Dig, if you will, a picture: of you and I en route to the pub. Let’s call it the Old Twitter.
The Old Twitter doesn’t look all that from the outside. Inside, however, it’s surprisingly capacious. In fact, it welcomes several million customers every day.
Its convenient location means that anyone can pop in, any time, from anywhere in the world. Many visit several times a day. Some, worryingly, never seem to leave.
Behind the mask
The Old Twitter is an unusual establishment, in many ways. First off, there’s the anonymity. Everyone sits in a one-person cubicle, so they can’t see any of the other patrons. You can be completely anonymous if you want.
Then there’s the company. With most pubs, it’s you and five mates around a table. In the Old Twitter, there are those you’re listening to, and those who are listening to you. They’re not necessarily the same people, and one group might be far bigger than the other.
Some people are there to listen to as much as possible, almost to the point of desperation. Others, certain celebrities particularly, seem only to be interested in the sound of their own voice. But most people are up for a bit of both.
The way conversation works is a little different in the Old Twitter. You can only say a few words at a time. So there are no pub bores droning on about speed cameras or lower back pain, which is nice. On the downside, communicating your subtler thoughts with a handful of words is a tough gig.
As you’d expect, the Old Twitter is great for a spot of banter. News spreads like wildfire, invariably accompanied by acerbic punchlines. Puns, often contrived but always amusing, are always circulating. And everyone’s got an amusing anecdote or cool urban aperçu to share, brilliantly distilled down to haikuesque dimensions.
Better watch what you say though. Every word you speak, no matter how hasty, drunken or unguarded, is written down. For ever. Obviously, a lot of customers end up regretting their words the next day. Some even get a visit from the police.
Sake of argument
Which brings us to the arguments. Like any pub, the Old Twitter is home to all shades of opinion. Left and right, conservative and liberal, popular and élitist – they’re all there. And because the pub is so crowded, and everyone has so many friends, you’re bound to hear something you disagree with sooner or later.
In any other pub, arguments play themselves out, one way or another. Between friends, they’re usually set aside with an agreement to differ. Between enemies, they might go all the way to fisticuffs.
At the Old Twitter, there’s no safety valve; no easy way out of an argument. Friends can knock a topic around without any problem. But if you don’t know the person you’re arguing with, and they can’t see you or touch you, it’s never quite the same. People write things they’d never say, pressure builds up, and the whole thing gets out of control.
Part of the problem is what psychologists call ‘escalation of commitment’ – our tendency to ’honour’ the positions we’ve taken by digging in deeper and deeper. It’s the tactic of a gambler bluffing on a weak hand, or a negotiator who refuses to back down. But gamblers and negotiators have something to lose. Old Twitter patrons aren’t playing with real relationships, or even real names – which is why they can take it all the way.
Confiding in the crowd
Another issue is that being in the thick of it down the Old Twitter can be good for the ego. There’s definitely something gratifying about being at the centre of attention. So people play up the traits that get attention – humour, perceptiveness, argumentativeness. It’s the squeaky wheels that get the oil.
At the same time, the Old Twitter customer’s mindset is weirdly ambivalent, pitched awkwardly between the urge to share and the sense of confiding to friends. If anything, Old Twitter conversation is like confiding in a crowd; a cross between a secret diary and a newspaper announcement. It’s a profoundly unnatural way to converse, and it twists our conversations into strange new shapes.
Has Twitter got worse in this respect? Are people arguing more, trolling more, provoking more? It’s hard to say, since everyone defines their own experience with who they follow and how they search. In my opinion, a recognisable ‘Twitter attitude’ has emerged – a sort of hyper-exaggerated social persona, custom built for digital channels. Eager for attention and interaction, we’re all playing exaggerated versions of ourselves – but the resulting drama isn’t always something you want to watch.