twitter’s an addictive land of trolls

2019-01-09

in Internet matters, Politics, Psychology, Rants, Science, The environment, Writing

I have written before about the cognitive and emotional (and insomniac) downsides of checking the news too often. It seems worth re-emphasizing how twitter is a worst-case scenario in this regard, at least for people more interested in developments in matters of public interest than developments in the lives of friends and acquaintances, where facebook is untouchable.

With twitter it’s possible to use any internet-connected device to get an endless stream of updates and — crucially — little decisions for as long as you want at any time of day. It’s an exercise perfectly crafted to short-circuit longer term planning, even at the scale of turning off your phone to get a night’s rest before a busy day tomorrow. Every tweet presents the cognitive task of interpreting the content; determining whether it contains any factual, ethical, or political claims; and then evaluating that content in light of what the user believes and what, if anything, they are trying to accomplish through engagement online. Even for fairly passive users, every tweet involves the decision of whether to publicly ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ it, forcing your brain to engage decision-making circuitry more often and immediately than when reading a news article or book. Of course the real addictive prompts come from the social features: the notifications that someone has ‘liked’ or responded to your tweet. That engages all the emotional machinery which we use to socialize with others, maintain or alter our beliefs about the world, and protect out own self-esteem. It also embodies the slot machine logic of unpredictable and variable responses to the same action, ranging from someone amazing expressing agreement or saying something clever in response to your message to the depredations of the most hateful trolls.

Twitter often exposes me to content which I subsequently wish I could unsee, including particularly blockheaded claims and arguments which tend to re-emerge with a sense of frustration and anger in the shower the next day. The platform isn’t entirely without virtues — it can provide useful or at least engaging up-to-the-minute information and analysis on ongoing events, it allows users to engage directly with people who would otherwise be inaccessible, and perhaps it does sometimes direct people to good quality information they wouldn’t otherwise see. At the same time, it’s the venue for the least pleasant interactions in my life and it’s a repository of almost limitless idiocy and unkindness.

I have resolved for now to “cut off the time wasters quickly. They can’t be won over and whatever value there is in publicly refuting their arguments doesn’t justify the time and stress commitment”. There’s really no alternative strategy possible, since the platform is so full of people who (a) aren’t debating in good faith (b) can never be convinced or won over and (c) only get nastier with repeated interaction. They can take decades of meticulously collected, analyzed, and reviewed scientist and ‘refute‘ it with a silly accusation about the scientist or the person referencing them, a conspiracy theory, or an disreputable source which is nonetheless equally accessible online. Maybe very early on engaging with them helps draw some of the undecideds who are silently observing toward well-supported beliefs, but that almost certainly ceases to be true once your back and forth with that person has become one of your top ten present-moment sources of annoyance and irritability.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

R.K. January 29, 2019 at 11:36 pm

I wouldn’t say that fighting for the truth on Twitter makes any sense at all. It’s all just noise. You would be better off writing one article a year that gets a large and fair-minded audience than spending a bit of time each day trying to convince people who don’t want to hear it that they’re wrong one by one.

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