Twitter is the social network everyone loves to hate. But the way we hate Twitter seems to have taken on a new meaning in the age of Trump.
First, because the president uses the social network himself. As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed out, Trump's lowering of standards and social norms tends to cause us to lower our own standards and norms. He tweets like a jerk, so we tweet like jerks. More generally, in our hyperpartisan age where the republic always seems on the edge of the precipice, Twitter's brevity and openness to anyone seems to stoke our worst impulses. And finally, there is the problem of harassment on Twitter.
More and more of my friends are vowing off the social network. Others have toned down their usage. Some friends who are professionally obligated to use it privately loathe it.
This is all very strange to me because I think Twitter is awesome.
It's not an exaggeration to say that it has changed my life: Thanks to Twitter, I have received professional opportunities I wouldn't have received otherwise and met many wonderful people, some of whom have become close friends.
Indeed, I try to use Twitter for the interactions; chatting is its main appeal to me. But it seems that my experience is the opposite of most people's. If Twitter does have an appeal to the masses, it's as a feed of real-time news and jokes; the interactive part is the downside. For me, it's almost the opposite: The news and jokes are fine, but I keep going back for the interactions.
As for harassment and bullying, I'm lucky enough that I can just mute the pissants and downers ("haters and losers!") and move on. That being said, while as a pundit I do get a regular stream of trolls, I am aware that women and minorities get harassment that is much more significant, both in volume and viciousness. When it comes to trolls, I know your mileage may vary.
But, for what it's worth, I try to ensure a pleasant Twitter experience by working around the bad parts and focusing on the rest. If I say something provocative on Twitter, it will typically spark half a dozen trolls, but at least one or two interesting exchanges. I just mute the former and focus on the latter.
I've found that Twitter does require a degree of mindfulness and self-control that other social networks don't. Yes, it's very easy to get sucked into pointless, rage-inducing arguments. I've learned to be more economical with the retweet button: Sometimes I'll see a clever partisan barb that flatters my own side, which I'll want to retweet. But these inevitably produce enervating, value-less exchanges, so I try to stay way.
So my advice is to be the change you want to see on Twitter. I don't just mean that it's important to be good and raise standards for the general welfare, although that's certainly true (if bland). I also mean it in a much more practical way.
I think one reason why I've had a pleasant experience on Twitter is that, over time, I've cultivated a pretty good following of people who are both interesting and gracious. And that's because I try (though I'm far from always successful) to use Twitter in a way that encourages those kids of people to follow me and discourages the trolls. I find that there's a bit of Twitter karma: Be a jerk on Twitter and you'll attract jerks; be less of a jerk and you'll attract better people.
Raising our moral and intellectual standards. Not a bad idea for Twitter, and not a bad idea as a response to Trump and hyper-partisanship more generally.