Suppose you are a pedestrian about to cross the street. A car approaches the crosswalk and the driver sees you. You think he will let you go first. Instead, he stops for a fraction of a second and does not give you a chance. You flip him the bird, that guy must be an inconsiderate jerk. Well, a few days ago I was that guy. This happened around the corner from my house, and I barely made it to the bathroom. I am so sorry random pedestrian, I normally would have let you go first but… when you have to go, you have to go.
This little anecdote is an example of one of my favorite cognitive biases, the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a fancy name for the tendency to explain someone’s actions based on who we think they are, instead of what the situation may be. If we do not know either, it is easy to imagine that the person is a certain type of individual. It is harder to think “why would I have done what this person did?”
Now, let’s imagine that we are trying to create a platform for people to communicate online. However, this is not our own startup. We are on a contract with Satan himself. He instructed us to maximize confusion, outrage, misunderstandings, hatred. How do we approach this problem? I have some ideas. First, I would remove voice and image. Everyone who has ever participated in an internet forum knows that is it much easier to hate on a faceless, voiceless stranger. However, that will not be enough.
This is the fourth paragraph of this post, and I have not yet fully expressed my point. If you forced me to sum it up in 280 characters I might be able to convey the gist of it at the expense of nuance and context. If I happened to be sitting at a table with acquaintances and did this, we may engage in a conversation. If my pithy sentences were not clear enough, I would be forced to restate and elaborate. The space restriction that made Twitter popular also has nasty side effects: it forces the author to omit everything that “goes without saying.” I bet that if I went to my timeline right now, I would find an example of this pattern:
- Person A tweets something, generally an opinion.
- Person B interprets A’s tweet in the worst possible way, distorting the content of the tweet while assuming that this interpretation of the content is the correct one. As only an idiot could have this opinion, A is an idiot.
- Fight ensues.
Is Satan happy yet? No, we still have room for worsening. If I am at a random party and walk around, I will hear random conversations. Perhaps I will miss the most inane or egregious ones, the ones that might make it hard for me to not react angrily. However, this is Satan’s party in Hell. Satan’s algorithmic minions will make sure that I do not miss out on these conversations. If it were a normal party Satan would care about making his guests happy, but that is not His wish. He wants us to stick around for as long as possible. How could we leave the party when someone is wrong?
Finally, let’s imagine that Satan’s party venue is in Las Vegas. The popular saying is that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but once again this need not be true. What happens on Twitter appears everywhere on the internet, and I cannot escape. Many rage-inducing tweets are quoted everywhere: Slack, Whatsapp, Discord, your social tool of choice. The author of the tweet may never know about the viral memetic agent who brought us the tweet. Twitter however knows that I cannot escape its malevolent, omnipresent internet reach.
Do you believe Twitter is not a mind virus? I invite you to convince me otherwise. Just not on Twitter.