Umair Haque’s “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” got an extraordinary response both on Medium (over 5,000 likes) and elsewhere on the web. Yet it offered no evidence, besides Haque’s own anecdotal observations from looking at his own timeline, that its central assertion was true. (If you want data: Twitter MAUs were up 15% year-on-year in July: weak, for the industry, but hardly dying.) So why did the piece do so well?
Because he employed a simple rhetorical trick.
Haque wanted to say something that has already been said before, many times: that the social web is an abusive and nasty place. His polemic hit a nerve, because the social web is indeed an abusive and nasty place, and people have been feeling this for a good long while, and also because the polemic was written with plenty of fire and gumption and verve, which Haque is good at. Nonetheless, if he had headlined his piece “The social web is an abusive, nasty place!” it wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much traction. (Go back and read it, with that headline and without the opening paragraphs that talk about Twitter dying, and you’ll see what I mean.)
So he employed the trick, which is to preface your well-worn argument that people have seen before with a controversial, unverifiable, but conceivably plausible claim: “Twitter is dying!” With that, the subsequent polemic gained much more force—firstly because it meant more people would read the piece to find out if Twitter really was dying, and secondly because, even if they allowed only that it might possibly be dying, that lent consequence to the rest of the argument. The social web is abusive and nasty? Well, yeah, that’s life. The social web is abusive and and nasty and that’s killing Twitter? Now you’ve got my attention.
And this is sad, because throwing around bold claims with scant regard for evidence in order to make people notice what you’re saying is itself a form of the very abuse that Haque decried. We are abused on the internet by people who play fast and loose with the truth; who use rhetoric instead of reasoning; who play on our prejudices and wishful thinking (who among us doesn’t secretly want to believe, even just a little bit, that Twitter is dying?); who manipulate us with clickbait; who take advantage of the harried pace of our lives to slip us shoddy arguments and dodgy data. This is part and parcel of the abuse. These techniques help create the partisanship, shallowness, and shrillness we’re all so sick of. And Haque’s diatribe against that culture uses its methods.
And if you retort, “But he made a good point about the abusive social web, and he needed those techniques to make people notice it,” then you’re resigned to the idea that the only way to fight an abusive culture is to perpetuate it.
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