The tyranny of Twitter

Why Twitter outrage can be unproductive

I write a blog for Scientific American named the Curious Wavefunction. I usually write about the history and philosophy of science but occasionally wander into other topics that I am interested in.

Recently I wrote two posts about topics that are generally considered controversial; one was a review of Nicholas Wade’s book on race and genetic titled “A Troublesome Inheritance” and the other was a guest post by a friend about the so-called ‘Larry Summers question’, that is, why there are fewer women in the sciences. Just like every other post on the website, both posts displayed disclaimers pointing out that the opinions in the post are the author’s alone.

I try to be thoughtful and clear in my posts and this time was no different. In retrospect I think I should have been even clearer, and I also think I should have been more forthcoming in considering the other side of the argument. Even though I stand by my general opinions, I don’t think either of the posts showcased my best work. In case of the Wade book my real emphasis was on the importance of speculation in science, and this aspect did not come across as well as it should have. In case of the Summers post we should have considered the opposition’s side in more detail. This is something I will remember from next time onward; when you write about controversial topics that take you into hazy territory, you need to exercise extra care in giving all sides of the argument their due, even if you are ultimately going to come down on one side or another.

In any case, a few days after I wrote the posts a minor war erupted on Twitter concerning both these posts. A few people were outraged both by the content of the posts and the hosting of them by Scientific American Blogs. I was especially pained to see the blog network which has provided unstinting support for my writing being lambasted for posts that I wrote. It was also interesting to be put on the spot for two posts out of about two hundred that I have written on the website.

But in fact I wasn’t really put on the spot, and that was the strange thing. The major feature of this Twitter outrage was that it was largely hidden from me; very few comments were directed at me through my handle and entire extended conversations were carried out on someone else’s Twitter feed. Nobody seemed to counter the actual references or arguments provided in the post at the root source. The Twitter exchanges also led to the building up of an echo chamber, as often happens on social media sides. In addition, because of the simple fact that Twitter allows only 140 characters worth of opinions in every Tweet, the commenters were forced to communicate through sound bytes — some of which appeared to me like gross oversimplifications and misunderstandings of the posts— instead of genuine conversations. Anyone who was exposed to those sound bytes without being grounded in the background of the whole issue might have had a very different and flawed view of the situation. To me the to-and-fro indicated how Twitter could imbue an issue, and especially a controversial one, with a shade that belies its true nature. Nuance and subtlety are invariably lost. The argument exposed me to the dark side of the popular social media tool.

Here’s what I see as the problem. The whole point of writing a post is to get constructive feedback and criticism, even from people who might vehemently disagree with you. That is why you expect whatever problems people may have about your post to be leveled at you, either in the comments section or through emails. But Twitter (and Facebook for that matter) has essentially minimized the use of both these modes of communication. It has spirited the debate away from where it is most relevant to other places, other people’s comments sections, walls and Twitter feeds. It’s as if you voiced an opinion from your front porch, and then people dispersed to talk about that opinion in their own living rooms. Some of the most important feedback that you can get on your thoughts is now hidden from you.

In the age of social media this is bound to happen, but I think it creates real problems. Discussing the issues out of earshot of the person who instigated those issues in the first place does a disservice both to the author and the commenters. Perhaps the commenters may gain a measure of satisfaction in voicing their opinions to each other, but especially if this happens in an echo chamber of mutually reinforcing beliefs, there is no chance for either party to constructively engage with the other and hear dissenting opinions. What would have been an exchange in which either or both parties would have had a productive learning experience is now no more than a flurry of reaffirmation. As a result I believe that both parties are worse off than what they could have been. In this particular case, not having the conversations on my blog (the best recourse) or through email failed to give me the opportunity not just to respond to the criticism and clarify my thoughts but to engage with the critics and learn from them. Similarly it did not give the critics a chance to present me with counter-evidence and make their case well.

None of this criticism detracts from the fantastic social media tool that is Twitter, a tool that allows you to spread the word — whether about the latest running app or about the next Arab Spring — more efficiently than has ever been possible in human history. But everything comes in a package, and it’s worth remembering that just like you can spread the good work through Twitter, so can you spread a bad work. And as the saying goes, bad news travels faster than good news, so outrage can build up very quickly. But the major problem with this outrage is that it produces much heat and little light, directed inward into an echo chamber rather than outward at the source. In my opinion it precludes a real conversation and debate in which both sides can learn, and it leads to a situation akin to two rivers flowing furiously with no bridge between them. There can be no transfer of knowledge unless we build that bridge. It’s something worth pondering in the age of Twitter.