Before Twitter went mainstream, when it was reserved for the early adopters, all was well. One tweeted the filling of each day’s lunchtime sandwich, and expressed dismay at Fox’s cancellation of Futurama. But somewhere along the line it went from something no sane person had anything to do with to today, where my boss’s mum has even started following me.
One side effect of this is the ‘safety-in-numbers’ illusion. This has several manifestations, the most worrying being that people believe tweets. Tweets are generally considered as having a similar degree of authenticity as an article in the Times. There are two problems with this.
some of the tweets you read are made up
Firstly, people lie. That’s right, heaven forbid, some of the tweets you read are made up. Completely fictional. Liar liar pants on fire. I know not all newspapers have the same dedication to fact checking or honesty as the Times, but we assume newspapers tell the truth. And because of this when enough people start reading the same medium, the market penetration of the medium seems to be sufficient to grant authenticity.
The other problem is the limitation on the length of each tweet leads to some heavy editing, and many stories have subtlety and depth to them that 140 characters are unable to convey. This results in readers jumping to conclusions.
People have been influence by newspaper bias for ever, often taking the publisher’s side of a story as unbiased fact, unable to spot the degree of opinion woven into the story. But Twitter makes it so easy for you to move from the role of recipient to publisher with the click of a re-tweet button. Now those of us more inclined to question biased media sources are receiving messages from what should be a trusted source, my boss’s mum for example.
I believe that as a species we’ve evolved
over the years to spot the sub-text in IM
And what about irony? In the early days of real-time communication by text, which for me was using ICQ, we bemoaned the lack of subtlety in typewritten communication with many a relationship breaking down as a result of one party not picking up on the other’s sarcasm. I believe that as a species we’ve evolved over the years to spot the sub-text in IM, especially if we’ve spent time using this channel of communication with an individual.
But tweets can be read by the great unwashed, and few of them will be able to spot the subtlety of your textual comms. As an experiment of just this I tweeted the following last night.
I just became the mayor of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club New York on @foursquare! 4sq.com/h69kyJ
Full disclosure. I don’t actually have a FourSquare account. I posted this in the wee hours of last night while sitting in my apartment writing the first draft of this article. People I converse with regularly over IM got in touch today to share a laugh at the post.
But in addition to this, by the time I crawled out my bed 7 hours later, 13 people had stopped following me on Twitter. Did they actually think I was declaring my regular haunt? Did they not get the depth to my message as a comment on the spreading addiction of over-sharing online?
The point is that people will believe your posts are true, and will not bother to research in any way in case they are a hoax. And why should they? Twitter is a barrage of messages that nobody could possibly fully fact check. On a side note, the ever observant @tonyking, whom I knew would instantly grasp the point, later re-tweeted the post and subsequently four people that follow him decided to subscribe to my rants.
The phenomena of mob mentality has been well documented, and Twitter is its perfect breeding ground
Beyond our newfound gullibility there is another, more sinister problem with Twitter, also a manifestation of the ‘safety-in-numbers’ illusion—lynch mob mentality. The phenomena of mob mentality has been well documented, and Twitter is its perfect breeding ground. When someone has an axe to grind they simply don’t have enough characters to fully explain their argument so we assume that behind their haiku is a well thought out, rational point of view. It is in our nature to give the benefit of the doubt, especially if the re-publisher of the content is trusted, and even more so if their gripe strikes a chord with us. Do we stop and take the time to do the due diligence, or do we hit the re-tweet button to show our solidarity?
Assume you are a big believer that taking candy from babies is a heinous crime, and your boss’s mum re-tweets a claim that your boss once liberated a Curly-Wurly from a pre-schooler. Naturally you hit the relevant button to re-broadcast the tweet to show you are getting behind the campaign to protect kid’s candy. The problem is that you are showing our solidarity for the principle, and not necessarily this specific case. If it turns out your boss paid for his own confectionary then where do you stand?
The instantaneous nature of Twitter combined with the safety-in-numbers of the other 500 people re-tweeting provides the Dutch courage required to wade in guns blazing. The volume of people alongside you gives a false air of anonymity. With enough momentum the mob mentality becomes lynch mob mentality causing even the most level headed to lose the plot.
the virtual mob is not anonymous
But here is where the virtual and the reality diverge—the virtual mob is not anonymous, no matter how large it gets. I have first hand experience of this when, last year, I became the target of a particularly ferocious virtual lynch mob. It started when I was, quite rightly, chastised for the inappropriate content of a presentation I gave in Minneapolis.
The problems started when people who had enjoyed the aforementioned content attacked the initial tweeters accusing them of being prudes. This began an escalating dialog with yours truly at the centre, and culminated with one person calling for me to water boarded and another for me to be set on fire.
When challenged, the source of the second of those tweets, stood firm by his declaration and even offered the matches to make it happen. I believe the person responsible for those tweets is normal, level headed, well respected member of their community. In the cold light of day I think they would be embarrassed at their outbursts. Their heart was in the right place, and I too believe in the cause they were standing up for.
And I believe it was a combination of the lynch mob mentality, the feeling of anonymity, and the lack of desire to look beyond the 140 characters that resulted in such behaviour.
And I would like to stress that the feeling of anonymity is just a feeling. By way of a demonstration, I can tell you that our pyromaniacal friend is called Hudson Akridge. Hudson lives in Chicago, where he works as a programmer for a company that I will be gracious enough to not mention here. When Hudson isn’t programming at work, he’s writing articles for his blog at bestguesstheory.com and answering emails to his personal email account firstname.lastname@example.org in his home at 13 West Big Horn, Hainesville, IL 60073.
People don’t realise just how much information
about them is publicly available
I believe Hudson is normal, decent bloke. The kind of chap that I would happily sit down with and drink beers with at a conference while discussing the merits of some new technology. I believe Hudson was a victim of our inclination to grace new mediums of communication with the etiquette learned for more traditional means. People don’t realise just how much information about them is publicly available—all of Hudson’s information is available to you with a few clicks from here.
Never the less, I suspect had Hudson been following my tweets last night, my fake FourSquare post would have sent him over the edge. As far my boss’s mum, she’s still there. For now.