Philosophizing With A Megaphone

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-03-12 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

I made the mistake of browsing my Twitter feed the other day.

By and large I don't read Twitter. I maintain a presence there mainly as a way to keep others from squatting my name, and I have posts on this blog summarized and fed automatically into my Twitter account. But other than that, I do my best to not get sucked into it.

Most of the problems I have with Twitter I've gone on about before. It broadens discourse while also cheapening it (everything is either "hurrah" or "nyah-nyah"); it's yet another thing to maintain and follow and manage and prune; it's just not my baaag, maaan. I'm not interested in having my blood boiled by total strangers when I can do that job all by myself, and I'd rather deal with my friends as directly as possible.

When Twitter's most urgent problems surfaced and became malignant, I saw them as an incarnate disproof of the idea that there are technical solutions to social problems. Some of that has been further reinforced by the hapless way Twitter's admins have tried to grapple with the way the platform has become a system for automating abuse, but the real problem was systemic. There may be solutions to social problems that can be facilitated by technology, but the tech itself "solves" nothing. It just does certain things faster and more broadly, and sometimes that's not what you want.

I've pulled back from the idea, though, that the form factor is the issue. Microblogging can be good, bad, annoying, inspiring, whatever. I used to think the problem was that it lent itself to the kind of messaging where you shouted something and ran off, and that the kind of person most inclined to shout something and run off is a bully. Ergo, Twitter facilitates bullying. But the problem is a lot more nuanced than that, and thus harder to know and figure out. Many of the most basic technical fixes that could have defrayed the most pervasive abuses of the system weren't adopted until it was far too late. Now we have a set of permanently lowered expectations for how this stuff can be, or ought to be.

At this point I'm cynical enough to think it doesn't matter what kind of proactive steps Twitter takes to fix things. The people who want most to weaponize Twitter got such a head start at doing so, the people who created it may never be able to catch up. I still think we're better off moving to a protocol-based implementation of Twitter's ideas (e.g., Activity Streams) than continuing to use a singular, commercial service for which there is no direct alternative. But I also know better than to think that's a solution. It's just one of many possible steps that we'd need to take, and not even the largest or most difficult one.

Now, I'm open to the possibility that I'm just indulging in a mental fait accompli here, that my sense that Twitter has nowhere to go but down is just a reflection of my disgust with it and my disengagement from it. But so far I'm not seeing any reasons to be cheerful.

Tags: Twitter social media technology