What I Hate About Twitter

One of the things I loved most about my time in whitewater kayaking was the old message board culture.  Simultaneous with my development as a kayaker back in the early 2000s was the development of the internet, a fact which sounds absurd today, but was very much true.  This was the pre-social media era; it was the time of the old-school message board, where you could start threads, read threads, and respond to others.  At the time, I was discovering the sport of kayaking, as well as discovering the internet itself.  Back in 2000 I first found my way to a New England kayak message board, then eventually to one even more niche-focused (a site devoted to canoeists, as opposed to kayakers) and eventually to a national whitewater board.  

While message boards were springing up for every conceivable interest groups — replacing the even older “chat rooms” of the 1990s — whitewater kayaking was perhaps even better suited for them than most sports.  As a weather-dependent sport that’s basically unpracticable when the rivers are dry or frozen (both are common in New England), whitewater kayakers love — and need to love — talking about kayaking almost as much as they love kayaking itself.  Then there is the practical need to meet up with others.  While kayaking on a lake can easily be a solitary pursuit, the physical fact that whitewater rivers flow downstream, away from where your car is parked, means that unless you’re willing to run, bike, or hitchhike back to where you began, you need to meet up with another vehicle owner to — as we say in boating — “set shuttle.” Then of course there’s the danger; again, easier rivers are certainly doable alone, and so are harder rivers, but it’s not a good idea.  It’s far better to have at least one other person with your in case you tip over and need a rescue for yourself or your gear.  At the outer edge of the sport — where I lived for many years — you need a friend holding a rescue rope at the hardest rapids, too, in case you exit your kayak and need to be pulled out of a recirculating hydraulic, or pendulum-ed to shore before washing over the next waterfall.  

So there had to be a place both to yak about the latest, coolest run you did, to share information about some new exotic creek, and to find like-minded friends to join you on these experiences, all done at the drop of a hat, on Mother Nature’s schedule.  Everything about the sport meant that message boards were the perfect technology.

Those early message boards were great: the combination of a good bar at night to chew over your favorite war stories, and a kind of pre-modern dating service on which you could see who was on the prowl for some (whitewater) action the next day.  You could ruminate, bloviate, or cut right to the chase.  And of course it wasn’t just about sitting in your basement every night talking to people you’d never meet; the whole point, of course, was to actually meet most of these people face-to-face to go have real adventures out in nature, far away from technology.  This had a way of pulling down the temperature on the arguments that broke out; people weren’t just faceless names on the internet, they were real people who you’d paddle with, had dinner and beers with after the run, and invited into your home or at least your car for long, long drives together.

And here’s what’s odd:  these days, I don’t find myself missing the kayaking, I find myself missing the technology of the message board.  I wish we had more message boards in teaching.  For better or worse, my experience with message boards was that, on balance, they did foster community.  Would there have still been a New England or Vermont kayaking community without them?  Of course.  But we’d have had far less time to talk about kayaking; and for any group, that’s important.  I don’t just mean telling war stories for the sake of puffing up your chest, or giving each other a hard time just for the sake of it.  But really talking about shared pursuit serves a lot of important purposes.  

We don’t have this in teaching, at all.  There’s so little time during the day to discuss what we do with our fellow professionals.  Most of our time during common planning meetings (if we’re lucky enough to have them) is devoted to the bare-bones logistics of what’s coming up in 45 minutes, what we’re going to do when that flood of teenaged hormones enters the room.  

More than that, I miss a place where you can really have deep discussions and debates about everything under the sun within a given pursuit.  I wish we had that in education, because I think it’s important.  Debate and discussion help clarify our ideas, and it’s something we rarely have time or energy for while we’re at school.

We do have places where we can ostensibly connect with other teachers — the technology is of course far, far more advanced today than it was twenty years ago — but it feels like the wrong technology.  For example, here in Vermont, instead of having a message board for teachers, the main place that educators have to connect is Twitter.  This is a problem, because Vermont Educational Twitter is a scary, very odd place, and the more I think about it, the more I think the fault isn’t in the people themselves (who are in the end probably even more civil, mature, and rational than the adrenaline-crazed men from back in my paddling days).  The fault is in our technology.

I’d been thinking about this for a while, because I’m abjectly terrified of Twitter, in a way I never was of the message boards.  And again, it’s not because people have changed, or because I have changed.  It’s because Twitter is set up in such a way that it promotes certain behaviors that are very different from the ones that message boards promoted.  

Here I should note that all message boards are different, but I am thinking in particular of my favorite, the first one and the main one I was a part of, a regional message board that has sadly fallen out of favor in the age of social media and is barely used today.

Twitter is set up to promote short, snippy, even nasty, and always fairly superficial comments: both the initial posts themselves and especially the responses.  Obviously the post length restriction is the foremost cause: just 280 characters.  It’s one of the ironies of online culture that the site most preferred for social interaction by writers and intellectuals — who you’d normally think of as the most comfortable with and demanding of the space to elaborate in writing — is the one with the shortest length requirement.  But the fact is, the epigram-like requirement of Tweets predisposes Twitter to be a place where comments are not only taken out of context, but where they’re in fact made out of context in the first place — because there’s simply not enough room to include the context.

More than just the length requirement, it’s the public nature of the display of Twitter that contributes to the character of the short posts.  Because of the way Twitter shows things — just your short post only, right on the front page of the feed — in a sense the medium is the message: the site rewards short, pithy, attention-grabbing messages that attract likes or retweets (the other metric you can see on the front page display).  It’s as though you’re reading a message board in which only the title of each message thread will be read, and in fact that is the only aspect that anyone is going to comment on.

Then there is the algorithm that determines which posts show up in your feed, which surely reward the posts that generate the most likes, retweets, and comments.  The old message boards had far simpler algorithms — they either displayed chronologically by post date (and even an active post with many comments would be displayed far below a newer but less commented-on thread), or by date of the last response.  

The like and retweet buttons themselves are questionable, too.  Both reward a kind of superficial engagement: the like button can be particularly toxic because, again, the medium becomes the message, and the purpose of creating a post, for posters, will necessarily incline toward generating as many likes as possible, which is such a very different goal than generating posts in order to — you know, for all the reasons people usually want to write something: to express a thought, to engage with others, to critique something, to express a message.  But when you have the like marker, your goal changes to a kind of surface-level approval.  The retweet button is even worse because it combines the incentive toward superficial approval (whose post gets retweeted the most then shows up most) with a kind of increased public exposure for anything that you post, a built-in stakes-raising which is what has always worried me most about social media.  On the old message boards, if you posted a thread or a comment, that’s where it stayed.  People could quote it, of course, in order to respond to it, but that quote couldn’t really be transferred.  Why would it, and how?  But now, Twitter was built for that transference because of the retweet button.  If you write something for your six followers, one of them can retweet it to their 6,000 followers, and ten of them could retweet it to their followers, and so on.  We often think about “going viral” as a positive thing, but it’s not necessarily.  All it does it just ramp up the stakes: you have to go into it believing that whatever you write really shouldn’t be something you wouldn’t say to the entire internet.  It’s as though an entire platform was built to promote you to be taken out of context to as wide of an audience as possible.  The retweet button seems harmless — sort of like forwarding along something that you like to your friends — but in such a public place it feeds a kind of tribal instinct.  If you find something you don’t agree with, the retweet button is a way of short-circuiting any sort of good-faith engagement with it.  Instead it’s a way of “publicly exposing it” — taking it and sharing it with as wide a group of people as possible.  This is the sort of instinct that all of social media allows us to indulge — and of course sometimes it can be positive, as in the case of exposing a real injustice.  But often it’s just a way of indulging our worst tribal instincts, or petty desire to expose people without really pausing to reflect, or to engage in good faith. 

That’s messed up when you think about it.  And the problem is that the form of the technology shapes our responses.  Because Twitter rewards a kind of superficial engagement with whatever you say and because it is such a “public” place, it encourages a kind of performative manner: provocative, pithy, full of spectacle and drama.  The two types of behavior I see most are performative activism and straight up meanness.  Given the superficial, public nature of the forum, that’s hardly surprising.

This is all very different from the “privacy” of the best message boards.  The one I’m thinking of was even open to the public, but the site’s design itself contributed to at least a modicum of privacy that I believe is essential to really speaking your mind.  The homepage itself did not immediately display the posts (although some other sites did).  You first had to click into the forum from among a number of different pages the site also hosted (places for photos to be posted or gear to be advertised — and later, other separate forums for different sorts of postings).  Then you had to click on the thread you wanted to read.  Just this separation into “treads” — each of which was self-contained, not displayed right on a front webpage quickly displayable by millions — gives a kind systemic privacy.  

Once inside, each “reply” took up enough physical room that there was quite a bit of physical screen distance between the initial post and each subsequent reply.  This is a subtle difference: it makes you scroll down, down, down, which gives the feel of there being a conversation that you’re reading, with some space between posts.  On Twitter, there’s so little space between posts and replies that it really gives the impression of being a bunch of snippy comments to a post, rather than deep engagement with a post — just because of the physical distances involved.  Twitter rewards the quick put-down, the snappy response — in part because snappy responses require that they come directly after the initial comment — whether temporally (in real life) or physically — as on Twitter.  It’s not easy easy to seem snappy or quick when people have to scroll through pages and pages on their screen just to get to where you wrote your post.  The physical distance itself has a way of buffering some of that snippiness.

And again, there was no word restriction, either to the initial post, or the responses.  There was always the odd person who’d only seem to read the post’s title, rather than that post itself, before responding, and there were always plaintive cries of “Did you actually read what I wrote, or did you just read the title?” That sort of behavior will always happen, of course, but with Twitter, it’s as though we’ve constructed an entire site devoted to just reading the title!

Meanwhile, responses could be as long as possible, and so could initial posts.  Again, this was a place that really promoted, just by the form of the site itself, more substantive engagement.  There was no public rewards system.  That’s an important difference — Twitter (like Facebook and other social media sites) is designed to generate as much user interaction as possible — not to allow people to get together and really talk.  On the message board, there was nothing to be gained, infrastructurally, from making a particularly pithy or controversial post.  Sure, lots of people would see it and respond to it — and you’d get lots of feedback — but there was nothing to be “gained” as a user from that.  With Twitter, when you create a post like that, it gets your name and post spread across the virtual world, it gets you likes and retweets.  It’s almost as though on social media we’re all playing a video game in which the object is to get as many “points” as possible in the form of likes and retweets.  Those are there to get you to keep posting and interacting with the site (and, thereby, to keep you looking at ads).  On the old message boards, there was no “reward” for coming back to the site and posting.  You weren’t playing a video game; there was no site-based incentive for anything at all.  You were just there for the conversation, nothing less, and nothing more.  Sure, peopled used message boards for self-promotion, but again, because it wasn’t nearly as “public,” whatever you said lived just inside that single post, and there just wasn’t nearly as much to be gained from trying to get your name out there.  Where was it going to go?

And if there’s one thing anyone has learned about privacy, ever, it’s that privacy helps people feel comfortable saying what they really think.  It doesn’t guarantee it, of course, but it certainly encourages it.  While Twitter does promote a kind of honesty, it’s a kind of faux-honesty, the kind of status-seeking honesty that happens in a public setting — a performative honesty.  I’m always struck on Twitter — for example, on the Vermont Educational Twitter hashtag — at how little real disagreement or even real conversation there is.  It’s odd because Twitter has a much-deserved reputation for — as I outlined above — promoting a kind of ugly public put-down culture, a kind of public “outing” culture of sentiments we don’t like.  But the problem is that when you step into one of the few places on Twitter where you can enjoy some community (if not real privacy) — a place that brings like-minded people together who, because of their many and close connections to each other within a shared region and profession, aren’t going to engage in mean putdowns with each other — you really see the extent to which people are hesitant (in my view, because of the incentives of the forum) to speak their minds.

And this is too bad, because this is something that I think we teachers need: a place to talk about teaching, to talk about education ourselves, to share opinions, to discuss and to debate with people who work in different schools.  The same isolation that’s buffer against the intrusion of administrators of policymakers — the old, “shut-your-door-and-teach” — is also isolating.  We rarely have time and space to discuss our craft within our own buildings, let alone with others in other schools.  That sort of cross-classroom and cross-community talk among practitioners is extremely healthy.  Unfortunately, Twitter has become a place, at least in the Vermont ed community, where there’s little chance for substantial engagement — in my opinion because the forum actively discourages this by its design.

It’s a shame, but that’s Twitter: the forum was built to incentivize one thing, not another.  And in the end, you can’t really complain too much about a free site.