Twitter is an essential barometer of our times

Last week I wrote about some issues I have with Twitter; and social media in general. The gist of my column was that Twitter has become a flawed product, because of the amount of provocation, noise and vitriol it now attracts. Needless to say, the Twittersphere strongly disagreed with me.

But I have to admit, they made some great counter-arguments.

Probably the most compelling was that Twitter is a platform for people who aren’t as privileged as me. Marianne Elliott, a human rights advocate who wrote the book Zen Under Fire, noted, “I don’t think being civil and reasonable should be a prerequisite for oppressed groups responding to provocation.”

After being on the receiving end of many uncivil tweets last week, a lot of them from anonymous users, I have to ask: where is the line between incivility and simply being a troll?

For Elliott, there is a big difference. She views angry oppressed people and anonymous trolls as two distinct groups, “motivated by very different things and with very different levels of access to systemic power.”

A lot of people also kicked back against my use of the term “outrage culture.” In response, I do understand that there is a lot to get outraged about in today’s culture. The problem, in my humble opinion anyway, is that outrage dominates social media now. So much so that it’s difficult to have productive discussions.

The counter is that using Twitter to express outrage is a necessary thing in this current era.

In a series of tweets, data journalist Keith Ng wrote that “I have a lot of sympathy for random twitterers who are outraged […] but don’t have the skill to put it into a pithy, articulate argument, or to get it published or heard outside of twitter.”

Ng likened Twitter to blogging a decade ago. In November 2006, he was able to refute a negative media article about Asians via a blog post. He later called this a “media-savvy, bare-knuckled response” and said it was highly effective.

As a former blogger myself, I can understand that point of view. Part of the appeal of blogging in the early days was its ability to dispense with formality.

Times change and in 2017, Twitter is the platform of choice for raw opinions and hard-hitting rebukes to those in power.

But again, how can we have productive conversations in such a combative environment? When I asked that question to the Twittersphere, I was challenged to look at it from other points of view.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, a science researcher who works for the Morgan Foundation, tweeted at me, “Have you noticed how some people get invited to have ‘a conversation’ & others do not?” For example, “well known men may get responded to about gender bias while women don’t.”

I agree, it’s great that Twitter gives a voice to everyone.

I did notice an irony in all this though. I was told multiple times by Twitter folk that because I was a white male, my comments weren’t welcome on questions of race, sexism and similar issues. I admit, I didn’t know what to say to that. On one hand, I’m entitled to express my opinion – just like everyone else. But I take the point that there are certain things I’m not qualified to be an expert on.

So on this matter I’ll defer to Lizzie Marvelly, editor of Villainesse (a Canon Media Award winning blog for young women). She tweeted that “abuse is a real problem – just ask female columnists – but the right to an opinion goes both ways.”

There was also some push back about my claim that Twitter a decade ago was a more social place. LaQuisha St Redfern, a Wellington developer, joined Twitter in 2009. But unlike me, she soon began to question the sincerity of what she was reading. “What I experienced on Twitter in 2009 seemed far from authentic to me,” she wrote in a blog post. “It was screamingly obvious that people were curating their own lives.”

After taking a break from Twitter in 2013, St Redfern returned this year and was delighted to see more diversity and “a plurality of voices.” She views outrage culture on Twitter as a healthy antidote to the “culture of silence” of New Zealand. “As a culture we hate directness, confrontation, and emoting,” she wrote. But on Twitter, it’s the complete opposite – and she loves it.

Overall, I learned a few things from my interactions on Twitter this past week. I stand by last week’s column, because my primary point was that the tone of Twitter has gone from banal to brutal over the last ten years. But I recognize now that this evolution was essential, because it handed the platform to a much larger and more diverse group of people – many of whom don’t have a say elsewhere.

It’s my hope that Twitter continues to evolve, and in particular to address the problem of having civil, constructive dialogue. People should be able to argue a point, or defend themselves, without it descending into uncivil behaviour or mob rule. I think Twitter, the company, has a lot of work to do there.

In the meantime, I will steel myself to the harsh words of Twitter users. Because for all its faults, Twitter is a necessary barometer of our rapidly changing culture.