Thoughts on Twitter, ten years on

I often write draft posts with ideas that I intend to come back and fill in later. Given how long a break I took from blogging, this has led to some serendipitous time capsules. Here’s an unedited note I wrote myself in 2011:

By making it impossible to publish thoughts in their proper context, Twitter will only strengthen the effect of cliques and groupthink online, since the only people who can understand the idea shorn of context are those who belong to an important subgroup.

I don’t suppose that I was the only person at the time worried that Twitter might drive polarisation, but I’m still quite pleased with how well this prediction has held up.

I can’t find good figures, but I feel like blaming Twitter for societal problems didn’t really ramp up until 2016. In 2011 the economy might not have been great, but there was still a fair amount of faith in our political institutions. Barack Obama was still in his first term and had just passed a health care reform of historic scale. The Arab Spring was still showing promise. Twitter was just 5 years old and I remember people lauding it for its role in coordinating the protests in Tahrir Square.

I don’t think my prediction was dead-on, though. For a start, I doubt that when I wrote “cliques and groupthink” I had any idea of the seriousness of the effect this might have on the real world. I also feel like I was overstating the importance of understanding the content against the more relevant issue of emotional valence. On the Twitter of today Republicans and Democrats know perfectly well what each other are saying, they just find it distasteful.

In fact, I don’t think it’s that simple. There are plenty of terms like “white supremacy” or “defund the police” where people on different sides of the argument talk past each other because they have different understandings of what these concepts entail. Not having to compress one’s thoughts into 140 (or even 280) characters wouldn’t fix this, but it couldn’t hurt.

A bigger miss in my 2011 way of thinking was overlooking that Facebook would be a far bigger issue than Twitter. The issue with Facebook isn’t to do with the lack of information within the post, but of the context the post is displayed in. In other words, my worry was that there would be too little information in a Twitter post, but on Facebook the problem is that we’re drowning in so many posts that we only pay attention to (or rather the Facebook algorithm only surfaces) the stuff that riles us up.

I’ve been complaining about Twitter for as long as I’ve had this blog, and since before most people were even on Twitter. In fact, my 2009 post about how the community is far more important than the technology that runs it was one of the thoughts that drove me to create a blog in the first place. Even my very first post contained a jab at Twitter and name-checked Neil Postman, who has lately become trendy among media commentators concerned about social media. Hopefully this raises my credibility when it comes to analysing the social media environment. But predicting something early isn’t the same as predicting it well, and I shouldn’t let my early skepticism alone determine how I see things today.

It’s a trite conclusion, but Twitter seems neither as bad as I had feared, nor as grand and transformative as its boosters imagined in the early days. To me, that’s a reminder that the relevant issue isn’t the capability of a technology per se, but the way in which society shapes and is shaped by the technology. That’s inherently a messy process with results that are hard to pin down.

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