There are a lot of opinions and articles out there on the impact of social media on human communication and mental wellbeing. I’m not sure whether this impact is sometimes overstated and would agree with Noam Chomsky who has argued that there have been far more wide reaching inventions than social media that have been impactful on human life and behaviour.
However, this isn’t really what I want to discuss in this post. Instead I want to focus on something I’ve noticed recently regarding how debates, especially on politically divisive issues, are conducted on social media, Twitter in particular.
I personally find Twitter’s modus operandi, a constant stream of information and opinions, quite overwhelming at times. It’s not my preferred way of processing information. I’d like to be able to save an article for example and come back to it when I have time to read it properly. Or ponder on an opinion, do some additional reading, figure out why I disagree or agree with it.
But because the Twitter feed moves at a relentless pace, I risk liking, retweeting or commenting on opinions, articles or arguments without having properly engaged with them. As someone who considers a 2000 word essay short, I find Twitter’s character limit infuriating and the reductive nature of tweets doesn’t allow me to express myself properly. I know guys, I sound fucking ancient and I am.
While it can be a great platform to discover things that inspire me or engage with people whose work I admire, I can’t help but feel Twitter is a 24 hour talking shop where people mainly spout off their opinions without leaving much room for an actual discussion.
The Twittersphere erupts when one party feels wronged or somebody has put out a polemical opinion or argument. Both parties gather likeminded followers and assemble their respective blue bird armies to fight tweet by tweet until one party relents and issues an apology or deletes their account.
I’m divided on the matter because obviously I can see plenty of stupid, narrow minded and ignorant opinions spouted on Twitter and I do agree to a certain extent to call people out on that. But I’m not sure whether Twitter provides the adequate medium to promote a nuanced discussion that would allow someone to genuinely reconsider their opinion.
It seems to me, that it is often a contest about being right and wanting those that disagree with you to admit that they are wrong. The actual subject or issue at stake falls by the wayside and instead people are berating each others opinions and reactions to a certain issue. A side effect of this is that the virtual noise than draws far more attention to the initial offensive remarks than they might have gotten in the first place.
But what’s the problem with publicly voicing your opinion and trying to hold others accountable for making ignorant and offensive comments? Absolutely nothing. I’m not trying to suggest people shouldn’t speak up on matters they are passionate about. I’m questioning whether Twitter debates are an effective way of genuinely educating others on divisive issues.
I’m not a particularly confrontational person anyway, these kind of tweet wars go against my preferred way of communicating, they make me uncomfortable. I also don’t think they give people enough space to reconsider their position. Maybe someone just apologises because of the onslaught of tweets they’ve received or because they are fed up with having to deal with it.
The pity is that a lot of Twitter fights revolve around very important issues like class, race, sexism, the political elite etc. Issues we should most definitely discuss and educate ourselves on but maybe not in the shouty, black & white way Twitter seems to encourage.
Because I usually approach most things with the attitude of ‘I know that I know very little’, I’m always acutely aware of my own need to read more and educate myself further. I guess that’s what bothers me about Twitter fights, the self righteousness with which some people argue, their absolute conviction, or so it seems, that they are right.
I don’t have that certainty, I realise my own contradictions and unconscious biases (complaining about people being opinionated on public forums while writing a blog full of my own opinions…). Most of the time I try and start with myself and my own shortcomings before attempting to influence others.
Maybe what the Twittersphere needs is a bit more empathy, compassion and understanding in divisive discussions. As I see it, the black and white debates in the virtual realm leave no room for greyness, for the complexities and contradictions within us. They judge rather than understand.
Let me know what you think. Am I missing a point here or being a hypocrite? Maybe I just don’t get the internet. I’d much rather have arguments in a pub over a drink. Comment away and let a balanced discussion based on mutual respect commence!