The Trouble With Twitter


With a pop the clear blue sky gathered itself into a single point, becoming a bundle which fell to the barren landscape with a rustling thud. After a long second the bundle groaned and sat up. Hundreds of eyes regarded it solemly from all directions.

One of the creatures stepped forward, an appendage outstretched. As it helped the bundle to its feet it would have been clear to any onlooker that they were cut from the same cloth. Literally, in fact.

“Alright,” said the newcomer, “Casual Misogyny here. What were you?”

“Oh, I was a Racist Gibe last time,” said the other, “but the times before that I was mostly just Generic Sarcasm. So you might say I’ve been coming up in the world. These others are mostly just Vague Preconceptions, although we did have an Unchecked Privilege through a while back.”

“Ah, he must have been busy. They’re in great demand.”

“Totally. Anyway, welcome back. Fancy a drink?”

“Thanks! Sounds good, I’m sure I won’t be here long.”

As they lurched away towards the rocks, another pop heralded a new arrival. The Kingdom of Temporarily Vanquished Strawmen was having a bumper year.

Nasty Little Recipe

Once you’ve been using Twitter regularly for any amount of time you start to notice that there are a lot of people who seem to always be in an argument with someone or other. For the people I follow, a lot of the time it’s something to do with tech. Maybe Apple are speculated to be buying some other company (arch wink) or some developer said something mean about people on a social network, or perhaps there’s a button out of place on some UI somewhere.

You know, important, relevant stuff like that.

At first I wondered how people managed to be so opinionated all the time. I mean, why would you care about half of this stuff, let alone care enough to find an argument in it? Then I accidentally found myself in a couple of minor sparring matches, and I began to realize how it works.

The most important thing to know is that there are a lot of people on Twitter who thrive off drama, disagreement, and what they probably like to think of as “vigorous discourse”. These people are not precisely trolls. It’s much more subtle than that, and I’d wager that the bulk of them genuinely think that they’re making the world better, somehow.

Twitter is set up in such a way that it perfectly enables this angry rumbling and poking. The following components all mash together:

  • Pseudo-anonymity, with each person only defined by a few things: their gender, their race, their name or pseudonym, their avatar, their background, their last few tweets.
  • A 140 character limit which intensely magnifies the already-inherent difficulties of communicating in writing without body language, tone, etc.
  • An almost infinite array of sparring partners and a perpetually renewing source of new topics upon which to opine.

The best recipe imaginable for the kind of ugliness that goes down all the time on Twitter. Conditions are perfect.

Then Come The Strawmen

So with the stage set, all that remains is for the dance to begin. Here is how to manufacture an angry, name-calling brawl on Twitter out of absolutely nothing:

  1. Person A tweets something. It doesn’t matter what. It could even be a simple link to a piece of tech news. Or a picture of their brunch. The content is completely irrelevant.
  2. Person B uses some of the material from Person A’s tweet, along with various smidgens of assumed data gathered from their profile, etc to call into being a strawman which bears a slight resemblance to whatever Person A originally meant. Then they tweet something viciously destroying said strawman.
  3. Person A recognises that they’re being attacked, but, feeling defensive and hurt, doesn’t pay attention to the fact that their original point wasn’t even argued against. Instead, they either begin to argue from the position the other person gave them, reiterate their original point (which just resets the argument to phase 1) or create their own strawman from Person B’s tweet, and attack that.
  4. The cycle continues until it devolves into blockings and nasty subtweeting.

ADDENDUM: At this point, for clarity, I want to emphasize that disagreeing with someone on Twitter is not always malicious. There are many genuine cases of misogny, racism, and so on which rightly deserve to be argued against. I’m not even suggesting that most arguments on Twitter are constructed of strawmen, or that those who take part aren’t well-meaning. What I am saying is that there is a certain percentage of arguments on Twitter that arise unnecessarily, are often goaded along by those who enjoy arguing for its own sake, and bear no fruit other than hurt feelings and decreased overall goodwill.

How To Stop The Madness

It’s actually very easy to avoid all of this aimless bickering. All that needs to happen is for everyone to agree to assume the best possible interpretation of all the tweets they read.

Of course this won’t happen, because there are a lot of people who get a buzz from the antagonism. But I’ve found that when I remember the nastiness cycle, I get into a lot fewer frustrating arguments that go nowhere.

That’s bad for the economy of the Kingdom of Temporarily Vanquished Strawmen, but good for my sanity and digestion.