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Lost in the twitterverse

Peter Simon
Peter Simon

The question of what will happen to Twitter under the unsteady hand of Elon Musk has created an enormous flutter in the mass media. But my feathers are completely unruffled. The fate of Twitter is a matter of total indifference to me and, I suspect, to the other 75% of population who do not and never will use it. If the thing vanished tomorrow, we would not even notice.

My knowledge of Twitter is therefore entirely secondhand, derived from newspaper reports, examples published or forwarded to me, and the stories of victims who have been pecked by the electronic mob. The very name Twitter inevitably reminds me of the sparrows who swarm around our bird feeder in a frenzy of noisy disputation. The human version sounds much the same.

Twitter appeared as recently as 2006 as another in a long line of electronic inventions with childish names designed to make life more difficult. It has been a big success with people who like to exchange insults. This is not a hobby of mine, because my mother taught me always to be polite — a losing strategy in the modern world which obviously has no place in the snake pit that the anti-social media have become.

Some users simply find Twitter a useful means of communication when they have nothing much to say. But others seem to be perpetually looking for a fight, and many tweets are not so much speech, or even language, but howls of rage from the nursery.

Several things about Twitter make it potentially dangerous. It is simple to use, no technical or language skills are required, it is open to (almost) anyone with no qualifications of any kind, it provides instantaneous feedback, and anonymity, and it’s free.

Twitter offers free speech certainly. Communication is good. We need to understand each other more than ever before, and every person, and group should be able to find a voice. But wide-open technologies like this, with minimal adult moderation, few legal limits, and no political boundaries, create the free speech of the jungle — everyone roaring and screeching at the same time.

This guarantees a race to the emotional bottom where, at this primitive level of language, we arrive instantly. Good manners go out of the window along with good grammar, and messages are stripped down to a few commonplace words, often mis-spelled. There’s no debate or argument to be had in 280 characters, only assertions and insults. In effect it is an anger magnification machine

There was never a golden age of universal harmony. But the anti-social media have blown the lid off our Pandora’s box, and all the bad spirits are on the loose. There’s no precedent in history for this because there’s no precedent for the technology that made it possible. A few celebrity Twitter users have become so inflated with the illusion of power it gives that they have lost all contact with reality.

So, it does matter a lot who runs Twitter, and how they control it, and I hope Mr. Musk finds a better outlet for his talents. Twitter is a dangerous vehicle, and it needs a firm hand on the steering wheel, just like one of his self-driving cars.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.