Et Tu, Twitter?

We had a moment, didn’t we?

The uprisings that spread like a contagion throughout the Middle East were chronicled via Twitter, knocking off tweets about Kardashians or cute cats. Who would have imagined so few words could be so important, so informative, so inspiring? Even the manner in which Twitter was used to circumvent restrictions placed on Internet access by state-controlled dictatorships felt like something out of a spy novel. The revolution will be broadcast in 144 characters.

Twitter icons riotTwo years or one technological eon later, everyone who is anyone tweets. Representatives stay up to date on pending legislation, journalists share thoughts on breaking news, activists whip up support for same-sex marriage initiatives—it’s all presumably good. It’s also not what chiefly goes on across Twitter; not even close. Mostly it’s the same awful combination of shallow and inane with a dispiriting amount of mean-spiritedness thrown in.  If you’re tracking social evolution, as I’ve been known to do, the news isn’t good.

In fact, Twitter appears to be the latest in a series of cyber-communicating devices that are offering up a platform for the expression of our culture’s baser instincts.

The latest non-shocker is the rush on Twitter to defend the young men arrested on charges in the rape of two 13-year old girls in Torrington, a depressed industrial town in Northwestern Connecticut.  Social media is how the case got such widespread attention; as happened in Steubenville, Ohio.  Some argue this is a good thing; in Steubenville, the accused were football heroes who might otherwise have gone unpunished.

Leaving aside the question of whether social media forced the police or school officials to act (I’m not convinced), what Twitter has offered in that case and in this most recent incident is a peek at the attitudes of the young men’s defenders. Their reaction is encapsulated by this post: “Young girls acting like whores there’s no punishment for that, young men acting like boys is a sentence.”

The statement perpetrates two myths, of course:  Boys are ruled by their hormones and girls, if they encourage the beast, are asking for it. Evolution might suppose we’ve got a handle on impulse control; the tweets suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile, we’ve got laws to protect minors, even supposedly knowing ones. Yet, as one distraught school official in Torrington notes, no one seems to have taught the kids about the meaning of statutory rape. Maybe this is why one Steubenville defendant was reportedly shocked to learn that having sex with an unconscious girl was considered rape, since she didn’t say no. I clearly recall boys in my high school and college classes warning each other away from underage girls with the admonition, “Seventeen will get you twenty.” Maybe my school put extra emphasis on civics classes.

What’s at play here is the speed with which disinformation (along with gossip, innuendo and outright lying) can move along the social media highways and byways, becoming the truth through sheer repetition.  Twitter and its forerunners make it easier to indulge our closely held, close-minded, feels-good-in-the gut instincts. Instead of questioning, we employ hashtags and find like-minded souls with whom we can give voice to our impulse to rant and rail. The anonymity works like Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility. Free reign for the ego.

Some media outlets point to a generational divide, with shocked parents and teachers amazed at the speed and reach of social media. Well-meaning school officials, law enforcement types and parents are certainly flummoxed by the easy acceptance of tweets, posts and online information generally as truth. But people born after 1995 have had plenty of older role models as they watch adults play in the un-policed playground that is cyberspace.

Angry vitriol and bias beyond reason or discussion has long found an outlet on the Web, first in chat rooms and now in easy-to-create web pages. Paranoia expresses itself on Facebook pages and WordPress sites that make use of ready-to-go graphics with which to present a lightly informed but deeply biased worldview. Disable the comments section or make it available only to supportive members and voila: your very own insular community.

Facebook is about hanging with like-minded people and “unfriending” the trolls and opposites. Nothing wrong with that but Twitter’s original appeal was its appearance as a more open and free-form sort of communication.  The failed Iranian uprising and the presumably successful Egyptian revolution opened up the possibility Twitter might be a tool for nascent democracy.  Now we get mean girls, mean boys and corporate hashtags. Well,  we can’t blame the medium when it’s the message that’s mucked up.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Now working on a mystery series.
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13 Responses to Et Tu, Twitter?

  1. Greg Correll says:

    Sooo cogent.

    i wanted to stop and go change how I (barely) use Twitter. I have come to see it as the core for soc net, for all my clients. FB is more important, Google hangouts will revolutionize how teams work, but Twitter’s advantage, as you examine here, is the short, anywhere/everywhere aspect.

    “The Hope for Online Communities” can’t exceed human frailties and cruddiness, but socnets have focused our attention, and made us see under the hood, too, constantly. Back in the 70s, say, most of America barely understood how PR firms shaped the messages we thought were objective. Now our cynicism also signifies deep understanding of how it can be distorted at all levels.

    The time has never been better for the game show “Name that Logical Fallacy!”

  2. Padraig Colman says:

    Never got the hang of Twitter. Just don’t understand it. I find Facebook great for banter and shameless self-promotion. Unlike Open Salon! So far my Facebook experience has been warm and friendly and rant-free, flame-war free, troll-free!

  3. marlene dunham says:

    I agree Nikki. “Cloak of Invisibility = Free reign for the ego” like the guy who didn’t think raping a girl who was unconscious was wrong. They have always been among us – they now just have a bigger platform. I only hope that as “stupidity” spreads at 144 characters, it can teach the rest of them (us) the difference between right and wrong.

  4. Richard Brown says:

    I must not be “somebody” because I don’t tweet. I had an account for two weeks and was appalled at the orgy of self-promotion, so I discontinued my account. Now I make it a point to ignore anything that stems from a Twitter account. Certainly there are positive things about it, as is true of all social media, but the extreme and outrageous remark always gets the attention; you can find any ridiculous opinion being defended or espoused there. I’ve seen lengthy analysis of the two tweets threatening the Steubenville victim, but all that means to me is that two idiots have access to Twitter; for all I know, 99% of the tweets about the case could have been supportive of the victim. On Election Night, the website Gawker did an analysis of 395 racist tweets about Obama’s re-election. Sounds disturbing, and is, but if (as is estimated) there were 50 million tweets about the election that day, then 395 barely qualifies as a statistical drop in the ocean. (0.0000079% if you’re counting.) However, those are the tweets that are remembered, and they’ve convinced us that the attitudes expressed in them are far more rampant than they really are. It gives us an image of mankind, and of America, that is horribly skewed.

  5. Candace Mann says:

    you’ve covered very well what i’ve been thinking about a lot lately. not only twitter (which i mostly avoid for *so* many reasons) but facebook and plenty of aggregators’ sites. so much of what is published (and republished ad nauseum) is headlines, not details, bumper-sticker slogans, not researched understandings of the guts of often important issues. it makes me shake my head and can make me wonder how bad it’s all gotten, which makes me think i sound like an old person. which i am. and then i wonder, truly, what percentage of intelligent people who hold opinions based on facts are tweeting/posting/republishing, and that makes me hope there are a lot of smart people – who make policy, who work behind the scenes, who get things done – who might not count as a majority of the noisiest on social media sites. and that makes me feel better about the whole thing. i hope i’m right.

  6. Amy A. says:

    I don’t mind Twitter; I use it to promote my work and the work of people I care about. That being said, I think it is given WAY too much importance by the balance of the media. It really annoys me when I hear Brian Williams on the Nightly News (yes, that dinosaur of a news show) say, “on the Twitterverse.” I admit I’ve said it myself, but I’m not a powerful media anchor. Interesting post, Nikki.

  7. Denese Vlosky says:

    Nikki,

    I don’t have a Twitter account. What does that say about me?

    For me, it makes sense: I have long given up on commenting on most open on-line forums because I can’t stand to listen to the hatred spewed in most of them. But, after reading your article, I notice that the dividing line between outcomes (good and bad) on Twitter might have to do with context. In countries where there is no or little democracy, such as in Egypt, maybe the socially meaningful commentary and connections rise to the top? In places like the US, where we can blather away on any street corner about almost anything, Twitter isn’t needed, and the fanatics who aren’t able to rise to legitimate positions in society use Twitter as one of their only platforms, which creates more noise in the Twitterverse?

    I still think that social media has the ability to shine a light in the darkness (eg; Aaron Schwartz, and Anonymous) in circumstances where our democracies fail to do so. I guess we just have to wade through more stuff to get to what is meaningful.

  8. Lezlie Bishop says:

    The way Twitter encourages knee-jerk reactions makes for an awful lot of “noise” in the ether. Stopping and thinking before committing to print seems to be a lost caution. Nice job, Nikki.

  9. Larraine says:

    I have to agree with you on this one especially. I have a Twitter account that I access very rarely. The amount of stupidity ridiculous. I get requests to be “followed” and/or to follow someone. I check that someone out and the tweets are at best stupid. Thanks but no thanks.

  10. Andrea says:

    Great article!

  11. Jaime says:

    Everyone has a soapbox now and piddling down the message to 140 characters is only a chore for those who think in longer, more complex sentences. Yet, for all the inanity, there has been real social and societal revolution, as you write. I think, like in a real democracy, there is room for everyone. I just don’t have to like them all.

    • Nikki says:

      You’re kinder than I am these days. We used to have a saying re our first PCs: garbage in, garbage out. Twitter may pull together like-minded people who also like to be anonymous and in some situations, that may be enough to affect some sort of positive change. But if people don’t know how to think or don’t care to discuss; if they aren’t into learning and are all about venting, ranting or regurgitating…well, then we simply have tools for social networking that resemble dumping grounds. You might be able to find the treasure in the refuse but you’ll have to wear hip boots an pick through an awful lot of crap.

  12. Matt Paust says:

    As usual, Nikki, you take us beneath the surface to explore more resonant implications. Thought-provoking piece!

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