Twitter is Killing Discussion, and GamerGate Proves it

The Twitter bird cheeps.

I’m going to make a rather stirring claim here: Twitter is on the slow march towards eradicating the art of thoughtful and measured discussion.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so hear me out.  Twitter is good for many things.  For instantaneous mass communication and the ability of people all around the world to come together in a common goal it must be unrivaled in human history.  It’s also great for sharing snippets of thoughts, interesting quotes, funny anecdotes, and things that can make you feel like you really know a person.

What it’s not good for is precisely setting out your views on politics or religion or other heated topics (just how many times have celebrities been absolutely annihilated for what they’ve said on Twitter, more often than not because their tiny bit of text has unsurprisingly been misinterpreted?), and it’s not good for trying to make multiple – especially conflicting – points at once.  What it’s really not good for is long, sustained debate.

It seems to me that when arguments start on Twitter it’s like we’re all caught up in little whirlwinds made up of 140 characters or less, flurrying angrily past each other and often colliding, but often not really listening to the intricacies of what each of us is saying.  Mainly because it’s super hard to get those intricacies across in 140 characters.

The subtleties of how you really feel about a statement or action or person, and to what degree you feel those feelings and for what reasons, become lost on Twitter.  It seems all you can do is either flatly agree or disagree with someone.  Twitter has turned all the shades of grey of proper argument into plain black and white.

Luckily, I’m not alone.  Just a quick Google search revealed others who think Twitter is killing everything from conference discussion to blog commenting, and lots and lots of people who take umbrage with the idea that Twitter is really encouraging much of a “conversation” at all.

Well, let me amend my claim a little: I’m sure some people do use Twitter to engage in fair debate with others.  And I’m equally sure there are people out there who are such exquisite wordsmiths that a mere 140 character limit does not constrain them in the full clarification of their views and all their intricacies.  But overall I think Twitter does make it far easier for lazy, furious arguments devoid of any sophistication to be made and shared and spread like wildfire.

This is why you see arguments break out so often on Twitter.  The internet is bad enough for starting fights, and by forcing people to jam complex viewpoints into a tiny little text field you’re just giving them an excuse to simplify and misconstrue.

Okay, I guess this blog post is starting to sound a little tyrannical.  I think Twitter is a good thing and I don’t think people should stop trying to talk about important things via Twitter.  Often limitations on what we can write make us more inventive, more creative and more thoughtful: this is precisely why poetry works so well.  However, I don’t think we should forget that Twitter can make us severely streamline our arguments just as it can make us brusque, sharp and aggressive without necessarily meaning to be.

The reason I started thinking about this topic was GamerGate.  I have LOTS to say on that particular subject, so I’ll have to leave most of it for another blog post, but the entire debacle smacks of two separate groups of people, both with real and valid concerns, yelling at each other so loudly and incoherently that neither can comprehend what the other is saying, and allowing a lot of nasty opportunists to crawl out of the woodwork in the process.  It doesn’t help that both sides are largely self-contained in their own hideouts across the internet (broadly: “GamerGaters” on 4chan and 8chan, and the “Social Justice Warriors” on Tumblr) so that actual conversation is rare, but Twitter is where both have been seen colliding.  And never have I seen such a mass of chaos in my life.

None of them are hearing each other on Twitter!  Nobody is listening!  They’re just talking past each other, blindly hoping that their rapid, exaggerated scraps of thought will somehow make headway in the great mass of vitriol.  Maybe you think I’m a dinosaur: this is how people talk nowadays.  The only place you see long, extended commentary is on blogs, some forums and small enclaves of Reddit.  But for up-to-the-minute “conversation” on the hot topics of today, Twitter is where it’s at.  It’s the zeitgeist, man.

As the icing on the cake, a recent Twitter conversation between Adam Baldwin and Brianna Wu sadly but quite predictably deteriorated into insults and name-calling.  In case you don’t know, Adam Baldwin is the actor who coined the term GamerGate; Brianna Wu is a game developer who has received death threats and abuse in the past months.  I’m sure you can guess which side of the argument either is on.

It began promisingly enough: Wu suggested the two meet up over coffee to “change the tone” of the debate, and Baldwin initially agreed.  Then Baldwin asked Wu to apologise for associating GamerGate with the threats against her, things got thorny, and both insulted the other before Baldwin asked Wu to “cease all communication”.

GamerGate is a debate that looks simple on the surface but is actually infuriatingly complex.  Maybe it just can’t be solved through a 140 character invitation for coffee on Twitter.

This is just one example of how Twitter seems to have become a breeding ground for abuse rather than calm and rational discussion, but I would argue that it is representative of the whole.  Did the team who created Twitter anticipate this all the way back in 2006?  Probably not.  Is it an unavoidable aspect of our human nature that we get angry and overstate things when forced to wedge our complex arguments into bite-size chunks?  Maybe.

I’m not sure how to end this blog post, just like I’m not sure how to solve the glorious and maddening problem of Twitter, so instead I will leave you with this quote, found here:

Imagine how much a conversation could build without the limitations of 140 characters. Imagine how opposing views could be fully fleshed out with unlimited text. Imagine how communities could be forged, and new friendships built, through the reasoning and acceptance that long comments can offer.

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