SODERMANN | The musky stench of Twitter | Columnists
Twitter is now the latest possession and toy belonging to Elon Musk, the wealthiest of trolls.
It’s hard to imagine the platform becoming more toxic and overwhelming, both individually and societally. But anything is possible, and the story of Twitter is one of declining morals and the descent of public discourse.
As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently noted, even the platform’s most prolific tweeters often call it “that hellish site.”
Now, Twitter is about to take on an eau de musk, a scent one website describes as smelling like “the waste discarded from a deer’s body.” Seems about right.
If you only read one magazine article this year, other than my columns of course, it would have to be “Why the Last 10 Years of American Life Have Been Especially Stupid” by Jonathan Haidt in the April issue of The Atlantic.
Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at NYU, attributes causality to social media with Twitter, our “digital town square,” being the biggest contributor, though Facebook barely avoids blame.
Equating social media with the biblical destruction of Babel, Haidt writes: “Let us keep this dramatic picture in our minds: people wandering among the ruins, unable to communicate, doomed to mutual incomprehension.
He continues, “It has been clear for some time that red and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economy and American history. But Babel is not about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the breaking up of everything that seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.
According to Haidt, social media started innocently enough. It was a way to share news and family photos, connect with friends, and even interact with strangers around common interests. It was even a way to effectively and widely distribute the latest joke, video or news clipping.
Social media has facilitated the rise of a number of back-to-back movements. Haidt points to 2011 as the flagship year for media, including the Arab Spring. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spoke with almost religious fervor about the transformative and healing power of this connectivity.
That was then.
Things went fast, rushing south. Haidt traces this steep downward slope to the introduction of the “Like” button on Facebook. Twitter quickly upped the ante with its “Retweet” feature and Facebook followed suit with its “Share” feature.
Suddenly, what was only a chronological display of posts gave way to the all-powerful algorithm. Twitter, Facebook, and countless newer sites have become data-gathering operations first and foremost.
Algorithms have generated an increasing dose of posts guaranteed to drive approval and sharing. Echo chambers formed and the heat was increased. Users have become increasingly marinated in like-minded circles of growing outrage.
Personalized, algorithmically curated feeds offered less exposure to other opinions and dissenting viewpoints. Nuance has been sacrificed. Any notion of compromise or pluralistic accommodation was tantamount to a sell-out. A wrong edge has become the currency of the kingdom.
My only college course in psychology Skinner is applicable. The developers of Twitter and Facebook have created a classic method of the strongest motivations, namely intermittent reinforcement. What a cynical genius to put most users in like-minded silos and inject the feel-good dopamine rush of likes, shares, and retweets.
For the most dedicated users who have figured out the game, one of the main goals is to “go viral”. For the less “viral” unfamiliar with the term, this ambition, somehow not found in previous guides to living well, means creating a message so witty or sarcastic, or so biased or hateful, that it takes off. in the ethersphere and earn thousands or tens of thousands of positive visits.
This is serious dopamine. While I enjoy a bit of snark as much as the next guy, I’d like to believe myself grounded enough to recognize the essential emptiness of much of this.
The last few years have also added another expression to our vocabulary, namely the “Twitter crowd”. This refers to semi-spontaneous, but totally predictable and often orchestrated online uprisings to pounce on someone whose tweet may have pierced certain sensibilities or violated some unwritten code with the goal of banishing and nullifying that person for eternity.
Of course, the real goal is to demonstrate one’s superior virtue within the bubble of one’s choice, one’s crowd, and take another hit from that viral dopamine.
Haidt quotes a Twitter engineer taking stock of the mobs he’s tech-enabled and thinking, “We might have just handed a loaded gun to a four-year-old.”
Social media has no shortage of bad actors. In those regions, Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who denies the election, seems to think tweeting is the essential or only part of her job description. She is much more of a Twitter provocateur than a serious legislator.
When he wasn’t heckling the president during last winter’s State of the Union address, Boebert shot to enter the world record books for most Twitter insults in an hour. Daniel Webster or Henry Clay, she is not.
Boebert sets the bar high for Twitter’s empty staging, but it’s far from alone. Denver Democratic lawmaker Steven Woodrow can be decent and engaging in person. But as soon as he pulls out his phone and logs into his favorite sites, he turns into a one-dimensional partisan agitator.
A bit of unsolicited, sure-to-ignore advice for Rep. Woodrow: Think deeper; reaching out to those with other points of view; and stop playing your beloved online groupthink so obsessively.
Twitter hasn’t made a better version of itself out of anyone. Individually, it made us harder and emptier. Collectively, this further divided us and undermined reasonable dialogue and collective intelligence.
It’s up to you, Elon.
Eric Sondermann is a freelance political commentator based in Colorado. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and The Gazette newspapers. Contact him at [email protected]; follow him on @EricSondermann