Now, I bloody love twitter. I met my wonderful girlfriend on it, I’ve gained some new friends through it, and as a result of using it I’ve gained new and valuable insights into society, perspectives of which I’d otherwise be completely ignorant. However, one thing bothers me:
It is a truly terrible place to have a reasoned debate, but so often is chosen as the battleground.
There are several reasons for it being the worst place on the web to debate:
1) The 140 characters
Let’s be honest, this is nowhere near enough to convey a reasoned, thought-out and coherent point of view. Abbreviated statements result in debate being littered with misinterpretation and misunderstanding, causing escalation into name-calling and aggression so quickly that it becomes impossible to regain any coherence. I’d challenge any politician, lawyer, university debating team, or anyone else who argues for a living to conduct a full, serious, and satisfying debate using only 140 characters of text. In fact, I’d pay to watch it.
2) It’s dangerously public
With so many eavesdroppers, often so keen to jump in and add their own tuppence-worth, any reasonable discussion is lost amongst earwiggers and rubberneckers, many of whom are itching for a fight to brighten their day. Bandwagons form, “come and have a fight” hashtags fuel the fire, and before long it’s a full-on mud fight, with no hope of conciliation between the sides.
3) It moves too quickly
A storm can build, break, and die on twitter within an hour, during which time tens of people may have slung their mud on the pile, burying any sensible discussion. From this, no sense can be made and, more crucially, few lessons can be learned. Which begs the question, what’s the point?
4) It’s narrow by design
Users can follow who they like, which tends to be those with whom they agree. Thus, they become desensitised to anyone who doesn’t share the same beliefs, meaning when they do come across a conflicting idea, the default choice is to get rid of it as quickly as possible, rather than engage with it and understand it. I’ve had first-hand experience of this, and it’s not pleasant. It takes a lot of willpower to engage with someone who disagrees with you in a bid to understand another’s point of view, particularly with the anonymity and distance a social media platform affords.
Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor at the New Statesman, is today’s casualty. I won’t go into the reasons for her choosing to delete her profile, but suffice it to say that she left under duress. She’s definitely not the first, and she definitely won’t be the last. It’s a genuinely sad day when a social media network which seems like such a great, open space to share ideas, even those which directly conflict, ends up being used as a tool to remove from the debate those who disagree with a group of users’ views. Where did it all go wrong? And how can we stop it from happening so often?
There are some lessons to take away from this, then.
1) We should all try to follow a more diverse group of users, to avoid Twitter becoming a self-satisfying, Liberal Left commune, where anyone who doesn’t agree with the norm is hounded out of existence.
2) We should all take the time to engage with those who disagree with us, to accept any challenges in a reasoned way, and to be patient enough to listen to their points, however much we may disagree with them.
3) We should all start to use other networks such as Branch as a place to move debate when 140 characters is limiting our arguments. With more space to breathe, we can reduce the risk of misunderstanding, cool the jets a bit, and hopefully all learn a bit more from a sensible discussion. Storify is often used after the fact to try to make some sense of an argument, but is too often a futile exercise which merely documents why it all went wrong, rather than being a preventative medium.
We can all do better with respect to debating online, but we must first pick our battleground more wisely. We must also think long and hard about the wisdom of hounding people off social networks for disagreeing with our own views. Where’s the fun in removing anyone who ever disagrees with you anyway? Surely it’s more fun to debate on a neutral, open ground, in a reasonable, good-natured way, and through this learn more about the beliefs and opinions of others?
After all, “it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.”