A few brief remarks about that strange electronic swamp known as Twitter, in which I admittedly participate. Two questions cross my mind whenever I use this form of “social” media:
1) Are people as nasty and contentious to others in real life as they are on Twitter?
2) If not, what is it about Twitter that makes them so nasty?
I ask these questions because Twitter interactions, in my estimation, are usually nothing but brief forms of electronic guerrilla warfare. Strangers come out of the dark, pelt you with vulgar insults, then recede back into their hiding spots. Just last night I was called a “cracker” and a “faggot” by one of those gentlemen who feign disinterest in your opinions but who still continue talking to you.
The answers to these two questions, it seems to me, are obvious but nonetheless interesting. The answer to question 1 is clearly No. Being so nasty in real life is unsustainable and not conducive to any kind of long-term success in one’s career and relationships (though I know there are some people who are quite openly nasty in face-to-face encounters, it can’t possibly be the case that the majority of social-media users are so). What about question 2? The obvious answer is that social media offers a certain amount of anonymity and distance. There are no consequences for calling people names and lathering your opinions with cheap abuse.
I think there is something else going on here, however. Might it have something to do with how contemporary political debate has become little more than a game of status-jockeying? In an age where one can be severely and efficiently penalized for one’s political views (in the form of social ostracism or even mob-induced unemployment) the emotional stakes are quite high in any argument. One need always be in the midst of proving that one holds the “correct” opinions. The distance and facelessness of the Internet only makes such interactions more vile and nasty; this applies a fortiori to Twitter, which is primarily a forum for political debate.