Twitter is Disturbingly Bad for Our Collective Consciousness

Apr 05

“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.” – Oliver James in the Times Online

Consider the difference between these two messages.

Consider how each would make you feel if you didn’t know how to watch Hulu whilst outside of the United States. If you saw either message on Twitter, it is likely would have been written by someone you chose to follow. Connecting with other Twitter users lets their messages into the space of the follower: into our computers, into our mobile phones, but most importantly and most detrimentally, into our minds.

Consider being slowly inundated with messages over a period of years that take the second tone, rather than the first, because no matter who ones follows or avoids, the second tweet is indicative of a popular form of commentary on Twitter. It is used to gain attention, to be noted as edgy and smart, and it is so very bad for our collective health online. However, it barely dips its toe into a pool of appalling behaviour that we have come to accept as social networking and healthy online debate.

Additionally, we have created a world where one’s very existence is validated by a staccato-like life casting, but one where everything cast is created and tailored for other people. Nothing we do or say on Twitter is done for ourselves; it is done to impress, humiliate, berate, influence or entertain somebody else.

by on Flickr

We have allowed ourselves to become a society that values two things that generations before ours did not:

  1. Broadcasting the fact that any individual exists, as validated by the attention of others.
  2. The ability to deliver bile in the most succinct manner possible, whether passive aggressively or as direct viciousness.

None of the positive uses of Twitter could make up for either of these appalling values.

The positive uses of Twitter hardly need to be relayed here. The primary benefits of the service are the quick distribution of information, specifically for the purpose of viral marketing, and the productive discussion and banter that was meant to be Twitter’s main purpose. Neither of these functions, however, is important or powerful enough to override the horrifying values above.

The psychology behind needing validation and attention is one hazy. It is human nature to value positive attention, and for some people–people like me–even feedback not inherently negative can be taken as a harsh judgement. When I had a Twitter account, there were periods where little bound me from broadcasting what I was doing. Any situation vaguely negative or positive had to be shared, and not just shared with one person. I maintained two accounts for over eighteen months: One was public and had about 2,100 followers (many of which were undoubtedly automated marketing accounts). One was private and followed by about 30 of my friends. I promise that most of what I say here is not academic pontificating about the actions of other people. I lived this.

The mindset of people who must share the majority of their experiences has devolved to the extent that an event has no significance unless it is broadcast.

The Web is now crawling with philosophers who are terrified that the tree makes no sound if it falls and no one hears it.

If you couldn’t share it, could you still value it? by kozumel on Flickr.

In Andy Pemberton’s Times Online piece A load of Twitter, various psychologists and writers wax lyrically about Twitter being a means to closeness. They paint a picture far stranger (sometimes bordering on outright weird) of our need for constant communication and assurance than that which I may be tempted to pursue. The piece did, however, highlight some of the most incredible things about Twitter as a pacifier: “a giant baby monitor”, as the piece calls it, or at least, a ridiculous security blanket.

No one, however, including people I’d spoken to offline about this, better conveyed the worst thing about Twitter than clinical psychologist Oliver James in Pemberton’s article:

“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

Who would you be if you had no way of telling everyone who you are?

It’s not as though I found out. That I maintain a blog alone negates the idea that I, personally, have removed myself from delivering my opinion when I feel like it, and I still have a (private) Facebook account. However, removing myself from Twitter relieved me of two very unhealthy habits:

  1. Thinking that my actions or whims and thoughts were important enough to constantly share.
  2. Thinking that the actions, whims and thoughts of other people were important enough to influence my life.

The freedom of not being able to share life’s minutiae is more satisfying than the ability to share ever was.

In addition, Twitter made me a poorer writer. Despite having spent years studying English and, in particular, composition, I am not sure what it is about shortened text–specifically that which must contain fewer than 141 characters–that invites people to be snide and abrasive. I assume that a lot of it is delivery. Imagine if I tried to convey the sentiments of this article in a tweet. No development of argument; no clarification of thought.

I could think and write very well in short bursts; my sentence structure probably remained fairly similar, but my ability to deliver the sort of coherent paragraph that I was once brilliant at, was severely lacking. Thought development and the art of making sentences complement, not stand alone, from each other is one of the defining characteristics of good writing. I had taught myself to think in 140 character bursts: short projectiles of thought that English 101 teachers would mark down for inconsistency and lack of flow.

I owed myself, and some excellent teachers, a lot more than that.
by on Flickr

But it is short, jabbing little sentences and baby paragraphs that allow words to sound even more vicious that perhaps they were intended to be. Add the infamous behind-the-keyboard bravery, and a world is born where the descent into negativity is entirely natural.

Here, I see you stop reading. People are awful online, aren’t they? This, however, is hardly the height of the problem.

It’s not productive to again cover the fact that people are nasty to each other on the Internet. Far more interesting and less-explored is the tendency people have to crave and fuel fights created by others and in which they should have no personal interest.

I shy away from using real people, but much of this rings hollow unless we can look at examples. Recently, I came across a post by technology blogger Loren Feldman. Feldman had received a series of offensive messages and and had blogged about them. He proceeded to keep blogging and tweeting about the sender of the messages in a style for which he’s quite well known.

His campaign against any individual can be largely written off as the actions of a person known for purveying heated damage campaigns. Every couple of weeks, Feldman apparently has a new target, as well as some staple nemeses. It is not the simple fact of Feldman, or any similar individual, says these things. It is the collective response from a crowd hungry for blood. It is the modern day equivalent of gathering to watch a stoning, a hanging.

Our behaviour when we cheer on the likes of Feldman is no different to the reactions of people in times past who congregated in public to watch the humiliation and harm of somebody else.

They all agree: You’re an idiot, but you’re worth 140 characters of their time.
by on Flickr

Nowadays, people you know show their support not by hurling stones or stoking a fire, but by retweeting nasty comments, adding their own two cents to a debate that does not involve them and otherwise supporting the attack on a stranger. Some of this is likely done in the subconscious vein of self-preservation: we’ve seen the campaigns launched against others, and if we stay on the crowd’s good side by agreeing, we know it’s less likely we’ll be up next. Feldman’s content management system grabs mentions of a post on Twitter and adds the tweets as a comment on the post. Including comments left on the site and Twitter mentions, Feldman’s videoed mockery of his latest target’s product received (as of today) 169 responses. The vast majority of them are in support of the video. This number doesn’t include the tweeted conversations to which a large crowd contributed regarding the offending individual.

A crowd of people enjoying and contributing to the mockery of a stranger. We haven’t moved on a damn inch.

That the original message Feldman received was unnecessary, and its sender might be a relatively unpleasant individual, is of no consequence. Neither is the original point of any similar campaign, such as that which took place recently regarding . What matters is that hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of people pick up a stone and throw it in order to take part in the action. Nowadays, most of this happens on Twitter. If it doesn’t happen on Twitter, Twitter fuels the discussion. It is a benign technology that is routinely used to perpetuate the worst instincts of humankind.

There are two possible outcomes from this sort of behaviour; the first is more prevalent, but the second is worth mentioning as well.

The overriding hypothesis of what the heartfelt support of other people’s battles entails for any one individual is that that person becomes unhappier, less likeable, more prone to nastiness and far more likely to live life with a less positive demeanour. No one means to let interaction online, least of all on Twitter, affect them like that; however, long-term exposure to anything will leave a mark. Total immersion is proven to work in a range of physical and psychological ways: it is a very effective way of learning anything from a language to a game or activity. If a person immerses themselves in the sniper-fire style battles that burn and flare within Twitter, they adopt the cantankerous, impolite attitude where the feelings of others mean less and everyone is fair game for attack.

This was true for me. If I’d followed an online fight too closely, or if I’d taken part, I would be less positive offline. None of us can afford to let more negativity into our lives than that which we can’t control. During 2009, I especially learned the value of seeking the positive and the progressive. Why invite unpleasantness in when it often finds its way in regardless? Like anything you ingest, you carry the information you read, and its tone, with you wherever you go.

Venting anger or snark on Twitter didn’t improve my mood either. It just created a semi-permanent record of the emotion: the exact opposite of what was needed.

Listening too hard to the opinions of others has also resulted in people more definitively assigning other people worth. A person’s social media presence (mainly dictated by activity on Twitter) has become synonymous with how much they matter. At the recent in Leeds, attendees’ badges displayed their Twitter handles and some statistics about their activity therein. A harmless meme and an efficient way to exchange Twitter names, but one which subconsciously states: If you do not tweet, who are you to us? There are now, more so than ever, people who “don’t matter”.

On the other hand, perhaps living a fight vicariously through a Loren Feldman is good for us? Could a case be made that letting someone else get dirty for the sake of public belittlement ensures that people at large don’t do it themselves? If we can focus on a common enemy and let a vocal few deliver the blows, perhaps our aggression and discontent can escape passively. Are we less likely to kick off at someone in our real lives if we’ve released some angst by retweeting an unnecessary piece of snark at somebody we don’t know? I personally don’t believe this, but it is the counter-argument to that which I’ve made, and is worth mentioning.

I understand the counterpoints. The overwhelming majority of my friends use Twitter, and they will say to me:

“I get a lot of benefit from it. I share links to my writing and to other things I’ve enjoyed. Twitter introduced me to business opportunities and bettered my reputation. You just couldn’t handle yourself properly on there, or control your emotional reactions to what you read.”

Even if you think you can operate something like Twitter entirely responsibly, please give these points a second thought. Have you ever been left upset by a negative experience had via Twitter that you would never have had if Twitter were not part of your life? Do you ever find yourself gripped by the need to tweet experiences or thoughts, and would you be frustrated if you weren’t able to or didn’t share them? Have you ever laughingly retweeted or replied to a little snippet of bile, or linked to a cruel post? Are you sure your relationship with Twitter is that much different to mine?

I expect my positive experience with deleting Twitter is a sensation common to many people who’ve quit something that was bad for them. In the past two months, I’ve narrowed the positive change down to the points explained above: the ability to enjoy life without proving my, or its, existence, or constructing an ideal real-time version of who I am for other people, and the ability to be ignorant of the primitive promotion of public brawling.

I used to view Twitter as quite central to how I lived, but it is also freeing to see how little time needs to pass before something that was actually a very unhealthy habit is gone entirely.

by on Flickr.

[UPDATE] Whilst I recognise the inherent irony of including comments from another social network here, some of my friends had really good points , and their points contribute to those left in comments here really well. Profile is private unless we’re connected on Facebook. If I get their permission, I’ll post the thread as an image here.

[UPDATE II] They agreed to let me share their Facebook comments :)