Saturday, March 23, 2013

Twitter Might Just Be Poison

As a result of the latest shitstorm, I'm changing how I use Twitter.

I believe Ms. Richards did nothing wrong. People use Twitter to share cat gifs and completely unnecessary information about what type of sandwich they're eating. Tweets are so incredibly disposable that it's a little crazy to hear anyone holds a serious opinion about any tweet. I also believe that the guys Ms. Richards photographed only did a small thing wrong. They deserved some public embarrassment. When you tell the wrong joke at the wrong time, you're going to be embarrassed. That's just how it works. More than that, though, seems like overkill.

Also, I don't think there's anything wrong with public shaming, as long as the public involved is not going to go batshit insane over a minor provocation. Programmers, unfortunately, seem to do exactly that, and pretty regularly. This might just be an unfortunate reality of the programmer personality type -- I myself once got so angry at a developer who farted while sitting next to me that he literally thought I might try to kill him -- but I believe Twitter makes it worse.

Tweets are brief enough to match the pace of normal conversation, but they lack the nonverbal context that real conversation needs. Tweets discourage depth, due to Twitter's utter uselessness for threaded conversation with multiple participants. Tweets skew heavily towards oversimplification and misinterpretation, due to the incredible ease with which a remark can be stripped of its context and widely propagated. And tweets skew heavily towards shallowness, since the format only supports rapid, brief responses.

I think Twitter bears some responsibility for the incredibly rapid escalation that programmer drama sees these days. It's faster and more personal than it used to be. When you see a new phenomenon which encourages the instant, context-free propagation of incendiary comments, and you also see people's tempers getting much shorter at around the same time, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to spot the connection.

Most of the threats leveled against Ms. Richards, if I understand correctly, occurred on 4chan, and I certainly think that is not an ideal thing, to say the least, but 4chan served a similar function in the similar salvo of rape and death threats which Kathy Sierra suffered in 2007, and although that episode was also horrible, it played out at least a little more slowly.

This is of course not proof, just a hunch. And it is of course absolutely horrible that these threats occur at all, that law enforcement does not handle them like the crimes they are, and that they have actually gotten worse in the past five or six years. But that's not really what this blog post is about.

What this blog post is about is the simple fact that I just don't have time for this shit. Giving some of my time to speak out against sexism and/or racism is certainly worthwhile, because it stands a chance of making the world a better place, but in practice it doesn't seem to do so, and I'm not a cop or a politician. We already have people whose job it is to solve these problems. If these lazy fuckballs aren't doing their jobs -- which is usually the case -- then we need to wake them up and get them working.

More relevantly, you can't glimpse even the slightest world-enhancing possibility in the overwhelming majority of arguments which I've seen Twitter accelerating, polarizing, and intensifying. Most of the time, it's just people freaking out for no good reason. I can't stop that from happening, but I can stop myself from being one of those people.

At best, I think Twitter belongs in a category of shallow, time-wasting amusements with trivial benefits and significant long-term downsides, like junk food, television, and Hacker News. However, I'm not totally throwing Twitter away forever. First, it's good for advertising my products (which is another thing it has in common with TV and Hacker News). Second, I have a Twitter account where I used to post new music daily, and I still post a lot of new music there. That's been very good for me in terms of developing my music skills. (I tried switching to SoundCloud, but it's overkill for that use case.) Third, Twitter can be a good source of new information.

I'm going to stop using Twitter entirely for a while, just to break the habit so I can start again clean. Next, I'll probably write a simple filtering/formatting mini-app, so I can get the useful information without the tempestuous noise. I've done these for Hacker News and the Bitcoin exchange rate, and I've been very happy with this approach. It's much, much more pleasant than accessing a noisy information source directly. I'll probably also write a simple write-only Twitter queue, like my failed "startup" Email Without The Inbox. And, of course, if/when I actually do these things, I'll probably blog about it here, and share the code on GitHub. I might even tweet about it.