Has Twitter Become Too Toxic?

There's certainly a lot of real estate on Twitter and not all of it is people shouting at each other, but there are times that it sure as hell doesn't feel that way. There are times that it feels like nothing but people shouting at each other -- and woe be unto anyone who tries to interject with a nuanced thought or a comment that contradicts whatever is the accepted, agreed-on and hashtag-stamped orthodoxy of the day.
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Image: Jesus Diaz/Source: The Village Voice

Four years ago feels like an eternity in internet years. Just two years before that MySpace was still the dominant social media site in the country and two years before that the notion of maintaining a popular blog had barely reached a point of cultural critical mass.

And yet four years ago, in July of 2010, CNN fired one of its most capable and respected employees because of something she'd posted on Twitter. Octavia Nasr, who at the time was the network's senior Middle Eastern affairs editor -- basically the person who ran the desk for that part of the world -- tweeted out a quick reaction to the death of a powerful Shiite cleric named Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, calling him "One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." If that statement, in all its unfortunate brevity, feels like a bit of a gut-punch, it did to Nasr as well upon further reflection: less than 24 hours later she posted a lengthy clarification on CNN's blog, adding the nuance and context that Twitter's 140-character format denied her. She made it clear that what she had respected about this particular member of Hezbollah was his somewhat progressive views when it came to Muslim women (namely the view that they didn't necessarily deserve to live under the constant threat of being beaten to death with rocks.) She also apologized for trying to express a complex thought within the confines of a tweet, but by then it was too late. A public outcry demanded her head on a pike and that's exactly what it got. CNN claimed Nasr's "credibility (had) been compromised" and let her go.

You may not remember the firing of Octavia Nasr or even have heard about it at the time, but I want you to imagine what would have happened had Nasr shot that same tweet into the internet ether today, how much swifter and louder and more filled with righteous fury the backlash would've been. In 2010, there wasn't a horde of self-proclaimed warriors from every political stripe ready to unleash hell on anyone who dared to violate the articles of faith behind its relentless crusade. In 2010, Twitter was on its way to becoming the cultural phenomenon it is now but it had nowhere near arrived. What Nasr said sounded abhorrent but that's simply because her statement had no context -- because it was being made on Twitter and Twitter was never designed to be a platform for expressing complicated positions. But what happened to Nasr should have served as an object lesson to others what was inevitably ahead as Twitter rose to become the dominant mode of cultural communication on the internet: the whole place was going to turn into a minefield.

This past Sunday, Patton Oswalt announced that he was taking a minor sabbatical from social media. He posted his statement of purpose, of course, on Facebook, because really where else are you going to go to easily reach all the people you need to without being confined to 140 characters? Patton has slowly built a reputation as an internet troll among a certain set of online polemicists, but that's mostly because he revels in turning some of Twitter's more toxic qualities around and using them as a mirror back at the insanity. The people who tend to take issue with this are the same people -- from the same outlets -- who've helped to make Twitter such a disastrous place for intelligent debate, one not just stunted by its limited format but now seemingly dominated by both social justice and reactionary culture warriors constantly on the lookout for something to be offended by and subsequently turned into a hashtag. Patton went ahead and admitted up-front that he had become part of the problem on Twitter by contributing to the madness even as he tried to call it out (with "calling things out" now being one of the primary applications for Twitter).

"I’ve become my own tyrant — Tweeting, and then responding to my own responses, and then fighting people who disagree with me. Constantly feeling like I have to have an instant take on things, instead of taking a breath, and getting as much information as I can about the world. Or simply listening to the people around me, and watching the world and picking up its hidden rhythms, which crouch underneath the micro and the macro. But I’ve lost sight of them... I've aggressively re-wired my own brain to live and die in a 140 character jungle. I've let my syntax become nothing more than a carnival barker's ramp-up to a click-able link where I'm trying to sell something, or promote something, or share something I had no hand in making."

It would be easy to dismiss Patton's comments as nothing more than florid whining, and that's exactly what some are doing. In particular, his old nemesis Salon immediately published a column declaring that by supposedly picking up his toys and going home, Patton was giving us another example of his trying to have it both ways -- trying to be a transgressive comic while retaining some kind of reputation for being one of the "good guys." It was dime-store analysis if only because it willfully overlooked the possibility that Patton is simply complex enough that he doesn't see everything strictly in black and white. But maybe on Twitter, with opinions and comments fired off in tiny bursts, there's no way to interpret anything other than as an either/or proposition. And considering what the political and cultural discourse throughout the platform has degenerated into, with even seemingly harmless comments or good faith arguments misinterpreted, misrepresented and instantly targeted for backlash, can anybody be blamed for making the decision to detach and come up for air for a bit? The Thunderdome that is Twitter these days has a way of exhausting even the battle-hardened, to say nothing of those who just managed to get dragged into the various volleys back and forth either by choice or chance.

Even though he attempts to explicitly make it clear that it has nothing at all to do with Twitter itself, Patton's decision to go dark for a little while still feels like a quasi-indictment of the scolding, sanctimonious hordes who've given him so much shit online over the past couple of years (and to whom he's responded with such mischievous abandon). More than that, though, it's an indictment of the way a bunch of largely anonymous Twitter followers either amassing under the banner of a hashtag aimed against you or backing you against all comers changes you. Social media has changed most of us, changed the way we interact with each other -- and not necessarily for the better. There's certainly a lot of real estate on Twitter and not all of it is people shouting at each other, but there are times that it sure as hell doesn't feel that way. There are times that it feels like nothing but people shouting at each other -- and woe be unto anyone who tries to interject with a nuanced thought or a comment that contradicts whatever is the accepted and agreed-on orthodoxy of the day.

In addition to Patton, coincidentally, I personally know of two other well-known social media figures who are making the decision to step away from Twitter for the foreseeable future. One is a male comedy writer, the other a female political consultant. Both have asked not to be identified only because they don't want anyone attempting to tie their exits to a particular online event on which they commented. When I asked one of them to explain why a decision was made to abandon so many followers indefinitely, this person responded with a pretty harsh condemnation of the current culture of Twitter. "Twitter's become a nasty little shit-show of bullies who think that because their bullying is in the service of good and right they are free to race forward and indulge their worst impulses," I was told.

This person was referring not specifically to Suey Park's lunatic #CancelColbert crusade but the general climate that spawned it and spawns mini versions of it over and over again, with left or right hardly being as big an issue as extremist partisanship in general and the resulting special brand of social engineering through media backlash. And while the outcome that those who wield Twitter like a weapon seek can't be called censorship, it's damn close. "They'll point out that technically, since it's not from the government, this is not censorship, and I agree, it's not," says one of the two Twitter refugees. "But it's like a different chemical substance that has the same poisonous properties as censorship. It has a chilling effect on free speech. It has a chilling effect on moderation and careful thought. The moderates are never as committed or savage as the extremists. So they shrug and pull back, drop out."

And when that happens, the loudest, shrillest voices win.

Since her abrupt dismissal by CNN, Octavia Nasr has remained a sought-after expert on Middle Eastern affairs. She also started her own media consulting firm that specializes in newsroom management and, ironically, social media strategies. She currently has 213-thousand Twitter followers.