Una Mullally: Twitter shows how to lose friends and influence nada

‘At what point does the grief outweigh the positives you gain from Twitter?’

Twitter  trading  on the New York Stock Exchange: “People now scoff at Twitter’s inability to pivot or diversify or evolve or monetise or find a workable business model.” Photograph: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Twitter trading on the New York Stock Exchange: “People now scoff at Twitter’s inability to pivot or diversify or evolve or monetise or find a workable business model.” Photograph: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

 

Twitter is dying! Or so every article about Twitter has begun since its inception. But it’s January, which means the now annual tradition of friends swearing off social media and going on digital detoxes is all go.

People talk of deleting their Facebook accounts, or give out about Twitter embroiling them in pointless arguments, or try to see the attraction of Snapchat, or use Instagram more than usual, because, let’s face it, when it comes to taking in endless information, sometimes it’s just nicer to look at the pictures.

In February, I’ll have been using Twitter for eight years. What did I gain from it? Not much. Speedier access to breaking news; a few jokes that made me go “ha!” before forgetting about them a few seconds later; a dubiously depleted attention span; a scrolling addiction (better than other addictions, in fairness); the ability to know what a celebrity is doing on a Wednesday afternoon.

It’s not a waste of time, right?

I’m not sure what the tipping point for Twitter turning bad was. But like much of the discourse in our world and our time, it has certainly gone all weird and screamy.

If you have over a certain number of followers (I don’t know where the line is, but let’s say 20,000 or more), things get especially weird. You wake up in the morning and your phone tells you you suck at your job, or you’re WRONG, or hopefully provides a short video of a spectacular goal someone scored the previous evening.

For years now, people have been becoming “profiles” and “brands”, which is strange. What do we do when given the ability to mouth off about anything we want at any time of day? Stupid, inane stuff, mostly.

Accrue followers

For many people, the point of having a “presence” on Twitter is to accrue followers, and thus “influence”. Having accrued such “influence”, your voice and opinions gain a larger platform. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult and undesirable to use that platform due to the kickback from all of these followers you’ve accrued. This is the central paradox of Twitter “influence”: the more followers you gain from speaking your mind, the less able you are to speak it.

Opinion and reaction online is now a pitched battle. The expulsion of nuance and eradication of grey areas has created a type of discourse that is loud, obnoxious and often short on facts. In a private conversation, if you and a friend are teasing out an issue and have varying opinions on that matter, the face-to-face interaction, nuances, back and forths and dissection of the issue might sway your point of view. “I see where you’re coming from,” you might say, or “I get that, but what about this?”

Online, in a public forum, people protect their opinions like angry farmers protect their sheep from foxes; with violence, paranoia, barriers and weaponry. It is much more difficult to take on board a different point of view when you’ve already laid yours out for all to see. The action of rolling back is hard when everyone is watching because people don’t want to lose face. Instead, they dig in and shout at each other.

Every day I block and mute multiple people who insult me (often using vile language), or express views to me that are racist, homophobic, sexist and so on. At what point does the grief you get outweigh the positives you gain from Twitter? I don’t know, but it’s on the horizon, encroaching. Twitter has failed repeatedly and spectacularly to address harassment on its platform. This is why Twitter will actually ultimately “die” (whatever form that death takes) in the next few years. This is the pivot that never happened.

I can’t imagine how hard it is make people not be idiots, but Twitter definitely hasn’t figured it out. So it’s not surprising that nice, smart, reasonable people are leaving Twitter; who wants to hang out with a load of loudmouth racists or hysterical sexists? Online conversation is spring-loaded, constantly coiled, snake-like in strike pose, ready to lunge at anything vaguely resembling threat, invasion or simply just standing there.

Old media

It’s also interesting how the disrupter has become the disruptable. Twitter not knowing how to survive is like “old” media in timelapse. Once upon a time, Twitter advocates scoffed at the clunky old ways of legacy media. Now people scoff at Twitter’s inability to pivot or diversify or evolve or monetise or find a workable business model.

What has happened in a world of megaphones is that the loudest ones win (so far), and the quieter, more interesting sounds are drowned out in a chorus of feedback, ear-splitting white noise and sirens. People who are in charge of social media platforms seem to have attitudes that hate speech, bullying, and creating spaces for radicalising people are all just part of the fabric of the internet and are somehow immovable markers, instead of taking those things as unacceptable elements that should be the exception, not the rule.

It’s often said that the internet is in its juvenile period and will grow out of the adolescent mood swings that typify much of its standard of conversation. But we’ve been waiting for that growth spurt for a while, and it hasn’t happened. If anything, online discourse has become even more of a crazed version of “real life” chatter.

That’s tiring. It’s no wonder measured people are getting sick of it.

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