Christian Heilmann

Arguments on Twitter are causing more harm than good

Sunday, April 8th, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I am tired of Twitter as a “discussion platform”. It isn’t. It is great to give quick updates about what you do or to tell people about something cool you find (something that was reflected in their old slogan before it got all creepy and corporate with “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.”).

It is annoying as a discussion platform and it breeds far too much discontent. From the very get-go when you want to have an sensible and fruitful argument Twitter (on its own – there are mashups that try to work around that like bonfire) has the cards stacked against you:

  • It is very quick moving
  • There is no threading going on
  • People even don’t reply properly so context is lost
  • Different people answer at different times (sometimes a “this is so wrong” comes hours later)
  • There is no proper Twitter archive or search, so the same arguments happen over and over again
  • The limit of 140 characters should work to phrase your arguments wisely and delete pointless parts but in reality makes people leave out important bits
  • It invites people to show off and speak in soundbites rather than arguments

In essence, Twitter keeps us on the edge and makes us want to answer fast rather than reasonable. This is its main difference to other services – it is about immediacy, not about reasoning.

With Twitter a-twitter the last few days with a lot of controversies and interesting discussions about the political views of technology spokespeople and alcohol consumption at conferences I found there was a lot of very destructive and pointless bickering back and forth going on. Let’s not even go into the heartbreakingly facepalm-inducing backlash by #teamiphone (what?) to Instagram being released on Android.

I found one thing to be true though when it comes to people reacting to your tweets: it is never about shades of grey or benefit of the doubt. It is going straight for the jugular. And most of the time it is putting words in your mouth or assuming a much more sinister argument than the one you uttered.

People get immediately into the defence and argue against the sweeping statement that surely is behind your argument – even if it isn’t.

When people pointed out that there are great points in Ryan Funduk’s post about alcohol at conferences the majority of the arguments was “not everybody is binge drinking” or “not everybody at conferences is a brogrammer”. True, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that exclusion happens because of social norms and peer pressure. That is the thing to consider and be more aware of.

When Rob Hawkes pointed out that a lot of conferences advertise with having free bars and it is mentioned as an absolute must by conference organisers when organising Remy Sharp got rubbed the wrong way and started challenging Rob how “he knows what conference organisers do”. Weird. I know both people well and love them to bits – people who can cleverly and calmly argue in real life getting stroppy at each other because of lack of context and immediate defensive action. Nobody attacked the guild of conference organisers; there is no such thing and Remy surely would not be the person to want to be spokesperson. But he felt he needs to make a stand and speak for a larger group that probably was attacked with false accusations – someone was wrong on the internet!

This is not a go at Remy; it is a reminder for all of us how we can annoy ourselves without needing to by jumping to conclusions.

This all brings back memories of last year’s JSConf EU with Chris Williams talk on the the end to negativity and that as people who are visible on the web we should stop arguing in public. The “kids in the back of the car” syndrome as he calls it.

A very interesting point but it seems it is not quite transpiring yet as it is too tempting to go on the virtual throwing of quick punches on Twitter bandwagon.

The ever hovering Jim O’Donnell pointed me to a very clever (albeit a bit long for one point) video on Ted about dealing with criticism and arguing topics that are loaded but need discussing (in this case racism).

Jay Smooth on How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race:

My favourite simile there is that people think racism is about being good or bad – there is nothing in between. And if you are not racist, then all is fine forever more. Jay calls that the tonsil argument. You have them removed – all is well. You can’t however have your racism removed. You get influenced all the time – like plaque setting on your teeth and rotting them. So we should deal with argumentation and loaded discussions not with the tonsil solution in mind but apply an oral hygiene approach instead.

I for one will do my best to keep out of Twitter arguments from now on. I am tired of leaving “agreeing to disagree” or leave things unsaid. Twitter doesn’t offer a working search or a archive, so it is a bad place to try to argue. Let’s jump on IRC and hash things out there, or have a 1:1 or 1:n on messenger. Actually, as soon as human speech and vision comes into play, most arguments cease to be violent. Hiding behind the perceived anonymity of an online identity makes a lot of people come across much harsher than they are – and even makes some people more aggressive than they will ever be in real life.

Share on Mastodon (needs instance)

Share on Twitter

My other work: