It is fashionable to hate Twitter but it’s within the user’s control to make it an effective forum for productive conversations with a wide range of people.
I am a staunch defender of Twitter and its potential for productive conversation with people who can hold very different views. It provides the opportunity to broaden one’s own knowledge and perspective. This runs counter to common arguments that Twitter is a collection of echo-chambers and a hostile hunting-ground for ideological extremists and psychologically-damaged, rage-filled trolls. Whilst such individuals certainly do haunt Twitter, many of the claims about them are themselves ideologically biased and are therefore liable to vary greatly in their identification of aggressors and victims. The debate rages particularly strongly in relation to whether intersectional feminists are the primary victims of targeted campaigns of mob-harassment or the primary perpetrators.
The best arguments against Twitter address the problem of mob-outrage leading to life and career damaging consequences outside the Twittersphere. The most extreme example of this danger is experienced by secular, liberal, feminist or LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims living in countries in which disbelief in or criticism of Islam is liable to result in prosecution or mob-violence. Even in the West, many ex-Muslim critics of Islam remain anonymous on social media for their own safety. More often, though, the consequences of expressing unpopular opinions relate to the loss of employment, employability or an unjustly smeared reputation. The catholic church has been known to threaten employees with dismissal for supporting LGBT rights on social media and many private individuals have complained of having to self-censor their liberal views due to socially conservative employers or communities. A bigger problem at the moment comes from the authoritarian hard left. Jonathan Kay’s recent essay ‘The Tyranny of Twitter: How Mob Censure is Changing the Intellectual Landscape’ convincingly illustrates the degree to which an unpopular opinion, thoughtless joke or unwitting faux pas (such as quoting Beyoncé admiringly whilst being white) can lead to mob censure and life-damaging consequences. So too does Jon Ronson’s 2015 book examining the emerging phenomenon, So, You’ve been Publicly Shamed’.
Nevertheless, I am wary of placing too much blame for this very real problem on Twitter as a platform because this can sometimes lead to neglecting the sources of the problem: the powerful authoritarian ideas in society which have brought about an intense hyper-sensitivity to language and therefore see punishing people for their speech as morally justifiable. I have written about these in relation to academia and SocJus movements at length and do not intend to do so again here. Social media is not going anywhere and will reflect and amplify ideas and attitudes in society. We cannot solve the authoritarian censorship problem except by changing the attitudes and behaviours of others, and we cannot do this without engaging with them in as many ways as possible, including Twitter. I wrote about the value of this here. Those of us who can refuse to self-censor without fear of losing our lives or our livelihoods should do so and defend others doing so.
Common criticisms and determinism
More specific concerns about Twitter itself, as a platform for online interaction (rather than as an aggravating factor in a larger social problem), argue it to be an echo-chamber in which people only become more dogmatic and extreme in their own views and feel enabled by the distance and sometimes anonymity, to be rude and aggressive in a way that they would not be face-to-face. Empathy can be reduced behind a screen and anonymous people are shielded from the consequences of their behavior. Verbal abuse is common online with men being targeted more than women but women receiving more sexualised insults and feeling more affected by them. Additionally, social media can be stressful and lead to procrastination and compulsive posting, many have argued, and can contribute to young people struggling with feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Other critics have argued that it leads us to read less and interact less in person, citing studies claiming that social media makes us more stupid and more lonely. There is evidence of all these problems, and studies that look at the large picture of how Twitter is commonly being used and how it affects individuals, groups and society are valuable.
There is a tendency, however, to be unnecessarily fatalistic about this. On an individual level, Twitter is a tool and its use is decided by the user. If you are someone who wants to read, share and discuss well-written essays whilst avoiding echo chambers, talk to a range of thoughtful people from all over the world and have productive discussions about topics you choose for the length of time you wish as part of your social and intellectual life, you can absolutely do that. You are in control of whom you follow and what you discuss, for how long and in what tone.
Setting your own boundaries
Of course, we cannot control the behaviour of everyone else on Twitter but Twitter provides tools to manage whom we hear from. It provides the option to have a public account where everyone can see your tweets and respond to them or a private account where only people you choose to follow can do so. If you decide to opt for a public account but don’t want to hear from people you don’t know, you can turn your notifications to ‘only people you follow.’ There is also a ‘quality filter’ which prevents you from seeing any tweet which includes abusive language, but this tends to block conversations about abuse too and so is no good for many of us who want to talk about human rights.
I tend to tweet in great volume about controversial issues including religion and gender to nearly 8000 people and so get hundreds of tweets a day, a small proportion of which are abusive or simply irritatingly unreasonable. The ‘mute’ and ‘block’ functions are very useful here. ‘Mute’ stops you seeing people’s responses, but they can still read and reply to your tweets. This is good for people who are not abusive but whose tweets are unreasonable, tedious, interminable or who otherwise consistently miss the point; people who simply get in the way of productive conversation. ‘Block’ prevents people from seeing your tweets at all and I find this is good for people who are abusive and whom you want nowhere near your timeline for your own sake and that of others on it.
Some have claimed that using these functions to limit the tweets you see is the same thing as setting up an echo chamber but this fundamentally misunderstands the concept. An echo chamber is a space in which you surround yourself with people who share your values and politics and who reflect these back at you, confirming your sense of being in the right. It is very easy not to do this by simply not doing it. This does not preclude the possibility of a private account, limited notifications or blocking or muting people.I have never muted or blocked anyone for disagreeing with me but many people for being simply impossible to have a productive conversation with. These include people who share my values and politics almost completely.
Others have said these measures are not enough. They say they don’t want to limit their audience by making their account private but that people can bypass notification limitations by speaking to other people in the thread and being seen in an open thread. They point out that ‘mute’ and ‘block’ can only be used after abuse has taken place. Whilst I have sympathy for people who feel very strongly affected by verbal abuse, particularly if this is due to an earlier trauma, it remains true that these are only words and most psychologically healthy people can cope with words. Learning to cope with them is a valuable skill. Saying this often produces outrage and I am accused of placing responsibility on the verbally abused to cope rather than on the verbally abusive to change their behaviour. This is nonsense. Of course, no-one should have to cope with verbal abuse and we all have the moral responsibility to be decent human beings, but until we find a method of successfully making everyone in the world nice, we can either withdraw from the public sphere that is social media or accept that some people will say mean things before we can block them. It is of particular concern that the issue has become so gendered with the implication being that it is women who are unable to cope with mean words. Whilst studies have shown that women do report feeling more affected by them, this is not something feminists or gender egalitarians should be essentialising or valorising having spent the last fifty years arguing that women are as capable as men of dealing with everything the public sphere has to throw at us.
Ensuring intellectual diversity
Whichever settings you decide upon, it is perfectly within your power to follow a range of interesting people from all over the world with widely varied political, religious, cultural and social backgrounds. A thought-provoking meme circulated around Twitter recently saying something to the effect of ‘Tag 10 people you respect but with whom you strongly disagree.’ I took this to mean people with whom I differed on something important to me but whose thinking and ethics I generally respected. As a left-leaning, universally liberal, sceptical, atheist, humanist human rights activist who is critical of postmodernism and SocJus forms of activism, most of my connections share one or more of these values with me. I could not respect a person who did not value certain basic principles of equality and universal human rights. This still leaves a great deal of room for differing political, religious & ideological views. I found, on reflection, that among people whose thinking I respected generally were devout religious believers, Tories, Marxists, intersectional feminists, radical feminists, MRAs, Trump voters, economic Libertarians and Brexiters. I respected them, even though I strongly disagreed with them on certain topics, because they engaged with me honestly, reasonably, courteously and with charity, and I endeavoured to return the favour. I would encourage anyone who talks about society and ethics and follows more than a hundred people to ensure that they can name ten people they find worth reading even though they also disagree with them strongly on an issue they consider important. Because of this, I have been accused of being tolerant to the point of gullibility or ‘tolerating the intolerant’ and felt the need to write this in response:
The value of intellectual diversity goes beyond simply being exposed to different ideas, although this is the core of it. Being connected to people whose thinking you respect and whom you believe to respect yours even if you disagree on important issues and being aware they can see your thoughts on a subject expands your own way of thinking about it. It encourages second-guessing your own tweets before you send them and anticipating objections that could be made by people with different ideas. This is less about wanting to please everyone and more about being as sure as you can be that if you’re going to piss off smart, knowledgeable people with an idea, it’s one you have thought through and can defend. Even more than that, it encourages testing your own ideas before you even share them with anyone else. Quite often, I find that thinking through objections a particular individual on Twitter would be almost certain to make reveals that they would be good ones and that an idea I was confident about moments before requires qualifying or even rejecting completely. This creates good habits of thinking which extend beyond the Twittersphere.
Meaningful conversation in 140 characters?
At this point, some people might object ‘But this is Twitter! Social media where anyone can offer opinions in 140 characters is not a forum for the careful unpacking of complex ideas supported by equally carefully thought-out arguments and extensive research. How meaningful can an exchange be?’ This misses the fact that many Twitter posts are links to essays that do unpack complex ideas supported by carefully thought-out arguments and extensive research, which are then discussed. I have been introduced to many important ideas and interesting writers in this way and been able to connect to them and read more of their work as soon as it is published and also ask for their thoughts on certain topics. It is where I post my own essays, begin discussions about them and receive criticism of them. It is where most of my readers are. Many of my essays are based on issues raised during Twitter discussions. It is also where people can find me and ask me my thoughts or discuss one of my essays they have seen elsewhere in private messaging.
In addition to this misconception, it is a mistake to underestimate the value of being required to express an idea in clear, concise chunks. For those of us most accustomed to academic writing, particularly in areas like religion and gender, it can make a refreshing change for people to be obligated to make a point quickly and clearly rather than get carried away with their own rhetoric, especially if it includes vague and unnecessarily complicated language. There is no limit to the number of tweets that can be threaded together and the best threads make a complete point in each one which can then be addressed individually. This enables a form of close reading and a breakdown of individual aspects of an argument which is very useful.
It should also be noted that not everybody who has something thoughtful and relevant to say is a writer whose ideas can be accessed in essay form. Those of us interested in human rights, gender equality, LGBT equality and racial equality should know better than to think that anyone who has anything worthwhile to say about any of those issues will be a published writer. Most people aren’t and Twitter allows everyone to join the discussion. Twitter is not a replacement for lengthy, well-researched, well-argued considerations of a topic but a valuable accessory to them, enabling anyone to share and discuss them and giving writers inspiration for producing more of them in response to what people all over the world and from all walks of life are thinking and saying.
A different kind of conversation
Nevertheless, is probably better to think of Twitter as an alternative form of conversation rather than an alternative form of writing and this is often the basis on which it is criticised. People point out, with justification, that much is lost in conversation from behind a screen. So much of face-to-face communication is non-verbal and one is always aware of the humanity of an interlocutor in face-to-face conversation whereas online, tone can be misunderstood and empathy reduced. While these are valid criticisms, it also helps to think about what can be gained by reducing the emotional component and focusing solely on what is being said. It is easy to become annoyed by a sarcastic or aggressive tone or expression or be made sympathetic by a distressed one and this can affect the way in which an argument is evaluated, motivating people to disagree or agree based on their own emotional reaction to someone else’s perceived attitude.
Increased empathy is often presented as a positive thing in conversation but as Paul Bloom has recently argued, this is not always the case. Bloom separates emotional empathy (I feel as you do) from cognitive empathy (I understand where you’re coming from), arguing the former to lead to less ethical judgements whilst the latter aids a more rational understanding. I would suggest that the empathy reduced by focusing on words is the emotional kind. I would also argue that empathy is less important to most consideration of ideas than courtesy and charity. A decrease in empathy need not result in an increase of rudeness or unkindness.
Time for reflection
As with writing, a Twitter conversation should not be considered a replacement for face to face conversation. It is simply a different form of conversation with different drawbacks and benefits. One particular benefit is the opportunity to take more time to understand what the other person is saying and think through your own response. The latter strikes some people as a drawback, providing the intellectually dishonest an opportunity to manufacture their own interpretations and ‘spin’ a response that evades key points and simply promotes their own position. This is certainly true in some situations. We wouldn’t want our politicians to debate issues in this way. However, there is a tendency for some to assume that people will be dishonest unless pinned down and fired upon with questions they must answer within three seconds. This is a combative approach to discussion I find unhelpful. In reality, it soon becomes apparent to everyone involved or watching if someone is not engaging in good faith and the conversation can then be ended and the individual muted.
For those of us who genuinely want to test our own ideas and evaluate other people’s (and despite its reputation, I am connected to several hundred on Twitter), the ‘in your own time’ pace of Twitter is valuable. In real-time conversation, people are often distracted and the temptation can be to think of what one intends to say next rather than to fully focus on what the other person is saying. It is also necessary to respond with your first thoughts which can be useful if you want to know how someone feels about a thing but, if you want to know what they think about it, giving them time to organise those thoughts is helpful. Even taking a few extra seconds to reread and understand what someone else has said and to check your own response for bias and factual accuracy – Is this true? Is it honest? Is it consistent? – can result in a more thoughtful and nuanced conversation. You can even take a few minutes, hours, days or weeks to check your facts, consider your opinion or research a topic. I have returned to a conversation I have had years previously because I have changed my mind or have some new thoughts on it.
In addition to taking a little time to think about the content of one’s tweets, one can also take time to think about tone on Twitter. This matters much more than many people seem to think. A conversation lacking in courtesy, patience and kindness is one that is doomed to failure. Twitter gives users the opportunity to ‘count to ten’ in difficult and provocative interactions. Even when not annoyed, it’s very easy for people with strong opinions on politics, ethics, religion or culture to become passionate to the point of appearing aggressive or get impatient with people missing the point. Taking a moment to review the tone of your own tweet and consider how it could be received can prevent many a conversation from breaking down. Twitter also enables one to look back on a failed conversation and see where it went wrong and learn from that failure. Communication skills can be improved generally via just such a self-reflective process of trial and error and then applied more widely to communicating the ideas and values which matter.
If your wariness of Twitter is rooted in a fear of becoming the victim of a witch-hunt with real-life consequences, it could be justified and your caution well-advised. Anonymity could be the (unsatisfactory) solution until we fix our ‘call-out culture’ and stop seeking to destroy people whose ideas we dislike. If you’ve been led to believe that Twitter is an anti-intellectual echo-chamber and that civil and productive conversation with smart, knowledgeable people with diverse views is impossible because of the way the platform works, this is a misconception. It is your tool and it is within your power to use it to have the productive conversations you want. If you’re already using Twitter and still find it unfit for this purpose, you might just be doing it wrong.
Helen is a humanist, secularist and universal liberal. Her academic writing focuses on late medieval & early modern religious writing by and for women.