For the last month or two, I’ve been making a conscious effort to change the way I use Twitter (I run the @scholarlykitchn account), and so far, I’ve been happy with the results. Running a non-personal account has always been helpful in enforcing some level of social media discipline — it’s The Scholarly Kitchen’s account, not mine, so it’s not an appropriate place to talk about personal activities or interests. But even with that framework, once one engages in back-and-forth conversations on Twitter, it’s hard to stay out of voicing opinions and arguing. In talking to one of our Kitchen bloggers, it was brought to my attention that what I was saying may not be representative of all of our bloggers. At the same time, I was finding Twitter to be more and more a source of anxiety.
And so I decided to make a few changes. The first was to limit my engagement with Twitter, ideally to twice a day — once at the beginning of the day and once at the end of the working day. I’m not always consistent with this, but having a set schedule like this helps reduce any nagging concerns that maybe I’m missing something.
The second, and perhaps more helpful approach has been to shift Twitter use to more of an information sharing system and less of an engagement system. The value in Twitter for me professionally has always been in keeping up with publishing and science news. I’m trying to limit my tweeting to this purpose, posting links to interesting articles, suggesting Kitchen blog posts that might be relevant to an ongoing conversation, amplifying the individual voices of Scholarly Kitchen bloggers, and asking/answering factual questions. Twitter is a terrible medium for conversations or debates, and I’m trying to take to heart the maxim of “you don’t have to attend every argument to which you’re invited.” We have a blog that accepts comments — if something upsets you about one of our posts, feel free to leave a comment where there’s plenty of room to discuss things rather than offering a drive-by passive (or not so passive) aggressive tweet.
Scaling back like this has been a great relief, because dealing with angry people is exhausting. The Scholarly Kitchen is largely an opinion blog, and opinions often breed a lot of disagreement. And angry disagreement is what the internet thrives on.
Which brings us to today’s video. There’s nothing particularly novel in the lecture below, given by Dan Harvey at the re:develop conference in 2018, but it all rings increasingly true. The internet has largely become an attention harvesting mechanism in order to fuel advertising business models. Because of this, anger has become its most prized commodity, the more hateful and outraged, the more valuable. This drives engagement, and most of social media is designed to encourage and amplify it. As he puts it, outrage is “profitable, prevalent, potent, and performative.”
That last word, “performative” is the one that stood out for me. On the internet, we’re often performing for an unseen audience, rather than actually having a meaningful conversation with the individual we’re addressing. This leads to different behaviors than one would express in dealing with another human being directly. Unlike real life, the cost of expressing or inspiring outrage is exceedingly low, and social media like Twitter exist to create a self-reinforcing loop of anger.
The video refers to the Time Well Spent group (now the Center for Human Technology) and their suggestions for living more intentionally with social media, many of which are next on my list to consider.
If you angrily tweet at me and don’t get a response, this is why, but I would love to talk to you further, just directly and in depth.
(NSFW Warning: as he states at the beginning of the talk, Dan Harvey likes to curse a lot, using the f-word as “the New York comma”, so please be warned if you’re watching this in your office as the language may be offensive to others)