Living with Twitter is living with humans

· 942 words · 5 minute read
A mess of cigarette butts, a used paper cup and crumpled cigarette packs fill the frame

Over the past few months, as the Twitter thing has unfolded, I’ve seen a few things go by and thought a few thoughts:

I’ve long thought most people are only half right about the terrible parts of Twitter: Yes, it’s a site where a lot of abuse and harassment goes on, but it has also developed and cultivated a collectively noxious style of discourse that has spared almost nobody. People don’t acknowledge that as much, but then there’s a lot of everyday interpersonal violence people don’t acknowledge because they’ve rationalized the need for it. If you’ve ever had a group of work friends go toxic around the break room table, and then slowly felt more and more queasy from the negativity, gossip, and judgment, you know the dynamic writ small.

On the scale of three to eight people, it’s possible for someone with a little standing to say “this doesn’t feel good” and possibly arrest the dynamic. On a global scale? No. Planetary volumes of toothpaste cannot be shifted back into the orbiting tube. Twitter is going to remain a reductive hellhole that contributes to increasing levels of rhetorical violence (whether it’s defensively or offensively motivated) until membership plummets, moderation is radically changed to reflect values antithetical to the dominant user base, or it simply shuts down.

There was this brief, “snow day apocalypse” mood sweeping the service and it was interesting/cool to see people turning up on Mastodon and just generally processing what they didn’t like about the damn place. I was briefly one of the people trying to help overturn the burning car in the best spirit of a riotous holiday.

That apocalypic mood has since spawned a style of Twitter-related discourse that involves hectoring, scolding, and sometimes likening people who choose to remain on Twitter to Jews staying in Europe in 1938, or Nazi collaborators. That makes sense, because Twitter is a reduction machine.

Seeing enough of that, I felt a little remorse for intermittent scolding over the years. I’ve long thought positioning Twitter as some site of revolutionary struggle was self-mythologizing garbage for people who don’t really do much, so turnabout is fair play: It’s not going to destroy the world, and it is not a world-historical struggle to call Elon Musk “elno” and post dire “surely this” pronouncements every time an employee leaks a memo with a typo in it.

In fact, I’m coming to believe Twitter is no more and no less than a mirror, and a lot of us hate it because we don’t like what we see, because we want to believe in some perfectable human state where ignorance, hypocrisy, venality, and hatred are either purged from the collective self, or the carriers of those things are finally, once and for all … driven out? Beaten?

But even in Edenic Mastodon, people are aligning around new struggles. Whether or not there is such a thing as a “quote toot” is enough to reduce people to name-calling (“mid-brain”, “moron”, “racist” and “violent” have been deployed against the developers) and it seems pretty clear that given enough people and scale, we’ll be back where we are whenever there’s any suitable number of people in a confined volume: Shouting to be heard, making our arguments simpler and more extreme to stand out, becoming increasingly violent in our communications as we sense others rushing to the poles, making us feel threatened that there are too many of the wrong kind of person running in the wrong direction.

But, you know, who am I? When I feel myself being provoked to more anger and less thoughtfulness I eventually go away for a while until I can get some balance again, but never before I’ve indugled a little smallness and anger. I have my set of things I think are important and meaningful. I do what I can to keep the energy I need to do them. That comes at a cost to other things I’m not as good at doing as I used to be, when I had a less clear sense of what mattered to me and all sorts of claims to my attention and time seemed equivalent.

Do I wish more people shared them with me? Sure. I once worked with someone who was very, very good at simply setting aside the things she couldn’t hope to change and for a few years thought she was callous and indifferent. It took a while, and a collection of stories from people around her to understand the ways in which she held so many people up and carried them when they couldn’t help themslves. I came to understand that what I thought of as indifference was actually a kind of self-governance. She knew her priorities and knew how many hours in a day she had to support them.

So when I think of some of the people who frustrate me the worst for being so good and yet so oblivious, I try to remind myself that they’re quietly trying to conserve energy for the things that matter to them. They’re doing their best, same as I’m doing my best. We’re all collectively struggling with the imperfections of the world, trying to figure out how to keep going from day to day, trying to figure out where we can best shine a little light or make things a little better. The best of all worlds might be one where we resist the urge to make extravagant claims of each other, share what we see and believe, and accept that the people around us can only do so much, only have so much to give, and are also picking their battles.