How Twitter went from banal to brutal

Last week Duncan Garner quit Twitter in a huff, after a column he wrote about immigration attracted a storm of moral outrage. Garner complained bitterly about the “verbal abuse” he was subjected to and the “intolerance, hatred and madness” of Twitter users.

Garner’s column was undeniably objectionable, but some of the feedback he got was equally outrageous. It made me wonder how exactly Twitter became the go-to platform for outrage culture. The fact you can be anonymous on it (unlike on Facebook) is a big factor. But what gets people, even those who use their real name, so riled up on Twitter?

It wasn’t like this a decade ago, when social media got its start.

Twitter had its first tipping point in March 2007, at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. I wasn’t at that event, but I did go to the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco the following month. After hearing chatter about this trendy new Web 2.0 service, I signed up to Twitter in April 2007 using the handle @rww (the initials of the technology blog I ran, ReadWriteWeb).

At first, I was confused about how to use it. Luckily Twitter provided a prompt to its early users. We were told to answer a simple question: “What are you doing?”

In one of my first tweets, I followed Twitter’s prompt and told the world that I was getting ready to meet my friend Fergus at a Mexican restaurant. Of course, nobody needed (or wanted) to know that. But it got geeks like me interested in Twitter and encouraged us to use it for social interactions.

There wasn’t much media interest in Twitter a decade ago. The few reports that did come out typically focused on how banal it was. “Do we need to know that much information about the people in our lives in 140 characters or less?” a US TV presenter complained.

Yet despite the banality of Twitter at that time, there was something oddly charming about sharing mundane details about your life. It felt like you were letting people into your world a little, and by extension learning more about the daily lives of others.

It wasn’t just Twitter enabling this. Ten years ago, Facebook also wanted to know what you were doing. In fact, up till November 2007 any “status update” you wrote on Facebook was prefaced by the word “is”; for example, “Richard is going to dinner.”

The point is, a decade ago both Twitter and Facebook encouraged users to post about their daily lives. It was all about connecting with people – in a social, personable way.

Fast forward ten years and now Twitter’s user prompt states: “What’s happening?” Facebook’s prompt is, “what’s on your mind?”

The implication is that social media has gotten much broader. It’s no longer about you and your boring life. Now, social media wants you to connect to the world and share your opinions about it.

What’s more, Twitter in particular has become a haven for anonymous opinions. So not only does Twitter no longer care about what you’re doing in your daily life, it doesn’t even care what your real name is.

Essentially what’s happened is that Twitter and Facebook have lost the personal touch they used to have. We no longer see the human beings behind the posts.

Perhaps that’s why empathy and shared understanding are in short supply in this era of the Internet. Social media isn’t about people anymore – certainly not on an individual level.

Another aspect of social media today is how much it is driven by provocation and controversy.

Let’s return to Duncan Garner’s column. In it he compared a long line of people at his local Kmart store to “a massive human snake,” noting that it was made up of “Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, and many others.”

At best, Garner’s wording was clumsy. At worst, downright racist. Either way, it was provocative. But that’s typically how online media works today, because provoking people is almost guaranteed to get attention. Just ask Donald Trump.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if Garner had written a straight-up opinion piece about immigration, with just the facts and figures and no dubious snake metaphors. The sad reality is, such a column would’ve been largely ignored by Twitter users.

So not only is Twitter no longer about personal experience, it typically only engages with the world when provoked.

Is this what Twitter wants from its product? The company’s current mission statement is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

While it’s true there are few barriers to signing up to Twitter (including anonymously), there are barriers to being heard. Because of all the noise, you have to shout to get attention. This is what causes media personalities to be provocative, and Twitter users to push right back.

The end result is more akin to a war zone than a social network. Certainly a far cry from tweeting what you’re having for lunch.