PART 1: PROBLEMS
I registered my second twitter account in 2008. My first one had been a bit of a burner, and excuse to sign up and look. This second account was a brave step for me. It was the first time I signed up as myself, with my actual name.
Prior to this I'd been on multiple forums for years. Games development, comics, general geekery and weirdness. I'd been there as a version of me, hidden behind a weird username joining other people with their weird usernames. We weren't people so much as we were entities. I liked that. It felt liberating. It meant you could say things you wouldn't want to be held accountable for.
The result of this was that people did say a lot of things they wouldn't normally say. Some were rather negative and some were exceptionally positive. People could be the version of themselves that they wanted to be. They could be 'out' in a number of ways, or they could hide things that they didn't feel comfortable sharing.
And sure, there were flame wars where strong personalities would engage in virtual shouting matches, and they were pretty entertaining. There was a schadenfreude as we watched people shouting pointlessly at each other, knowing that ultimately, nothing would change.
And if it got a bit personal, or a little too offensive, there were moderators. People that took the role of looking after the well-being of the community, that could step in and intervene.
Sometimes this would be a warning.
Other times they would lock the thread.
I think I only ever saw one user hit with a ban hammer... and that was for the repeated transgression of poorly titled posts.
They'll tell you that it is therapeutic, cathartic even, to yell into the void, but I can't get any solace when all I can hear is the void yelling to itself.
When I first started visiting the internet it was to get away from the real people I knew. It was a space where I could hang out with a reasonably exclusive group of socially impaired humans.
And that was great, but I really do believe that the best thing about the internet is that my 70 year old Dad now uses it to keep in touch with his friends, and that my Mum knows her way around ebay. I think, all things considered, that social services like twitter, and Facebook, allow us to connect and share in ways that are Utopian in scale and possibility. I talk with people all over the world on a daily basis. I still get excited by this.
I also think growing up being able to do that will make progressive generations kinder, more understanding, and hopefully smarter.
I mean, Wikipedia... look at it! A self-moderated project that seeks to hold, and verify, all human knowledge. It's amazing.
The cost of this needs to be paid, however, and that cost is this; we have to learn to share a space with people we can't stand, with opinions we can't tolerate and that feel similarly about us.
If we don't, all that effort, and data, and energy will not go into building a Utopian future of shared knowledge, it'll be blown away on people shouting at each other with no real hope of ever reaching an agreement.
Endless keyboards destroyed, not on writing novels, or coding games, or sending messages of love.
Quotes of quotes of quotes.
It will become futile.
There's one spectrum of interaction that I find fascinating. It was also this that caused me to turn my screen off and walk away from twitter.
On one end of the spectrum is the 'gotcha'. The moment where someone in an argument makes a fatal step and stabs themselves in the face, metaphorically.
This could be when an author gets told to read an academic paper that they had actually written.
...or someone asking, 'what makes you qualified to dispense medical advice' being greeted with the answer 'my medical degree'.
Screen-grabbed and re-shared.
In most cases this is, perhaps, deserved. Too much assumption, too much talking and not enough listening... too much typing and not enough reading.
On the other end of this same spectrum is the pervasive belief that being something makes you an expert in that same thing.
I'm an artist. I can say, with certainty, that there are non-artists that know more about art than I do. It's a massive, complex subject, and honestly, I don't like a lot of it.
That seems fair, right?
But I'd like to go further. I'd suggest that there are people who do not identify as artists that have devoted their entire lives to studying the very small area of the art world that I work in. They probably are able to articulate more about my work than I am.
Now, I'm not saying that any of them are able to say that they know how I think, or feel, about being an artist, and they certainly would have to ask about my intent as one too, but in terms of understanding the situation and landscape of it all, I'd be lying if I pretended I knew more.
I really believe this. I also believe this is true for pretty much most things.
Just because I am a thing, does not make me an expert on that thing.
Conversely, just because someone isn't a thing does not automatically make their opinion invalid.
I am a gamer... but it would be churlish to say that gamers hate racing games just because I do. It would be worse to contact a video game developer who is working on a racing game and call them names for doing so, because it isn't what I want... or to take it further and broadcast where they live, and details of their personal life that they have chosen not to share.
And yet I see this behaviour every day, and I see people within communities doing it to each other too. I'm more of a gamer than you, so my contrary opinion is more valid than yours.
I see people I know in the real world, people who are kind and caring and thoughtful engaging in that behaviour.
I saw myself engaging in that behaviour.
I found I was starting to dislike people. I was starting to dislike the fake-real version of me that is on twitter.
That's what, ultimately, caused me to back away and hit myself with the merciful ban hammer.
Perhaps the most passive aggressive move available to the modern tweeter is to accuse someone of a 'hot take'. Technically a 'hot take' is a piece of commentary in response to something that has recently happened, often with the intention of attracting attention.
It is however, often used as a way of disparaging someone who has offered an opinion, perhaps even honestly.
You can consider this entire essay my hot take on my own reaction to twitter.
Maybe you say something in response. We could call this conversation, or we could suggest that your hot take on my hot take isn't as hot as it should be.
Yes, let's argue about the temperature of takes.
It's a great way to disarm a conversation, because you don't even need to interact with the content of the argument. Just calling it a hot take is enough, which means you don't have to forward a counter argument, or any position at all.
The same is just as true when I accuse someone of hypocrisy. I don't have to condemn the act that they did/didn't do but said that they would/wouldn't do, just focus on the fact that they failed to follow through with what they said. That way I don't leave myself open to having to actually make a stance one way or the other.
I don't want to be a hypocrite.
This makes me really uncomfortable. Censorship in general makes me itchy.
Telling people to delete things doesn't change that they were said.
It does however remove evidence that it was said. How does that ever solve the problems holding us back, by not confronting them, by hiding them in history?
Also, who invests who with the power to decide what should be censored?
On the internet the answer to that is almost always, no one but you.
One of the greatest fears about leaving social media I have is that I will be instantly forgotten, but I can tell you not to worry, it isn't true. No one will forget you if you leave just in the same way that really, they don't care if you stay.
In much the same way as 'hot takes', calling something 'problematic' is in itself 'problematic'.
An offensive tee-shirt is not problematic. The person that made that and the person wearing it are problems.
I have a problem with these people. The tee-shirt is just a by-product of their terrible behaviour.
If I call something problematic without addressing the people behind it, I am only saying that I have a problem. I'm not actually confronting it. I'm not taking responsibility for my part of this interaction.
It does not help fix things. I can't reason with a tee-shirt. I can't convince a tee-shirt to be a better tee-shirt. I can't hold it responsible. This is also how large corporations hide behind their products. All the while every time someone talks about the problems they have with the product they get free advertising.
The tee-shirt doesn't argue back. It doesn't try to convince me. Perhaps that is what makes it an easier target?
[DO THE RESEARCH]
There needs to be more subtlety to this. I need to be clear about what I'm saying and why I'm saying it.
My intention here is honest and I don't want to get called out for being insensitive. That's a real fear... not for being called out for doing something terrible, but for trying to do something positive and still receiving anger
Educate yourself... Do the research.
These responses come from a place where people have repeatedly had to explain the same thing over and over again. They don't want to have to waste their time, and wear out their keyboard having to retread the same argument, again, having to provide the same links to the same verified sources, once again.
It's exhausting, and somehow highlights the impossibility of progress.
And these folk know that ultimately a tactic is being employed against them to wear them down. Like a toddler repeatedly asking, 'But Why?' to every explanation to avoid having to go to bed.
These are phrases of absolute, and often deserved frustration and you can see them linked to all manner of issues such as Trans Rights and the Black Lives Matters movement.
However, like all language on the internet, these phrases have become dissociated from their original intent and meaning.
Again, I'm talking about a particular usage here.
Maybe I like conspiracy theories, maybe I follow Qanon, not as entertainment but as the gospel of a cult. Someone asks me to justify my opinions and I respond, 'do the research'.
No proof, no evidence. just a retort.
And I've done my research. I watched tons of youtube videos by other people with similar conspiracy theories. Watching these is my research, it is my education. I've been asked to go away and do my research but I'm not qualified to separate out all the likes, the monetisation and the obfuscation of fact.
Is there a solution to this? For each issue, could we get together and have a single page on the internet that has the proof on it, a short test after it and a box you have to sign to say you understand and accept it? At least then we can say 'here is the research, read it'.
But then who is responsible for this page, and what is their agenda?
There is no objective force on the internet.
A short experiment, and one that you may be able to perform far better than I.
Let's take something fairly innocuous... let's say someone tweets: "Today I learnt about oxygen at school and it's pretty neat"
How can we argue with that?
"Don't talk to me about oxygen, I'm asthmatic, this is really insensitive!"
"learnt?!? surely you mean 'learned'? perhaps your school should teach you decent language skills"
"Formal education is a lie, there is no such thing as oxygen youtu.be/nashgd092"
"There are literally thousands of people suffocating every day, did you learn about that?"
"School?!you are a 40-year old! Fake News"
"hot take on oxygen Broseph Priestly"
If you go looking for an argument, you can always find one. It doesn't have to be coherent, based on fact or even related to what is being said.
But what do I get out of arguing in this way? How does this make things better? Am I displaying my powers of rhetoric to people who probably don't ready what I broadcast anyway? Will someone, one day, think, 'yeah, he really told them'?
[A IS B]
Meat is Murder
We can investigate where this statement came from... was it PETA, was it Morrissey or was it the punk group Conflict? There's a really interesting Wikipedia rabbit hole to fall down.
But that's not why I bring it up. It's a fairly good example of the "a is b" method of rhetoric. Again, with a nod to nuance, in many cases a really is b, I'm not here to argue that, rather to highlight how that rhetoric can be used for something misleading.
Meat is Murder is a good example.
We can talk endlessly about how true this is, with a hundred different viewpoints...
Should we consider the killing of animals to be on par with the killing of humans?
Should we sort out the unlawful killing of humans before we worry about the lawful killing of animals?
Is veganism morally superior to any other form of diet?
Should diet be mandated?
Is Morrissey a force for good in the world?
Is 'murder' as a legal construct fair, rational and balanced?
Is war industrial scale murder?
Why does the word 'murder' sound amazing when spoken in a broad Glaswegian accent?
Is lab grown meat ethical or even useful to an advanced society?
Why make meat substitutes for vegetarians? Is a non-meat sausage just role playing murder?
Have you noticed, in English, that the name of the animal is of Saxon origin (cow, pig, sheep) but the name of the meat is French in origin (beef, pork, mutton), and what does that tell us about the class politics of meat?
How much of our economy is based on the slaughter of living things?
How is our ecosystem impacted by our fondness for animals, is meat really murder when we look at all of the human lives that are lost to an industry that supports the slash and burn actions in the South American rain forest?
...there is such a wonderful, broad, rich discussion to have there, that if we treat it in good faith can help us all learn something about the world, ourselves and each other. However, when you are trying to talk to someone about this and their only response is, 'Meat is murder', and they refuse to say anything else, then that is only a statement of belief, and as such is not going to persuade anyone
The "a is b" retort stops us for communicating. It prevents us from learning.
I might believe that meat is murder, or that it is, fundamentally as morally abhorrent, but I think it might be better to talk about these things with you in the context of your beliefs, rather than the statement of mine.
The twitter character limit is 280.
280 including punctuation.
280 including spaces.
Now, sticking to that limit try to write a eulogy for the person you love most.
This is why this platform is inadequate as a mode for nuanced conversation.
It wasn't built for this.
We are trying to create origami with a sledgehammer.
Is this what it is all about. The little endocrine messenger in my brain that rewards me? Is this an addiction?
There has been some pretty solid research that suggests so. Here's a link to it:
And the documentary 'The Social Dilemma' is a rather good watch that dramatises some of the implications of this, here:
And to pre-empt any further gotchas, I should mention that my main area of study, before I flaked out and became an artist, was neurotransmitter substances, but also, in full disclosure that was 20 years ago, before twitter, and facebook, and instagram and also, in fuller disclosure, I was particularly interested in peptide-based transmitter substances.
The thing is, if we are addicted to dopamine, and that is what is powering some of our worst impulses here, can we not use it to our advantage? Can we choose to reward people for doing decent things rather than trying to punish people for not? As such, can we raise the dopamine levels in other people rather than reacting to our own.
A short term sacrifice that can, hopefully, create a longer term abundance of dopamine for other people?
A social media platform that you visit in the morning, where the first thing you read is someone telling you that you matter, and that you are capable of amazing things, and that really, despite how it might look, everything is going to be OK.
And so I say this with absolute sincerity. If you are reading this, I adore you. You strange, complicated human with all of those nerves and ideas and hopes and worries. I love the very existence of you, no matter if you think differently to me, in fact especially because you think differently to me. That's two brains, yours and mine, and maybe, between us, we can make things better.
PART 2: SOLUTIONS
What made me return to twitter. Why am I still here?
I forgot that on my phone Direct Messages still come up as a notification.
Someone got in touch. Someone I only know digitally.
They were asking for my help.
I realised that my self imposed mini-exile was to stop me becoming something I didn't like, but helping people is something I'm rather fond of.
And you know what? I'm pretty sure that as soon as I responded I got that little hit of dopamine, and that made me think. I can keep my addiction so long as I adopt a slightly different dealer.
I know, there are people out there who have struggled with addiction, and perhaps this could be seen as a glib comment on their struggles. I assure you it isn't. If anything there is a realisation here that there is a far greater empathy out there for folk with substance abuse issues than may be initially apparent.
Heading back to when I used to frequent forums, there was a feature of the internet that helped keep things in order. Forum rules.
These outlined expected behaviour. Things such as 'stay on topic' and 'be polite' as well as technical requirements such as 'host any images here'. there was comfort in those rules, not because of how they made other people interact with you, but because they set out the parameters by which you should interact with them.
This is what I realised I needed. Self-imposed rules that I can hold myself accountable to.
And this is important. these are my rules for me to mediate my experience. Your rules, should you chose to make some, will undoubtedly be different.
Here they are:
1. Use the right tool for the job.
Twitter is great for short updates, for sharing things and for looking at the things other people share. It isn't great for nuanced debate. take the time to think of what you want and pick the appropriate tool.
2. You are not you on twitter.
You are a mediated construct of you. Don't take anything personally, and if you feel like this is all getting too much, just make an anonymous account.
3. They are not themselves on twitter.
if you know someone in real life, assume that is the true version unless they say otherwise.
4. If you want a dopamine hit, do something good.
It doesn't cost you anything to like other people's tweets, be liberal with them, but more than that, say things, be as human as you can manage.
5. Connecting people is useful.
This tool is very good at that. Think of it like Victorian calling cards. Match-make to help support people.
6. You will not change minds by tweeting at them.
You will only end up frustrated. This isn't to say that people shouldn't be challenged or that from now on you are non-political, far from it. It's about making moves that matter. Instead, concentrate on spreading information and resources that are useful to people.
7. Use twitter to find things you can support, but support them off twitter.
No problem has been solved by a retweet or a like. That isn't action, its pacification. If you are moved to support something on twitter you should support it off twitter too.
8. It's OK to unfollow people, to block people and to mute topics.
There's a difference between this and censorship. if something is important enough for you to know, you'll find out anyway. If you find that you are starting to dislike someone, it is a kindness to unfollow them.
9. Today's issue is tomorrow's cruft.
Twitter operates on daily outrage. Avoid the news and trending topics. You can find your news in many other brilliant places and if you are only contributing to a trending topic because you found out about it as a trending topic, the chances are you were never that involved.
10. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling, use that time to find other sources of community.
Forums still exist. other communities, websites and blogs are out there. You should always be looking for better ways to connect with people.
11. If this still doesn't work, you have permission to leave.
The thing about addiction is the feeling that bad things will happen should you stop. Here, that bad thing is that you'll be forgotten and that you'll miss out. neither of these things are as bad as being made to feel that you are turning into something you don't like. Besides, if you are forgotten just because you aren't present in something that harms you, then the chances are you weren't that important to anyone anyway.
12. However, you should encourage institutions and organisations to stop relying on twitter as their only method for communicating services and opportunities.
You will miss out so long as people use only twitter to send out these things. they should be giving even weight to newsletter announcements, and if you find that they do not you should challenge them directly. They are helping to create a dependency on a service that might be harmful to the well-being of others
13. Talk to people about all of this, find out how they feel and see if we can improve things, including these rules.
I know I'm not alone in this. there are two things at play here. the first is the toxicity of online interaction. I see people reference it on a daily basis, oddly whilst they are on those same platforms.
The second part is about discourse in general. Discussion and communication. I believe we are having our behaviour moderated by technology, rather than using these tools to make things better. That's a pretty good definition of a dystopia as I can imagine.
This isn't just my problem, or our problem.
This is everyone's problem.