More on Twitter's Tin Ear

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

Garrett Hardin, who popularized the concept of the “tragedy of the commons.”

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.


A related old reality now affecting Twitter is the importance of context. One hundred-forty characters turns out to be a surprisingly potent haiku-sized compositional form. But effectiveness on that compressed scale is surprisingly dependent on context: What the audience knows about the event you’re describing (real-time tweeting of a game or debate), about the things you don’t have to spell out (what it means if Jeb! seems “animated”), and about the biases you have and positions you’d be expected to take (what it would mean if Robert Griffin III were tweeting about Kirk Cousins’s success as a passer).

Without that context, a short-burst message can be meaningless, or even be taken as the exact opposite of its intended meaning. Simplest example: “Oh, that’s bad,” meaning the reverse. In email (despite all its other problems), this is not so much an issue: you know who you’re sending the message to. It’s roughly the same with on-line or in-print postings. They’re usually more than 140 characters to begin with, and people come to them with some knowledge of the context. Twitter is the exception, with the potential of little thought-drops circulating, context-free, far beyond any intended audience. Without context, Twitter has a tin ear.

Does that mean the right course is just to bail out ? I don’t think so. “I’m quitting [Facebook / Twitter / email / blogging / you name it]!” is a tiresome theme in the tech world. For one thing, go ahead and quit! It’s a free country, and you don’t need to make a big deal of signing off. For another, most people sneak back, because there is some appeal and utility to most of these systems.

Lowrey and Riesman usefully suggest a practical-minded non-cold-turkey solution. They say they’ll continue to use Twitter where it pays off most: for following breaking-news stories, for sending out simple announcements of articles they’ve written or writings or events they think worth sharing, and for making contact with people they might not reach in other ways. But otherwise they say they’ll avoid it for “conversation,” non-obvious commentary, or anything resembling “attitude.”

That sounds like a wise policy, which I’ll try to emulate.