I will be the first to admit I spend too much time online. You probably do too. It is all too easy to think, well I have to wait a couple minutes for the microwave, might as well log onto Twitter. And then an hour later you find that your leftovers are back to being cold and you have become embroiled in multiple feuds with strangers. This may mean you suffer from the affliction known as being “extremely online.” I have been afflicted since 2008.
This condition can, admittedly, be a satisfying experience. Twitter is not nearly as big as Facebook, but it is more public, less dictated by preexisting social ties. It is a place where powerful and influential and oftentimes batshit figures in government and media, like our president and Joy Ann Reid, are forced to occupy the same space as the rabble. There is a human urge to react to being addressed, even by an adversary. In this setting, that reflex sometimes prevails over the tendency of the elite to position themselves above the fray. This means that those people are prone to embarrassing themselves in ways they would not have been elsewhere. That’s where the fun begins.
I’ve been a willing participant in this process — known by the names of “shitposting” or “trolling,” and honed to a fine art by a seedy underworld of shadowy vigilantes — sometimes to great effect. By any definition, I have been a troll, and if I address trolls here, I also speak as one of them. I once managed to get Piers Morgan to respond repeatedly to my insistence that he was misspelling his own name (it’s “Pierce”). I’ve found that overachievers with avatars of themselves as talking heads cannot resist provocations that include strategically placed grammatical errors. You can get an incredible response from people correcting you by graciously responding “thank’s.” Ruining some D.C. lobbyist’s day is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
The guy who called me a moron for ending a sentence with a preposition has a thing or two to learn about apostrophes. https://t.co/pSR6XM8UK3— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) January 13, 2020
It’s ‘Piers’. https://t.co/xsEnOVmIsp— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) July 17, 2018
But this capability is now potentially under threat. Last week, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Twitter announced a new feature it has given the new agey name “Conversation Dynamics,” which will allow users to control who can reply to their Tweets. This follows a feature it introduced last fall, enabling users to hide replies after the fact. It’s part of what Twitter's product lead Kayvon Beykpour described as an overall focus on “health, conversations, and interests.”
Twitter has long been under pressure from users to limit the ability of its worst users, often in white supremacist or misogynist conglomerations, to harrass ordinary people expressing banal opinions. Cresting waves of organized harassment are a genuine threat, potentially fostering correlated activity in the real world. But this new function confirms that Twitter’s primary concern remains its marquee members. In a conversation with Wired, Beykpour gave an example of how it all might work: “If you wanted to have a fireside chat on Twitter where Bill Gates and Elon Musk were talking about the future of climate change, it’s very difficult for the two of them to have a controlled conversation without a cacophony of other people joining the conversation.”
Arguably, the cacophony of other people “joining the conversation” is the only potentially worthy outcome of the kind of nauseating event described above. But Twitter would like to allow Musk and Gates to prevent you from making your own contribution, whether it’s a well-deserved dunk on Musk’s cult-like demeanor, or a legitimate inquiry into the political implications of Gates’s philanthropic activities, or the always-relevant observation that these fucking guys have too much fucking money. According to Twitter’s director of product management, Suzanne Xie, the new options will give users four categories into which they can place their tweets: Global, which anyone can reply to, Group, which enables replies from anyone the original poster follows or mentions, Panel, limited only to those mentioned, and Statement, which allows no responses at all.
For average users with low follow counts, who don’t expect the public to engage with their tweets, this is not going to be all that useful. What use is it restricting replies if you hardly ever get any? Those who log onto Twitter primarily to keep up with the news or interact with friends could be forgiven for not giving a shit. The changes seem to be targeted at higher-profile users, who are most likely to complain about not liking the way the plebiscite responds to their Statements. It doesn’t really do much for those who, through the random and chaotic process of virality, end up facing the most insidious harassment the website has to offer.
Xie described the new functions as a way of dealing with “getting ratioed, getting dunked on, the dynamics that happen that we think aren’t as healthy.” Tellingly, the storied “ratio” is a phenomenon that users of Twitter and administrators of Twitter see irreconcilably differently. For the uninitiated: the ratio is the name for a pattern of engagement to a tweet, wherein replies vastly outnumber likes or retweets. As an article in Esquire put it, “by and large, the way Twitter works is that to reply means to disagree.” A ratioed tweet is a modern expression of an old form of discourse: a gathered crowd shouting down a king in the town square.
Typically, contrarians bristle at this kind of organic consensus. At the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk has suggested that “the ratioed tweet — or, for that matter, the widely panned op-ed — can claim a proud inheritance: that of the banned book, of the argument made before its time.” Socrates, Jesus, and Copernicus would have been ratioed, he says. This is, if I may, a little extra. But it is not entirely incorrect. There are obvious cases where a ratio is not illustrative of any kind of objective assessment.
An announcement of a personal tragedy is more likely to be met with condolences than thumbs up. A tweet that poses a question is going to get more responses than retweets. Given that quote tweets aren’t factored into the numerical count of replies, a tweet that should be counted as ratioed might not be. When people respond “just here for the ratio” — inflating the number of replies without actually having a reply — it all starts to get so self-referential as to no longer be related to the matter at hand.
Those who never get ratioed, Mounk writes, show only “a consistent willingness to censor themselves whenever their opinions are less than fashionable.” That kind of self-censorship certainly exists. But Mounk is making the same mistake as those he disparages. The convergence of a large group of people is not necessarily an indicator of truth or moral credibility, but it is also not an indicator of importance or relevance. A group does not necessarily materialize because it represents conventional wisdom; it may also be an organized assembly of people who hold a dissenting position. Anti-war protests often reach numbers far larger than the number of members of Congress; regardless, the smaller group is the one with the power to declare war.
On Twitter, the same flattening effect that forces elites behind proverbial palace gates to pay attention to the rest of us sometimes can elevate random members of the throng to positions of false prominence. It happens on a regular basis, to some small-time journalist, or obscure podcaster, or uncredentialed civilian whose post has been algorithmically elevated beyond proportion. Anyone can become, as a canonical tweet puts it, the “main character” of Twitter.
Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it— maple cocaine (@maplecocaine) January 3, 2019
Sometimes these figures become recurring characters, and their every take is publicly received, in certain circles, as though it were a Supreme Court decision. This attention is often unwarranted, not only because it has the tendency to make fringe opinions seem more prevalent than they really are, but because it fixes attention on a person who does not merit it. Twitter has been a godsend for polemicists, allowing them to reverse-engineer trends. It is a ready source of egg-shaped straw men. If you need a convenient counterpoint to argue against, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone has articulated that point of view on Twitter. (One recent example was a New York Times op-ed about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, claiming that men have been dismissive of the film. That phenomenon may well exist. But the piece cites just a single tweet from @surfcitymowmowm, a user in Ohio with a couple thousand followers whose bio reads “Appalachian lowbrow art.”)
As Twitter stumbles its way through addressing issues of user safety, we’re going to see a lot of chin-stroking. Is Twitter good for democracy? Is social media a vehicle for individual self-expression, or a force for conformity? Is the internet a society, and do we live in it? These questions tend to miss the point. When hierarchies exist offline, they are likely to be reproduced online. But they may also be obscured. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han points out in his study In the Swarm, unlike organized labor, “online shitstorms prove unable to call dominant power relations into question. Instead, they strike individual persons, whom they unmask or make an item of scandal.” The only way for the citizenry to use Twitter in our favor means keeping track of who’s who, and treating them accordingly.
Twitter seems like its own world, but it exists in the real one. Just imagine quote tweeting IRL. It is one thing to heckle a speaker at a podium who is addressing a crowd. It is another thing to eavesdrop on a private conversation in a public place and repeat something someone just said, louder, with your own annotated commentary. You do have the right to do this, both on Twitter and in the park. But is it a good use of your time?