Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Trouble with Twitter

It's a bit surprising, thinking about it, the presence that Twitter has taken in the professional and personal lives of so many people only six years after being launched; I suppose it's because I'm perpetually stuck in 2000, when dialup was how you got online and ICQ was how you talked to people once you got there. Imagine coordinating something like the Iranian election protests a couple of years back, or even something as minor as the #TellVicEverything thing from a little while ago, over point-to-point instant messaging. Twitter gives a level of basic engagement that, in some respects, is vastly elevated over what came before.

In some cases, perhaps too basic. On Friday the Toronto Star reported on the decision of NDP MP Charlie Angus - who I first heard of in his capacity as the NDP's digital affairs critic - to quit Twitter, which he described as "like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride." It's true that Twitter gives people a line to prominent figures - be they government, corporate, or celebrity - but what's also true as a result is that it gives people a line to each other, giving mute testimony that the world is not as we believe it to be.

I can understand why Angus left Twitter. As a politician, and especially an NDP politician at that, I can imagine that his timeline and Direct Message box must have always contained at least a significant minority of heinous shit in the form of received messages. It's life, without filters - and it's not the sort of thing that's restricted to political figures alone.

In the Star article, Susan Delacourt takes a rather optimistic view of Twitter, asking if people "are any nicer" in any given Tim Horton's than online, and that it "holds the potential to be a window into vast new worlds of politics." For the latter, I think it does, but not in the way a lot of us would hope; I would describe it more as a magnifying glass, throwing the quiet beliefs of a lot of people into unflattering sharpness. It's yet another demonstration of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or for you science majors, the online disinhibition effect - people who feel anonymous, who are at a remove from what they're saying and who they're speaking to, and who have an audience through use of a carefully-placed hashtag, will say things on Twitter that they would never say to a stranger in the real world.

Are people at Tim Horton's any nicer? Perhaps not, but the difference is that they'd at least act nicer. Someone in Tim Horton's who is, say, opposed to Earth Hour would probably be more circumspect about accusing its supporters as being "lunatics" who want to return civilization to the thirteenth century - which, I stress, is something that I honestly encountered - because if you pull out those kind of insane accusations in someone's face, you're running the risk of getting someone's fist in yours. As of yet, no one has invented a device that will allow you to stab people in the face over the Internet.

This is a problem that, honestly, I don't see being resolved any time soon. It's basic human nature, and from what I've seen too many humans are unwilling to climb above their basic natures. Nevertheless, in the end I think it's for the best that the internet has enabled conversations like this, and that politicians and so on should stick with it. If nothing else, it provides them with a far more honest appraisal of some of the people they are representing.

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