The anti-social media

Indignation isn't a byproduct of Twitter. It's the point.

The Twitter logo.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

I spend a lot of time on Twitter, probably too much time. I do it because I'm a columnist, because Twitter functions as a 21st-century teletype machine, and because following along is an efficient way to stay up-to-date on the latest news.

But if I'm honest, this isn't the only reason I begin and end so many days by scrolling my Twitter feed. The deeper reason is that it fulfills a more primal craving. Like a teenager sitting at a high school lunch table alongside the cool kids, Twitter gives me the opportunity to shine in public — to be recognized for my wisdom, to have my sarcastic quips or my efforts at condensing clever observations down to 280 characters approved, or "liked," by my peers. (Even better is to have something "retweeted," sending my little bauble of brilliance bouncing around new circles of potential admirers, aka "followers.")

Though this, too, doesn't quite get to the bottom of my motives. And I do mean "bottom" — not just in the sense of more fundamental, but also in the sense of baser or more primitive.

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At bottom, I find myself drawn to Twitter (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, other forms of social media) because I get off on picking fights and doing ideological battle online with various enemies, and Twitter is an extremely effective engine for generating conflict. Because I'm a centrist, I find enemies on the right as well as the left. But that substance is mostly irrelevant. I don't seriously believe I'm doing anything to make the world a better place politically, socially, culturally, or intellectually by waging these tweet wars. I just do it because it's enjoyable. I like to fight online.

And I know I'm not alone.

How do I know this? Because I can see you doing the same thing day after day — and sometimes even more obsessively and aggressively than I do. Some specialize in crafting "hot takes" and then waiting for the brawl to start, as opponents swarm, ready and eager to bite and sting. Others prefer to be the waspish aggressor, initiating the conflict, living in perpetual reaction, circulating around online, on the lookout for takes worthy of a painful wound.

I'll admit, I do a little of both. Strike that: I do a lot of both.

I joined Twitter in January 2012, almost nine years ago. As of Tuesday afternoon, I've tweeted 44,560 times. That's about 13.5 tweets per day for every day of the past nine years. And I'm by no means a truly compulsive Twitter user. Reporter Dave Weigel joined Twitter nearly 13 years ago and has averaged an astonishing 49 tweets a day in that time.

That's … a lot of tweeting.

Many have made the point about social media leading to increased tribalism and the construction of information silos, as we cluster into groups of the likeminded, reward conformity, and fall prey to conformation bias. Part of this process of building group cohesion involves directing animus toward out-groups — common enemies that help the group to define itself not only in terms of "who we are" but also in showing that "we're not them." Or rather, "who we are" becomes to a considerable extent about being "not them."

But describing what happens on social media this way ends up continuing to place the "social" at the center. It presumes that what people are doing online is building virtual communities for their own sake, demonstrating that Aristotle was right to suggest two and a half millennia ago that human beings are fundamentally social animals.

I can't help but wonder if this might be wrong. Maybe the conflict we see online isn't secondary to the formation of online communities, like a harmful externality of the industrial economy that we might hope to ameliorate, but the point. Imagine a factory owner who treats the pollution his smoke stacks belch out into the air not as a problem to be fixed but as a good he's keen to increase as much as possible.

That's us online. That's anti-social media.

I noted it a few months ago — after thousands of people spent weeks embroiled in a ridiculous Twitter fight about whether math is racist and whether 2 + 2 could objectively be said to equal 4. The arguments were so thoughtless, packing so much more heat than light, that it seemed obvious that the fight was the whole point. People wanted to be angry, longed for a target to attack, craved a conflict — and a social media platform was the perfect way to facilitate it.

Something similar happened just this past weekend, when a furious online conflagration was sparked by a silly but trivial opinion column in The Wall Street Journal that mocked Jill Biden's for calling herself "Dr. Jill Biden," when her terminal degree is an Ed.D (doctor of education). The column was bad and more than a little condescending, but the resulting Twitter scrum was absurdly disproportionate in its scope and ferocity — especially given the fact that, as Glenn Greenwald has helpfully reminded us, plenty of people were happy just a few years ago to see the Ph.D.-wielding right-wing Sebastian Gorka roundly mocked for insisting on being called "Dr. Sebastian Gorka." The resulting outrage looked less like the defense of a higher principle than a feeding frenzy.

This isn't the way it was supposed to be. The internet was going to bring us together, putting us in touch with each other, learning, empathizing, helping us to see and appreciate commonalities, potentially across all sorts of divides. Instead, our atavistic craving for conflict has reasserted itself in new ways, using the technology as a novel means of smiting one another.

In this respect, social media resembles spectator sports, which have long provided an outlet for the vicarious purging of warlike impulses — especially in an age when mass media broadcasts games across the country and even the world in real time.

The difference is that Twitter users aren't just spectators (though they are free to remain lurkers if they wish). They are full-contact participants in the acrimonious contests that well up from within or outside the feed. That kind of involvement makes the fights incredibly vivid — though no more substantial than a football game that winks out of existence the moment the clock runs out.

We open the app, we scroll, we hate, we lash out, we shut down — and then we do it all again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Because part of us loves to experience the addictive thrill of righteous indignation. And that, in the end, is what the app is really for.

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