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.
This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.