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Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.

8 Comments

  1. […] via Taming Twitter – Jeff Duntemann’s Contrapositive Diary […]

  2. Tom Byers says:

    Teenagers acting stupid. Imagine that. Now and forever immortalized on social media.

    At least the old Native American vet beating his ceremonial drum kept his cool.

    1. [We’re coming close to the edge here…]

      Given that the old guy was hammering his drum within some inches of the kid’s nose, I think the kid kept his cool too–as did more than a few of the others. The main problem was that the media deliberately created a story by leaving out great big bleeding chunks, like the Black Hebrew Israelites hurling hateful epithets at the boys. The whole news item was an elaborately constructed lie. The poor kid with the smirk was probably trying to figure out what the hell to do, with nutcases screaming hate at him and an elderly Native American trying to climb up his nose with a drum. That wasn’t stupidity at work; that was manly self-control.

      And there will be no more discussion of the Covington incident in this space. Really.

      1. Jeff R. says:

        Hey Jeff …

        Your commentary on Twitter was the most dead-center, on-target, analysis I’ve seen on ANYTHING lately.

        And … OK! … no discussion from me on the C-word incident, but I just gotta say, “an elderly Native American trying to climb up his nose with a drum” was the most entertaining turn of phrase I’ve heard on ANYTHING lately. Thanks for the laugh!

  3. TRX says:

    The “protestor” doing his stunt, that what he does. The media acting like a pack of jackals on meth, that’s what they do. Same-old, same-old.

    What got my back up was that the kids’ school and church sold them down the river *instantly* upon accusation, then refused to acknowledge their error for more than a week.

    Haven’t we seen guilty-by-accusation just recently? Ah, yes, #meetoo.

  4. Jim Fuerstenberg says:

    excellent analysis and suggestion.

  5. This is a good dissection of the problem. I’ve been on the tweety for a few years and found that with a fairly ruthless use of “unfollow” and “mute” I can actually enjoy it. At this point most of the content I see there now consists of various technical subjects (radio, open source software, engineering) and cute animal pictures. When things get too ugly or political I shut that down fast. Life’s too short to be distracted by things that make me feel bad.

  6. Bob Mc says:

    Well said, Jeff! I feel precisely the same way. You seem to think that “outrage amplifier” is not the correct term, but I think it’s quite accurate.

    However, I’m not so certain that eliminating the retweet would work. Outrage can be a significant motivator, even surpassing laziness. And the lack of attribution from the copy/paste method would spur further outrage and even copyright lawsuits. I’d love to see your suggestion happen, but there’s no chance.

    Now, if only Nick Sandmann’s libel suit had included Twitter, that would have targeted the real perpetrator. But they, like Facebook, skirt this issue by claiming that they’re a platform, while simultaneously acting like something else with their “selective” banning of accounts. It’s a very fine line that FB and Twitter and YouTube and other social media services are walking. This is what will ultimately be their downfall.

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