Fifteen years ago today, an innovation was unveiled that has probably changed our lives as much as any other this century. It was on 15 July 2006 that software developer Jack Dorsey and his team launched an online platform where text messages of 140 characters could be shared in a group; six days later Dorsey sent his first tweet, launching a new age of reasoned debate and engagement.
There are some who want to celebrate today — principally Dorsey, along with the small number of other people who have become unimaginably rich off the platform. But for everybody else on the planet, I suspect we should welcome the anniversary with roughly the same enthusiasm that we would the emergence of the Ebola virus. For the further away we have come from Twitter’s birth, the clearer it has become that the platform is a source of unimaginable harm to almost every aspect of society.
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In the early days, it didn’t feel like this. Like Facebook, Amazon, Google and the other Big Tech monoliths, it all started out so well. Twitter was actually fun back then. People said whacky things. There were cat videos. There was Follow Friday and friendships were made. As professional and amateur newshounds took to the platform, it became the fastest way to learn about any developing story.
If something was going on, Twitter was there first, certainly ahead of the BBC or any of the other news establishments who had to lumber through the old legal and editorial hurdles, rather than enjoying the lightning-quick response time of social media. Politics is a drug, and the most successful drugs provide an instant hit. But they are also the most dangerous, and the downsides soon started to assert themselves.
Soon many started using the site in a game of competitive grievance, or competitive sanctimony. They took obvious glee in targeting victims who had transgressed some moral code; the obvious righteousness of these online crusaders meant they rarely recognised themselves as the aggressors or bullies.
And soon it became apparent that, while everyone was on the site, everyone also hated it. Those on the ideological Left began to turn against the platform when it became clear that it allowed their opponents on the Right to spread “hate”, a scourge which they defined generously. Just as they used it themselves to spread their message.
This all reached its nadir with Donald Trump, whose presidency is to many people the most concrete result of Twitter. The world watched aghast as Trump was able to say often the craziest of things to millions upon millions of followers, speaking unfiltered and directly — in a way the old news media would never have allowed. When he won the presidency and then thanked Twitter for the helping him to get it, many of these natural Twitter followers lost their faith in the platform. How could they have let it happen? It was their platform, after all, this noisy minority of the American and British electorate. Indeed, if you had read UK Twitter ahead of the 2019 election, you would have been absolute certain of a Jeremy Corbyn landslide. Where were these millions of Tory voters who didn’t like Jeremy?
Twitter began to ask itself the same questions, and finally, after Trump’s response to the disturbances of 6 January, the decision was made to chuck the most famous and powerful man in the world off the platform. He went the way of Katie Hopkins into the next world (aka Parler) along with a string of others. Just this past weekend an odious little toad and anti-Semite called Nick Fuentes was chucked off the platform. Very few people were sorry to see him go.
But Trump’s removal was the most audacious sign yet that the platform was willing to make editorial decisions. It could no longer pretend that it was simply a neutral platform — it had become a curated outlet. The suspicion grew, too, that they were playing more insidious games behind the scenes. Twitter had always denied the practice of shadow-banning, which is when a user’s tweets mysteriously stop appearing, before it was eventually confirmed by Twitter that they were doing exactly that.
Yet all of this is as nothing compared to the devastating virus-like effect that Twitter has had across the public arena.
It has undeniably coarsened public discourse. There are commentators and journalists for whom I used to have some respect, but who use Twitter so constantly that I read their work with ever less anticipation and regard. There is almost no prominent figure on Twitter who hasn’t lowered themselves in one’s estimation. There are those who use the platform as a venue to carp about everything that their contemporaries, rivals or friends are saying. They berate other journalists, as though they are masters of the genre whose verdict is final. The pleasant communal hackery of old has been replaced by a melee of endless fall-outs, unnecessarily initiated and often with irreparable results.
The platform has also given the greatest possible voice to the general scold: the type of person who achieves great pleasure in taking offence and even causing someone to lose their livelihood or reputation — the “I am offended by that” or “I don’t find that funny” brigade. Where once people simply shrugged, now they “take to Twitter”, in the annoying parlance, to show that they are unimpressed, or to tell people off for saying something which they disagree. There is a performative rage which the platform has encouraged, and which people find it hard to withdraw from once they are caught up in it. It’s addictive. It’s thrilling.
And then there is the chihuahua effect: the way in which any small, yappy animal can distract the platform for at least a day at a time. Would-be chihuahuas can get the hang of this very easily. You simply say something silly and instead of the grown-ups just ignoring the small yappy dog, all respond to it. A whole day can go by in which some relatively good minds and a great many more mediocre ones have done almost nothing but got themselves in a lather about how annoying the small yapping dog is.
There are countless other reasons to loathe the platform: photos of dinner; stories of deeply dull train journeys or traffic jams; glimpses into the mundane aggravations which are bad enough in your own life without needing to read those of others. People misery-share their lives and the sadness and anger proves infectious. It is all a colossal waste of time, of course, yet is by no means the worst aspect of the all-powerful site.
That has been illustrated once again these past few days, with the anonymous racist abuse posted at black England footballers. Twitter acted as a megaphone for the most hysterical of these bigots, and highlighted the platform’s complete inability to sensibly and reasonably offer judgements about the actual state of the world we live in.
It made it seem as though these racists are vast in number. As though they are powerful and need the full force of every arm of the state to unite against them and quell them. Never mind that many of these tweets came from outside the UK, and that they were utterly dwarfed in number by supportive messages.
The New York Times, whose correspondent seems to spend an awful lot of time news gathering on Twitter, even went as far as to describe these as “racist attacks”, never missing a chance to take a swipe at Britain. But we live in a country which is by every standard one of the least racist on earth, with statistics all demonstrating a vertiginous fall-off in people holding prejudice attitudes. Britain is one of the countries most unbothered, indeed most favourable, about things such as interracial marriage, or living next door to someone of a different race.
We have one of the most diverse cabinets in the world and our public square, from television and film to our national football team is visibly and un-controversially multi-ethnic. And yet reading Twitter you’d have no idea of that. No wonder that in Britain, as in the US, young people think that they live in such a racist society, beyond redemption. Here on this platform a very few shrill voices can be so magnified that people mistake that sound for the country as a whole. And so, 15 years after its launch, Twitter has become not just a megaphoning platform, but a distorting one, and the distortion continues to have a toxic impact on real life.
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