believe for a second that anyone is made to think about their views by these responses.

You could argue that it’s the nature of Twitter. After all, few people would claim that they jump on bandwagons of responding to particular things and few would feel unjustified in challenging certain viewpoints. However I can’t help but think that this is largely missing the point, because I don’t think that most meaningful disagreements take place on social media. Instead they happen in our day-to-day lives with the people around us – our family, our friends, our co-workers. Unless I am enormously unrepresentative, I think most of us experience viewpoints which we find incorrect, absurd or even offensive from such people. Yet rather than berating them we are more likely to either ignore what they said, change the subject or explain why we think they’re wrong. Within the wider context of the relationship we see it as something we can chat about. It doesn’t become the whole person and, chances are, we actually think the person is pretty decent.

However if we think of times when we’ve been part of a group and have encountered people with whom we vehemently disagree, it’s probable that at some stage we’ve all engaged in the ‘us vs them’ mentality’. We have little interest in engaging – our ego and worth comes from the knowledge that we’re right and they’re not.

On Twitter we largely lack the context which would ever make us want to engage with someone we disagree with. We only see words and those words become the whole of the person behind them. It’s all too easy, then, to aggressively denounce them. It’s a satisfying anger – we feel right, especially if we are in agreement with many others. If we deliver a particularly pithy put-down we garner retweets and new followers. It feels good.

Twitter, then, seems geared towards flattering the worst aspects of our egos – namely the desire to be right and the desire to be liked. In the rote responses to the cyclical debates I increasingly see only hollow certainty, not the sense that people have seriously considered why they believe what they do and why they disagree with someone else. Often serious attempts to discuss these issues are shut down instantly, with disagreement being lumped in with the ever-tedious concept of ‘trolling’. Twitter does not lend itself to self-reflection, to put it mildly. Indeed, I’ve definitely experienced that peculiar sensation of arguing with someone and feeling a sense of panic when they make a very good point. Rather than reflecting on it the immediate urge is to attack, to undermine, to prove them wrong

I think this is particularly important because I have learned again and again the futility of attacking someone you disagree with and constantly struggle with it. It comes down to how I approach my values and my opinions – are they there to be repeatedly proved right, to make me feel good? Or do I actively want to learn, to be able to think in previously unimaginable ways?  This isn’t to say that strongly-held views are wrong – God forbid I become one of those people who fetishises ‘being reasonable’ – but there is undoubtedly cause for reflection at how easy it is to get swept along by Twitter and how difficult it is to question ourselves as we go. I think there is a lot to be said for acknowledging that many people are working through their thoughts on many different things – in fact, it could be said that it’s a good thing. After all, is it better for someone to disagree with us after careful consideration or to agree with us just…because? The former surely offers the far more rewarding position? Of course, there are those with whom we strongly disagree who display zero reflection and those who are just downright offensive – but when it’s clear people have no interest in engagement, what do we gain from attacking them other than a reinforcement of our own positions?

As I say, these are thoughts I frequently have to remind myself of and I can readily succumb to the appeal of certainty. Nonetheless, my increasing Twitter fatigue comes from the (increasing) recognition that I can be wrong – and there is little inherent value in merely feeling right.

Edit – It occurred to me this morning that what I’m really talking about is the dialectical method. The exact nature of this could no doubt fill a book but the basic premise of new thought arising from the reasoned (but still potentially forceful, passionate) exchange of views neatly summarises my thoughts above. Greater people than I have written reams about it. With regards to Twitter, the dialectical method is all but impossible. Many (most?) would claim that they have ‘debates’ online without realising just how accurate this description is, as the point of a debate is to win. In a circular fashion this both suits Twitter and is encouraged by it – it’s difficult for it to be about anything more than broadcasting.

‘Life After a Twitterstorm’

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