The Twitter Corps
In a piece entitled It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Jerk on Twitter, Katherine Cross writes for Wired Magazine about the psychological dynamics that drive antisocial behavior patterns on social networks. Her analysis on how the platforms accelerate what is already dissociative behavior from the human beings behind the keyboard draws parallels from unlikely places, such as urban planning.
Road design in countries like the Netherlands _promotes what is known as “traffic calming,” reducing pedestrian deaths and car accidents; by contrast, road design in North America promotes high-speed driving, passively nudging drivers to step on the gas, giving them less time to stop, even in crowded areas. Understood this way, you can get away from solely individualist narratives about accidents—about bad drivers or “pedestrians who weren’t looking”—and focus on how design encourages broad outcomes not attributable to any one actor.
Similarly, social media is designed in a way that agitates, rather than calms, its traffic. It leans into, rather than curbs, the augmented reality aspects that arise from computer use—tricking you into believing you’re somewhere other than reality._
Our level of abstraction from a conversation on the internet breaks down the inhibitions that would normally be provided by our sense of empathy for others. That’s the failure of our human moral and psychological underpinnings. The fault of the machine is in that it exacerbates and aggregates the failures of single individuals into a juggernaut with a powerful capacity for damage. The dynamics that play out in Twitter pile-ons is why I had my profile private for years and am still not totally comfortable with the fact that it’s now public. The effects of being beaten down by a Twitter mob can be severe. Many of those so afflicted have serious mental health implications and suicidal ideation.
The effect of being attacked and shunned
Cross uses specific examples of individuals who have been attacked on Twitter. In a piece for the Atlantic, Helen Lewis writes about the same effects that play themselves out in the narratives shared by Cross.
A true cancellation typically involves the subject being cast out of their professional network, denied the ability to make money, and rejected by their social circle. One reason it is so alarming an experience is the sense of contagion—without obvious coordination, a person becomes a nonentity. Many of the canceled people I have known, or reported on, have experienced depression or even contemplated suicide.
Lewis illustrates how Russian sanctions can show us the effects of ostracism.
When a Russian spymaster complains about his country’s cancellation, our response should not be to laugh at an idiot confusing a culture war and a real one. Instead, we should recognize that economic and social isolation is a powerful weapon, and resolve to use it with the same restraint as any other weapon.
It seems the devastation that cancellation can bring applies at a macro or micro level.
A different way
You don’t see the same dynamics on a social network like Micro.blog. The technology limits the snowball effect by the deliberate exclusion of features like the like and the retweet. Micro.blog also has a human being who manages the community and that gives people a level of accountability for their words. When you are interacting with a faceless apparatus like Twitter, that same sense of accountability is not there. Cross has an accurate description of this phenomenon: “There is a seductive quality to posting into the void, a Möbius strip sense that you’re the voyeur who no one can see, and the exhibitionist who everyone must see.”
How well can these measures work? The proof is in the pudding, as they say. On Micro.blog, people are rarely even impolite, never mind hostile. If someone does get a little too strident in their opinions, they usually back up and apologize. Micro.blog has different issues, and obviously community policing wouldn’t scale to a very large network. It serves as a good example of ways to curb the excesses of the large social media networks, though.
It’s also worth remembering that the angry people on Twitter are usually a vocal minority. According to this short post on Axios, 75% of people in the U.S. never tweet.
After my Lenten fast, I’ll probably return to Twitter, but I’ll be even more mindful of how the platform distorts our thinking.