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Sure, Twitter’s problems include the downside of crowd dynamics and the proliferation of revolting ideologies, but its most fundamental problem is you and me. It’s turning us all into disciplinarians, preachers, and politicians instead of communicating in good faith.
Instagram is conducting an experiment with some accounts. They’re hiding likes from public view. You can still like a person’s post, but only the poster will see that like. About a year ago, word got out that Twitter was considering completely removing the like function. I like this idea. Especially for Twitter. After all, it’s become a truism that Twitter is a cacophonic muckhole of mind-rending asininity and screeching vitriol…and yet it’s a muckhole that we can’t stay away from. The two are related.
I’m not talking about the platform’s intrinsic issues with allowing space for the rotten parts of society to do their rotten thing—the racists, the misogynists, the bigots, the trolls, the harassers. Those bad guys are a problem for sure, but Twitter has a more fundamental problem than the black hats that inevitably pop up in any large group of people, especially when those people can wear an interface on their face.
It’s actually the well-meaning good guys on Twitter who can make us embarrassed to tell people IRL that we’re on Twitter. And there are a lot of good people on Twitter. Most people, in fact, on the platform are good. And while we know that enough good folk together can do stupid and evil things, that only sort of explains Twitter’s tone problem. The real problem is the collective insincerity.
The Benefits of Troll Feeding
At some point in the history of online interactions, we learned not to feed the trolls. But then social media came out, and we forgot the lesson. Actually, that’s not true. Social media came out, and we were incentivized into feeding the trolls. After all, responding to a troll is content for your feed, and you need content. You’re a publisher now. With a staff of one. And being on the side of right (even blatantly obvious right) helps to guarantee likes.
Here’s one of the ways it happens: Some rando with seven followers (or even a handful of people each with small followings) says something repugnant. Somebody with 20,000 followers responds with a 280-character golden rod of flaming righteousness to put that person in their place. And then things get exponential as those 20,000 followers whip out their golden rods and their followers all whip out their golden rods and (god forbid—a celebrity with a small country’s worth of followers whips out their platinum rod) and what really should have been an ignored statement lost to history as easily as spit arcing onto a lawn got passed around 20 million times and shoved in everybody’s faces, accompanied by inane and/or obscenely phrased denunciations over and over again to the point that you almost feel bad for the original poster, even though that person is a clod of dirt and worms.
It accomplishes nothing positive (pile-ons are never constructive) and has tons of negative collateral damage. And people do that not to right a wrong or to make a positive change in society. Posting on Twitter is not how you do that. It’s 100% so people will click that like button. For some reason, self-righteousness and shrieking sanctimony is a likable offense on Twitter. I don’t know why, honestly. Maybe it’s the ease of lowest common denominator morality or we feel like not liking the statement is tacit disagreement. Whatever, those kinds of things get a lot of likes.
Stream of Preaching
Thanks to Twitter, you don’t have to go to church to get preached at anymore. And I don’t mean personally being called out for something wrong that you’ve done. I mean people setting up soapboxes to declaim about…anything: an industry, a set of circumstances, an event, a person, a movie, all phrased in imperative and aggressively declamatory sentences like somebody on a mountaintop somewhere is chiseling their tweets into stone tablets as they post.
And it’s not necessarily that these preachy proclamations are wrong. It’s that it’s the worst kind of advice…the unasked for type. It’s also the second-worst kind of advice: the certain kind. You can’t squeeze nuance into 280 characters, but you sure can squeeze a lot of certainty into it: “This is the way it is, don’t @ me.” “I need to say something about this [a thread].” “People need to stop doing this right now.” Nothing is more aggravating than certainty, and few things are more suspicious. For instance, this article in tweet form would be the title alone, and that would be inflammatory and vague. It’s taking me over 1,000 words to explain everything I mean by it, and I don't even know if I'm doing a good job at it.
You can see where this is going. Knocking down jerks and standing up for what you believe in are good actions in the appropriate contexts. And there are, of course, some good intentions behind these Twitter behaviors. But we know what road that paves. Also, it’s not totally good intentions. Almost every single tweet ever posted is a request for validation and attention intrinsically. The old maxim of you are what you do when nobody’s watching is the opposite of Twitter. Everybody’s watching (or has the potential to). And that might be the most fundamental flaw in the whole platform.
More Public Statements Than Most Presidents
In politics (at least pre-Trumpian politics), every statement to the press, every statement to a constituent, every statement in session is, if not carefully crafted, at least calculated and intended to influence approval levels, which is exactly what likes are. And tweets are public statements, which means most of us are making multiple public statements a day, often about things of national and international significance.
And what do we hate most about politicians? Their insincerity. And when we start posting for likes instead of sincerely communicating, we’re becoming politicians. I feel like, without public likes, and even better, without likes at all, that incentive to be insincere (or even calculated) to raise our individual approval levels would be removed. Which means more quality, sincere posts, and actual conversation. Which, by the way, leaves a lot less opportunity for even the black hats to make the place a bad scene.
Basically, I’m saying if we treat Twitter like the actual communication medium it is, with actual conversation, we might…like…it a lot more.
PS—We’ve talked about the socials a good bit on our Agency On Record podcast. Check ‘em out: