Fifteen years ago, on July 15 2006 , Jack Dorsey launched Twitter. On that inaugural day, then 224 tweets were sent, whereas today—according to Twitter—users send that many tweets in less than a tenth of a second. The world has definitely changed as a result, but I’m not sure you could argue that it has been for the better.
The depth and civility of social discourse has definitely suffered. That’s only to be expected when an individual originally had 140 characters to express themselves. That limited has also probably contributed to the growth of the GIF or for the slightly more literate, meme. While write a paragraph when you can mount your entire argument through a photoshopped image?
My own observation has been that journalists in particular have used Twitter as a global informant. Which has meant, reading, research and good old fact checking has almost gone completely out the window. In an ominous opinion piece titled, ‘How Twitter Ruined Everything’, Douglas Murray reminisces that:
In the early days, it didn’t feel like this. Like Facebook, Amazon, Google and the other Big Tech monoliths, it all started out so well. Twitter was actually fun back then. People said whacky things. There were cat videos. There was Follow Friday and friendships were made. As professional and amateur newshounds took to the platform, it became the fastest way to learn about any developing story.
If something was going on, Twitter was there first, certainly ahead of the BBC or any of the other news establishments who had to lumber through the old legal and editorial hurdles, rather than enjoying the lightning-quick response time of social media. Politics is a drug, and the most successful drugs provide an instant hit. But they are also the most dangerous, and the downsides soon started to assert themselves.
Soon many started using the site in a game of competitive grievance, or competitive sanctimony. They took obvious glee in targeting victims who had transgressed some moral code; the obvious righteousness of these online crusaders meant they rarely recognised themselves as the aggressors or bullies.
Murray rightly says that Twitter’s nadir came with the presidency of Donald Trump. Never before had the world had such access to the inner thoughts of a world leader and yet, incredibly, in the end even he was deplatformed.
For one of the ugliest aspects to the platform is the personal animus and even mob violence it facilitates. Who hasn’t had the experience of posting something politically incorrect online, only to have the lynch mob come after you with gay abandon (pun intended). It’s much like the climactic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds.
Jon Ronson’s Ted Talk, When Online Shaming Goes too Far, remains a terrifying analysis of how damaging Twitter can be. Anyone remember the events surrounding Justine Sacco? Ronson re-tells the whole sorry saga from the three-minute mark:
Ronson rightly concludes
I think back on the early days of Twitter, when people would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m exactly the same.” These days the hunt is on for people’s shameful secrets.
You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil.
Maybe there are two types of people in the world: those people who favour humans over ideology, and those people who favour ideology over humans. I favour humans over ideology, but right now, the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas where everybody’s either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain, even though we know that’s not true of our fellow humans.
What’s true is that we are clever and stupid; what’s true is that we’re grey areas.
The great thing about social media is how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.
Let’s not do that. Thank you.
I recently decided to deactivate my Twitter account. I’d been thinking about doing it for a while, but I’m really glad I did. Because you know what? Life is better than ever. I have more time to read, to think and to present with my family and friends.
Amidst all the wasted hours, hurtful words and vile images, I’m sure that Twitter has produced a lot of good as well. But personally, I wish that it had never been invented. The world would be a much simpler, and more peaceful place. So, happy fifteenth birthday Twitter. But in all honestly, I wish you’d never been born.
Mark Powell is Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.