The Identity Crisis of Twitter

To a great many, social media is just a part of life now. Whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter, these websites and apps are practically glued to us due to the ever-increasing ubiquity of smartphones. But each form of social media in certain ways replicates the online communication tools of old, and I find that with Twitter in particular, its strengths and weaknesses come from being essentially a highly modular chatroom. The problem is that, while the scope of this “chatroom” can be large or small, individual users only have so much control once it gets beyond a certain size, which leads to Twitter and its users running into an identity crisis of sorts.

It’s true that if you want an absolutely private experience on Twitter, you can more or less make it happen. Set your account to private, only follow a handful of people, and maybe even communicate primarily through direct messages. You can actually just make it about you and your friends. However, there are a few aspects that limit the Twitter experience once you move past that point and want to utilize the site as most others do, which is to operate in this massive space where you can instantly search for what people are saying about any given topic.

Traditionally, chatrooms were less people-focused and more concept-focused. Even in the earliest days of AOL, you scrolled through a potential list of chats, picked one that matched your interests or desires, and then joined. Even if it was just to ask A/S/L to everyone, there was a sense that you were stepping into a shared, localized space. Web 1.0 had this feeling in general. With Twitter, you are essentially your own chatroom moderator, and it’s up to you to constantly manage who you want to listen to and who you want to interact with. This kind of customization certainly has its merits, as it lets you really control your experience on Twitter to a certain degree, but having to potentially police your own twitter feed constantly is practically a recipe for decision fatigue. A user doesn’t have to care that much, but that can lead to the next problem: if you choose to take a relatively hands-off approach, that means you can’t control the people who are peering inside.

A common story of many a Twitter faux pas is that a user (often a fairly prominent one) treats their very public and well-known account like it’s still a small, localized experience when things have in fact changed. This person might be using in-jokes that appear crass or downright offensive to outsiders, but is considered to be innocuous teasing by their more immediate circle. They might even get called out by their followers for those words and asked to apologize, and those followers might even have a point. Even so, it can feel like there’s a disconnect between what this particular user thinks is their Twitter experience (shooting the breeze with friends) and what the users at large think is the Twitter experience (a public forum where any and every statement hangs in the air for all to see).

Consider two scenarios of a person in real life who says something racist, not expecting it to be an issue, only to be reprimanded by someone listening. In scenario #1, it’s a private setting where a friend is warning this person that what they’re saying is messed up, and they need to watch how they think and use words. In scenario #2, it’s an open space where everybody’s listening and a stranger shouts down the speaker for being so damn racist. Both cases involve someone rightly pointing out racist speech and that it needs correcting, but there’s a fundamentally different experience between someone who says something around those with whom they’re familiar and while surrounded mostly by strangers. The issue with Twitter is that it can seem like the former on the surface, only for a user to discover that it’s been a public square all along. The perception of extremely public vs. relatively private space explodes and collapses in a way that doesn’t happen when you actively search for servers and chatrooms on IRC or the more modern Discord.

I believe that this folding of public and private on Twitter is also what makes harassment on the platform especially insidious. It’s no secret that certain groups (especially the alt-right) have learned to almost weaponize Twitter’s idiosyncratic behavior. They can make a statement, “innocently” @ another user, and sit back and let their followers dog-pile that user. They can search out people who are discussing a topic, and attack total strangers in their replies. Users might want to interact through Twitter as if they’re just talking to their friends and acquainances, but the search function makes it possible to seek out holders of different opinions and try to verbally abuse them. It’s all too easy to find someone you disagree with on Twitter, and to see them as the enemy.

Chatrooms aren’t and weren’t ever peaches and rainbows. They come with their own hosts of problems, from power-abusing moderators to the active nurturing of toxic spaces by users if they should so choose. I used to be part of a chatroom or two where there were some people with gigantic chips on their shoulders—folks who seemed a little too trigger-happy with their hostilities. I remember a time where I talked about my surprise that a couple of anime voice actors were married to each other, only to get shouted at about how I must be one of those shallow folks obsessed with following the frivolous minutiae of celebrities (but of course said in a much less polite way). I thought the guy was being an asshole, but I also went into that chat knowing that this was a possibility, and that I was ready to fight back and call him out on being unnecessarily angry. Not everyone is willing or should be willing to have to fend off trolls and angry mobs, but Twitter’s public/private collapse makes that fight all the more inevitable for anyone discussing a controversial topic.

I’ve been on Twitter for over ten years now, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve reduced my utilization of its chatroom-esque qualities a long time ago. I still do communicate with friends and mutuals to an extent, but a lot of it is me shouting into the wind and seeing what sticks. Much like this blog here, I use it as a place to experiment with an express thoughts and ideas. Analyzing this shift in Twitter behavior, I think it’s largely because a certain degree of distance is necessary. Those who jump onto Twitter with bleeding hearts inevitably attract sharks. But while there were always sharks, even among the islands of Web 1.0 and 2.0, the social media age means being surrounded by potential predators on all sides.

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