Introduction to My Blog

With this blog, I aim to ask and answer provocative or otherwise interesting questions. I hope you find it valuable. Enjoy!

Monday, June 1, 2020

The New WWE: Why I Hate Twitter

I am riveted by good conversations, and every aspect of them. I enjoy hearing new ideas, perspectives, and explanations for them. Unfortunately, certain aspects of social media incentivize more inflamed and simplistic arguments, which is where political conversations are increasingly taking place. In this piece I will focus on Twitter, so as not to be overly general.

Let's go over what I see as a problem for Twitter with its incentives. Twitter, like any public company, aims to make profits for shareholders. 86.5 percent of Twitter's revenue comes from advertisers, so this is the key to generating profits. More advertising money comes as a result of Twitter keeping users on the platform longer.

Now ask yourself the following: does an algorithm that maximizes time spent on Twitter square with the hope of maintaining deep and healthy conversations? If you answered yes, then I envy your optimism. Unfortunately, though, you would be wrong if you said yes.

Even Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, has acknowledged the problems with echo chambers forming and toxic content arising on the platform. He said this back in 2018, but I think it is quite clear that echo chambers are as bad now as they ever have been on Twitter. I actually quite like Jack Dorsey and think he did not foresee how his platform would be abused. However, he and his company find themselves in a situation where their financial incentives have deleterious consequences for public conversations.

It only seems right that I talk about Donald Trump a bit, since much of Twitter's activity centers on him, especially political Twitter. I have my own opinions about Trump and politics, but I hope not to allow them to pollute the following analysis. You be the judge.

Donald Trump has proved himself a master at harnessing core elements of Twitter to amass a following and utilize it effectively. His tweets are often short and punchy, with all capital letters in words he wants to emphasize. He responds quickly via Twitter to major crises and controversies, leading many to check his feed in the immediate aftermath of major events.

He is unapologetic and almost never concedes arguments. He also constantly tweets, giving his perspective to his followers and effectively directing their attention to other figures and organizations he likes and dislikes. Trump has an incredibly centralized and loyal Twitter following.

Regardless of which side you or I take on the politics of Trump, I hope it is clear to everyone that the Twitter vortex around Trump hardly inspires healthy conversations. Both sides inflame each other constantly. Trump is not the kind of person to back down from an argument, but even if he were, Twitter incentivizes standing firm and just screaming louder at the other.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note an unfortunate phenomenon in polarization spirals: Unlike the Newtonian principle that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, polarization spirals entail actions met by disproportionate reactions (pg 134). I agree with Lukianoff and Haidt here, and think this a plausible explanation for why many political conversations on Twitter seem to deteriorate, rather than improve, as they progress.

There are two more important elements of Twitter's toxicity that I would like to mention: both its public and virtual communication. We tend to be more reasonable communicating as individuals in private. There is no public shame in admitting you didn't know something in a one-on-one conversation. The conversation is also necessarily more theatrical when a public audience is watching it. It becomes as much a display as it is a direct interaction.

The virtual aspect is not mentioned nearly as much, but is also a factor. Just as we converse differently with an audience watching, we engage one another differently with words on a screen than physically being with and looking at someone.

Social media arguments induce something like road rage, where we are separated physically but get increasingly and irrationally angry at others' behaviors.

Now admittedly, I am offering a limited perspective. Twitter serves a great and less toxic function for many communities.  People use Twitter to engage with communities of worship, sports, entertainment, and all kinds of hobbies and interests.

However, I happen to be deeply interested in and concerned with political and international issues, and I see serious harm done to public conversations surrounding these spheres, particularly on social media. An unfortunate truth that we must grapple with is that the democratization of political speech via technology, something most of us initially thought was a good thing, has led to an increase in misinformation, divisiveness, and impenetrable political identities.

Political shouting matches are nothing novel. In the United States, they date back to the founding of the country. What has changed is that only strictly political actors used to fight these fights. Now, millions have enlisted in the social media sphere to engage in these debates, and they are having unproductive, bad conversations. What's more, social cohesion is diminishing as a result.

It's about time I explained the title. Twitter and the WWE (World Wresting Entertainment) have several important features in common. They both attempt to depict what happens in the real world, but sensationalize and inflame it. The WWE is relatively harmless, and makes for hilarious television at times. This format is incredibly dangerous, though when it is applied to important public conversations.

The WWE format of Twitter has little regard for depth, complexity, and civil disagreements. In fact, I would argue it favors their opposites: shallow, simple, and divisive arguments. Twitter thrives on all of the theatrics of public debate but almost none of the substance. This is just a blog post that merely scratches the surface of problems in social media. Imagine trying to communicate this in 280 characters or less.

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