The Twitter paradox

Twitter is an information network that is great for speed but terrible for conveying nuance and making an argument. Since the shelf life of an issue on Twitter is so short, it tempts people to fire off the first response that comes to their heads so as to be still relevant to the conversation, and as a result they may say things that they regret later. All of us have experienced occasions when in the heat of the moment we have said things that we immediately regret. With Twitter, there is no taking back. We read of case after case of people putting their careers and relationships at risk because of tweeting things that they later say were too clumsily written and wrongly interpreted. Some later delete their tweets, which rarely undoes the damage since the internet ever forgets.

Karl Popper supposedly once said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood” and that problem is massively accentuated by Twitter where the brevity requirements are so severe and the rules are not agreed upon. For example, does re-tweeting someone else’s tweets signify approval of that tweet’s sentiments? Sarcasm and humor in general are also easily misconstrued. I used to advise new faculty members to be very, very careful about the use of humor in the classroom since it can easily lead to misunderstandings. That warning applies even more strongly when you cannot immediately explain yourself if you sense that something has gone awry. With Twitter, you may not even know that you expressed yourself poorly until the angry retorts come in.

I had a discussion with a friend once about the question of giving talks and how much to charge. I said that since I had a job that provided me with a living, I was more interested in getting my ideas out and thus would not insist on an honorarium if the group inviting me did not have a budget for it. She said that that was a mistake because people did not appreciate what they got for free. I cannot say that that has been my own experience but Lindy West certainly seems to think that the Twitter world has that quality. I didn’t know who West was but her essay on the reasons why she has had it with Twitter and shut down her account prompted me to speculate on this strange forum that has become such a big communication medium.

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”. I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.

West describes what drew her in to Twitter …

I still loved Twitter – the speed of information, the breadth of analysis, the jokes, the gifs, the fortifying albeit intermittent solidarity, the chance to veet your instincts against those of people much smarter and better informed than you. Every day, people on Twitter – particularly people of colour, trans activists, disabled activists and sex workers – taught me how to be a better person and a better neighbour, a gift they persisted in dispensing even (always) at great personal cost.

… and then drove her out.

The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

I have a Twitter account. Like with my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, I never use it. I just planted my flag in those kingdoms, so to speak, and then moved on. Well, that is not quite true. There is a button on my posts that I can click on to send out the blog post as a Twitter link but I usually forget to use it, easy though it is to do. I cannot imagine actually thinking of something original to post on Twitter. I simply cannot think of anything that is both worth saying and can be said in just 140 characters. A clever epigram in the style of Oscar Wilde or a pithy quote a la Jonathan Swift are well beyond my capabilities. I am a wordy kind of person.

It looks to me that if one is willing to invest a lot of time and effort, Twitter does provide a mechanism by which to become widely known fairly quickly. But when one achieves that goal, one is also immediately targeted because Twitter tears down what it has built up. So the trick may be to know when, like a gambler, to quit when you have achieved your goal and are ahead. But it looks like Twitter, like gambling, is addictive and people stay in long after good sense tells them that it is time to leave. I hope that West is happier now.


  1. Holms says

    “[Entish] is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” -- Treebeard.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Karl Popper supposedly once said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood”

    I know exactly what he means.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    If Karl Popper routinely spoke using double negatives, he probably had that problem a lot.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Correction to my # 4: If Karl Popper routinely spoke using triple negatives, he probably had that problem a lot.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I have used that quote often and people get it immediately and do not have to slowly untangle all the negatives. Not all double (or triple) negatives present the same level of difficulty, it seems.

  6. John Morales says

    “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood”
    ‘To speak in such a way as to not be not understood is not possible.’

    (The first sentence only has one negation, the second has three)

  7. John Morales says

    Pierce, they’re words in themselves — there’s a difference between the syntactic and the semantic processing of my two examples.

    (They parse quite differently, though the semantics are the same)

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