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Trouble in Twitterland: The unpleasant effects of the network's success

The issue: Though the service remains by far the best way to keep up to date on news and culture, its limits are also starting to show. Outrage, attacks and abuse are ever-more present. Meanwhile, as Twitter has started to become everything from a news source to a chat room to a personal branding platform, it’s turning into a cacophonic mess.

Petar Chernaev/iStock

Something is rotten in the state of Twitter. Or at least, that's the way it feels these days. It's a sentiment I've held for some time now, and I was waiting for the next great tumult on the service to say so. But that's just the point: you don't need an example of what's wrong, because it keeps happening over and over.

The issue: Though the service remains by far the best way to keep up to date on news and culture, its limits are also starting to show. Outrage, attacks and abuse are ever-more present. Meanwhile, as Twitter has started to become everything from a news source to a chat room to a personal branding platform, it's turning into a cacophonic mess. The twist: the noble ideal of Twitter as a raucous, democratic public square might be defeated by the fact that it's actually succeeded in becoming that.

Worse, it's not the service's oft-uninformed naysayers suggesting that something isn't quite right with Twitter; it's heavy users are the ones complaining. Recently, the New York Times's Jenna Wortham suggested that Twitter is being poisoned by the constant need to perform, "as if we're all trying to be a cheeky guest on a late-night show, a reality show contestant or a toddler with a tiara." The problem is when everyone is fighting so hard for attention amid the clamour is that showmanship ends up trumping relevancy and upending Twitter's delicate balance of seriousness and whimsy.

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Twitter's popularity largely stems from its potent mix of brevity, a public-by-default stream and a low barrier to entry. It's those qualities that make it so vital, but also harm it as well. Signing up for an account is easy and quick, and makes harassment easy. Because it's public by default and retweets can scatter messages far further than one users social circle, one is often dealing with strangers, many of whom are often angry. And the brevity of a tweet, though useful in some ways, makes profound disagreements almost impossible to talk through.

Making matters worse is that the useful core activity of posting and retweeting links and ideas – often with additional commentary tacked on – can frequently run out of control, as a small issue of offhanded comment snowballs into something much bigger just through the sheer size of the reaction. The network effect of Twitter can be powerfully positive, but it's almost as if the way it's built and operates lends itself to a default of derision, disagreement and dissonance.

And that's just the point: If a structure encourages certain types of behaviour, then it means Twitter has developed a certain culture, too. While you can't generalize about 250 million users, patterns do emerge. The high-octane nature of outrage is perhaps the biggest one, and it's become ambivalent at best. To be clear, it's too easy to simply write off outrage as aimless acrimony. The anger that arises from a columnists ill-thought out views or a politician's stand is often a sign of not only of healthy debate, but also that people whose voices were unheard before now have a platform to speak up and fight back.

Certainly, that can be great in the hands of people as talented and smart as, say, writer-scholars like Sarah Kendzior or Tressie McMillan Cottom. But the outrage cycle on Twitter also has another, darker side. Policing the speech and behavior of others has become a pastime for some. It began with "mansplaining," that all-too-familiar pattern in which men, regardless of expertise or knowledge, feel entitled to explain to women "how things really are." But it's started to spill over into everything so that dialogue becomes forestalled by accusations of acting in bad faith. It happens so much so that professor Mark Sample recently made a website to make fun of the whole thing.

The most pernicious feature of the abuse-amplifying effect comes when this public platform inverts, focusing hate in on a person. Writer Amanda Hess recently wrote in Pacific Standard about the disproportionate and widespread abuse women face on Twitter. In much the same way a magnifying glass focuses, the combined scope and reach of the Web and things like Twitter means hatred can come in hundreds of thousands of 140-character bites and zoom in laser-like on a single person. Hess argues that any fix has to be legislative in nature – that users need an online set of civil rights. It's a smart approach that attempts to deal with the Internet as a kind of public infrastructure – which, in effect, it is.

For many, to engage on Twitter is to put oneself in a position to be either constantly on or under attack. Perhaps that's just what it means to exist in public online. I'm not sure what that means for Twitter as a service or its users. Perhaps we need to pull back and do more of our social networking in more private, controlled quarters. Maybe Hess's suggestion of regulation is the way forward. What I am left feeling most clearly, however, is that as we've delegated more functions to the space we call "Twitter" that it's become over-populated, and too unwieldy and fractious to be of much good.

What ends up happening is that there seems to be a disconnect between even the "noble" goals on Twitter and our actions. Even when we try to focus on dialogue or politics or justice, the game is instead an oddly meta one: it's not who is right or who is helping people, but who gets to lay claim to the moral high ground. And with legitimate criticism blending almost indecipherably into the simple need to hold one's own, I fear that the issues people claim to care about are being pushed aside by rhetoric and posturing.

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It would be wrong to suggests that there ever was a pure, safe space online. It's always been full of bitterness and anger, because that's what life is. It's just that it's more visible now. Twitter increasingly feels less like a public square, and more akin to a barroom in which everyone has had one drink too many. And maybe it's just the nature of social media to grow and then become unusable – that there's something about the scale of the Web that makes that happen – but if this trend is irreversible perhaps it's now time to move on to something new.

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