I had an interesting encounter on Twitter a few days ago, the implications of which have been stirring in the back of my mind since.
I rejoined the fray about a month ago, with the intention of using Twitter very differently than I had before. For one, I only follow news organizations and people that I know well outside of Twitter. Secondly, I try not to get engaged in hot-button social or political issues, since there’s generally not much benefit that comes out of those conversations.
Mostly though, I had intended to keep more of my posting activity focused on useful things – like the stuff I’m building, or how my journey as a freelancer is progressing. On balance I don’t think I’ve really achieved that so far, and I do honestly lament that fact.
And then something interesting happened. In another thread, I was commenting on Gwen Ngwenya’s resignation as the DA policy head (a big deal in liberal politics), and as usual, I tried to see it from perspectives everybody else was ignoring.
Like how she’s a young, bright, capable black woman who just burned a male-dominated organization for being incapable and disorganized, and what if most of the blowback is just a bunch of insecure men lashing out?
Between that observation and the former tweet, somebody actually took issue with me. Apparently, by both commenting on a political issue in a way they disagreed with, and expressing a desire to talk about things other than politics, I had somehow personally disappointed them.
I didn’t even finish reading the tweet before blocking that person, so I couldn’t tell you what the rest of it said, and my life is not served in any way by knowing it. But it did remind me of Ben Hunt’s mirror engagement theory – an idea that more people should really be familiar with.
I hadn’t realized it up until that point, but apparently I’ve become something of a celebrity to a few people on Twitter. I don’t say that in a self-aggrandizing way – what I mean to say is: I’ve said enough things that enough people want to hear, and by following/liking/retweeting the things I say, some of them feel like they’ve entered into a contract with me.
In that contract (which I’m completely unaware of), I need to provide them with the snippets and hot takes that aligns with their existing beliefs, which they will then boost to their own audiences – in return, I get additional exposure and influence.
For as long as I give them what they want, (they think) they’re giving me what I want – and the moment I break that contract by saying something they disagree with, it becomes my fault.
It’s analogous to sports fans – another concept I don’t really go for. I’ve known fans who get really amped up over their favorite teams and players, then take it deeply personally when these celebrities let them down. Of course, these players have absolutely no idea who their fans are – they’re just playing the game.
Twitter flips that on its head in two ways: It makes it possible for anyone to achieve celebrity status (just tell people what they want to hear), and it makes it possible for anyone to provide realtime feedback when they feel like you’ve violated their implicit contract.
The reason any of this is relevant: I’ve been on Twitter for a long, long time. I joined in 2008, back when there were so few people locally, you could count them by hand.
Twitter back then was an absolute treasure. A network full of early adopters that weathered service outages because it meant connecting with other early adopters. Twitter was the counter-culture, an “underground” network where we could be vulnerable and honest, and find empathy and common ground with people all around the world.
And then it started going mainstream. The Obama campaign used social media to take the White House, setting a precedent in US politics. Over time, here in South Africa, as the uptake grew, so did the potential for political warfare.
It’s a great deal for failing news organizations: Twitter is a constant source of drama, easily repackaged as engaging news segments. With political parties joining the fray, it’s now a battleground of ideas. When Bell Pottinger rolled out their social media offensives as part of the Gupta PR campaign, they were playing from a well-established handbook.
Today, Twitter is basically a toxic hivemind. Give it what it wants, and it rewards you with completely undue social influence – a rapid conduit to getting your message out via established and credible news organizations.
There’s every benefit to being a crowd-pleasing hack. Roll out the hottest takes, never apologize for getting things wrong, never back down, never stop making your fans feel like they made the right choice in defending you to their friends.
Create and maintain a caricature of yourself that appeals to people that would rather not put any thought into their own arguments, and will instead impulsively agree with anything that feels right to them – even if completely illogical. Do this, and you’ll end up famous (and possibly, wealthy).
But it’s a Faustian bargain: You can never be your honest self, and you must always please the crowds that give you power. Displease the hivemind, and it will literally ruin your life.
You’ll get harassed off the platform, then your personal information will be dug up and routed to people that take absolute pleasure in making your life miserable. It’ll kill your brand, your business, and in some cases, may even drive you to kill yourself.
Given the way those incentives are set up, it’s no surprise that South African Twitter is slowly becoming more toxic as it enters into the mainstream. It’s old-school pedagogy reinvented for modern technology. A true flattening of the hierarchy that never stopped to question if the hierarchy had any merit – if there was a reason we only let certain people have major platforms and massive social influence.
In any case, this is what we have to deal with. For my part, while I will occasionally apologize for not meeting my own goals, I’ll never apologize for having complex opinions, or being honest in their expression.
This means I’ll never be popular, but I’m 100% okay with being myself. At the end of the day, that’s far more important to me.