The Downside of Internet Fragmentation

Noah Smith has an interesting piece about the (possible, ongoing) demise of Twitter and how social media is becoming more fragmented (boldface mine):

From Twitter, however, there seemed to be no exit. Where would you go? If you were a journalist, Twitter was the source for all the most up-to-the-minute news. If you were a regular person who disagreed with journalists and wanted to yell directly in their faces, Twitter was the only place you could do that. If you wanted to mix it up in the neverending scrum of political and cultural affairs, Twitter was where you could get the largest audience for that, and feel like you had the largest impact. It was easy to clone Twitter — right-wingers tried several times, with Gab, Parler, and Truth Social — but it felt like the network effect of the original just couldn’t be overcome. So you went back day after day, to endure the toxicity of the dunk-mobs and throw yourself once more into the fight…

But what’s interesting is that even the people who do expect this sort of exodus [from Twitter] don’t seem to believe that there will be another single, unified platform that just replaces Twitter. The look and functionality of the original is simple to replicate, but no one seems to think that everyone will just move to New Twitter; everyone seems to expect that if and when Twitter does decline, the future is fragmented.

…Humanity does not want to be a global hive mind. We are not rational Bayesian updaters who will eventually reach agreement; when we receive the same information, it tends to polarize us rather than unite us. Getting screamed at and insulted by people who disagree with you doesn’t take you out of your filter bubble — it makes you retreat back inside your bubble and reject the ideas of whoever is screaming at you. No one ever changed their mind from being dunked on; instead they all just doubled down and dunked harder. The hatred and toxicity of Twitter at times felt like the dying screams of human individuality, being crushed to death by the hive mind’s constant demands for us to agree with more people than we ever evolved to agree with.

I don’t disagree with Smith, though I think this did exist pre-Twitter, though it was easier to escape. But there is a real loss here, and it’s in the first part I highlighted:

If you were a regular person who disagreed with journalists and wanted to yell directly in their faces, Twitter was the only place you could do that.

When I’ve been asked why I started blogging I respond, “Because it was marginally more effective than firing Nerf projectiles at my TV machine when it makes me angry.” Kidding aside, Twitter was a place where the hoi polloi had a chance to ‘influence (some of) the influencers.’ One of the reasons things like the Clinton Penis Hunt took off was because the political press corps was so insular, and I think Twitter, among other internet phenomena*, really helped break down that insularity and offer an actual vox populi (not the Elongated Muskrat version). Remember that the impetus for Politico was Marc Halperin’s newsletter which only went to the influential people. There also were a bunch of listservs that political pundits hung out on–and that era offered far less access to ‘ordinary people.’

Put another way, we’ve seen the bad side of Twitter in the pandemic, with the dissemination of various anti-vaccine and anti-masking propaganda, but we’ve also seen scientists be able to communicate directly with pundits–and importantly, rebut them (which has led to a lot of public butthurt by those same pundits).

For what it’s worth, I think post.news is in danger of becoming a place where NPR totebagger types sniff each other’s farts and tell themselves how wonderful they smell. Mastodon, while not as acrimonius, does seem a better place to have debates–but this could change of course.

So, yes, Twitter as we knew it, is likely gone, and that might be for the most part good, but I think we will have lost something important too. We need to figure out how to replace that.

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2 Responses to The Downside of Internet Fragmentation

  1. JDM says:

    The problem is more what will reporters do? We’ve already seen how lazy many of them have gotten; pre-Twitter they simply hung out at the Drudge Report. One website, basically handing out assignments. Those reporters will be looking for a site that offers them lazy reporting.

  2. dr2chase says:

    “a regular person who disagreed with journalists and wanted to yell directly in their faces…”

    as “regular people” so often do.

    It never seemed to me like my opinion (or worse, actual knowledge of facts) had much influence, my rule on Twitter was if they won’t learn from me and I won’t learn from them (or can’t trust them to produce facts and thoughtful analysis) then any interactions are a waste, I should block them. There are so many people-with-platforms who have shit-for-brains, and half the rest are unimaginative lapdogs for the status quo.

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