Yesterday I mentioned my adventure in Tweeting what I thought was an obviously sarcastic post (that I was boosting the Trump/Cruz platform of keeping foreigners and their wicked ways out of the country, starting with soccer broadcasts from England), only to be descended-upon by Twitter vigilantes who took the post at face value as a Col. Blimp-ish plea to reclaim “our” America.
Since then I’ve heard from several people about an item in New York magazine, by Annie Lowrey and Abraham Riesman, and this followup in Mother Jones by Kevin Drum. Each is on a tragedy-of-the-commons problem affecting Twitter.
Lowrey and Riesman have a catalogue of small annoyances mounting up to something larger, which has changed their assessment of Twitter. (Riesman: “I'd tweeted something about Star Wars, and someone I don't know somehow saw it and tweeted a link to it with a snarky comment attached. At that point, a notorious asshole whose name I won't mention saw that person's tweet and retweeted it. All of a sudden, dozens and dozens of the asshole's followers decided to hurl insults at me and do weird stuff…” Lowrey: “I decided to wash my hands of the whole thing when I wrote something about poverty and proceeded to get a flood of nasty, sexist tweets and emails — just days and days of it.”)
Drum said these are illustrations of a system failure:
Basically, Twitter is the perfect platform for two things: snark and assholery…. In the end this is a lesson about economics. What happens when you vastly reduce the cost of being an asshole? Answer: the supply of assholes goes up.
I think they are talking about something real. This is the nine-zillionth reminder of the reality that new communications technology doesn’t change old realities of human nature, or increase the number of hours in a day, or change the supply-demand imbalances in people’s attention. Illustration of the kind of imbalance I am talking about: I would love to talk tennis with Roger Federer. He has no interest in talking with me.
At the dawn of the email age, the technology seemed magically exciting because it could put you in touch with … anyone! Even Bill Gates and the President of the United States had addresses you could figure out. Then the reality set in that email wouldn’t give them sufficient time or mind-share to respond to all the people who might want to reach them, nor alter the plain fact that most of us are more interested in them than vice versa. On came Twitter, which would give you the real-time thoughts of anyone from @realDonaldTrump or @BarackObama on down. But again the basic realities set in: you can follow and respond to them, they probably won’t reciprocate.