15 September 2011

The loss of ambient intimacy

Ten thoughts on the problem with Twitter and why my life improved by escaping planet Twitter.

Two months ago, I decided to concentrate on finishing one of my projects and one of the things I sacrificed in the name of productivity and time was Twitter. Strangely enough, but also unsurprising, my productivity didn’t change in any measurable way. (Turns out other things like regular sleep is more important than a mild addiction to a social service, whodathunkit?) What did change was stress and anxiety and fun. Less of the first two and more of the third.

Google Plus started shortly after I quit Twitter, but it hasn’t even come close to replacing Twitter in any way, having fewer people than an Icelandic business ethics committee; that service is a non-factor in all of this and suffers from its own issues. I’m not arguing that Google Plus is superior to Twitter, there isn’t enough there there to argue anything about Google Plus either way. It’s a ghost town that needs more people before we can come to any conclusion about it.

Thinking about this inspired me to revisit some of my notes I wrote on Twitter’s flaws. I tweeted most of them in the early days of Twitter, but all of those are now lost somewhere in Twitter’s inaccessible archives (if they even exist anymore).


(Aside: If you can’t tell the difference between becoming more productive because you stopped using twitter and deciding to be more productive and sacrificing Twitter to that end, then you deserve all of the crap self-help books that litter your desk. One is ‘it rains because the streets are wet’, the other is ‘the streets are wet because it rained’.)

Besides, if I want to, I can have much more fun procrastinating by watching Count Duckula or Danger Mouse episodes, or even better, alternating Danger Man (huge Patrick McGoohan fan, me) and Danger Mouse, than by tweeting. The fifty minute Danger Man episodes are, by the way, much better than the twenty-five minute ones. Skip the first season if you’re interested in watching Danger Man and go straight to the meaty long episodes.


There’s a lot I could cut down on in the name of productivity, but, in truth, productivity is more about not wasting time on crap and nonsense than it is about reclaiming time spent on entertaining frivolities. Twitter, on the other hand, has long since stopped being just an entertaining frivolity and, for regular users, becomes a substantial feature of their lives.

That also means it is a substantial time drain.

I wouldn’t have decided to cut Twitter out of my life were it not for one fact: It had stopped being fun. Discussions on Twitter wasn’t fun anymore. Venting your thoughts in a short series of tweets wasn’t fun. Posting links resulted in tweets in vehement and violent agreement and disagreement in equal measure and any interaction threatened to blow up into a tweet brouhaha. Twitter had stopped being fun.


Anybody who complains about a lack of civility and social niceties on the internet can count on being mocked, laughed at, and ridiculed. Pleas for a civil web are usually met with reactions where the participants argue that such things are the inevitable price we pay for the freedom, convenience and speed of online communications, all delivered in a tone and with a demeanour lends undue credence to their case.

The web is a rude, crude, and emotionally violent place. It’s a landscape of embarrassing openness, irrational hostility, ritual humiliation, unprovoked mockery and more than a little bit of grade-A, radioactive, highly toxic stupidity. Shit like that happens sometimes.

The problem lies in the idea, often hinted at, seldom clearly stated, that you can’t make nice places on the net. At least, not for long. It’s easy to fall into this trap. Those of us who have been online since the nineties have seen pleasant websites abandoned, nice communities devolve into name-calling, and online groups implode in spectacular flamewars.

The problem is that we have also seen sites like Metafilter.

They might not outnumber the glorious fuckups, but the web has more than a few nice corners for us to visit, it’s what makes us return to it, again and again. What is really interesting, though, are the cases where you can find the same people, on two different sites, but one is clearly a more pleasant, constructive, and informative experience than the other.

For example, compare Facebook and Twitter.


One of the reasons why cutting Twitter was an easy decision is that, for me, at least, Twitter has never been a particularly pleasant experience. It is addictive, it gives you an insight into the life’s and interests of a community of people you select, it enables you to easily engage with people beyond that selected group, it could even be a lot of fun, but it was never pleasant. Discussions escalate too quickly into hot-headed arguments, forced brevity too often eradicates the verbose fluff of civility that lubricates social interactions, all opinions become stark because qualifiers are excised for their character count, and all the while that same brevity decreases emotional distance.

Emotional proximity – the very same ambient intimacy that drew us to Twitter – combined with an enforced lack of verbose social niceties makes for a society of acquaintances that are constantly on the verge of hostility.

This is easy to deal with when times are good, stress levels are low, and people don’t have any worries, but now that we are all surrounded by anxiety and distress – even if our own situations are fine – a level of tension builds up that is hard to vent safely.

The very same openness about the casual details of life that is the foundation of ambient intimacy builds tension and anxiety in times of stress. A problem shared is only a problem halved if you have the space and time to couch your language in the words of politeness and respect that otherwise carry no information.

Twitter compromises our capability to express our feelings and takes away the cues we rely on to judge the feelings of fellow members of our community.

In short:

Twitter makes us autistic.


Twitter also exaggerates another problem that is inherent in most of the web’s social software. Communities on the web self-select around mutual agreement. Conservatives socialise only with conservatives, liberals with liberals, Apple fans with Apple fans, geeks with geeks, programmers with programmers, photographers with photographers, and, in many cases, outside opinions are met with hostility.

Twitter exacerbates this problem in many ways:

One symptom that results is that often when you tweet your opinion of something (a short phrase with a tweet, for example) you’re immediately drawn into a confrontation with members and representatives of multiple and incompatible world-views without the space, means, or tools to adequately express the details and complexity of your opinion with the respect and civility such an exchange requires. The end result is that, over time, you are trained by the various communities on twitter not to tweet at all.


Most of these problems are the direct result of the 140 character limit on tweets, an archaic technical limitation that doesn’t even exist for text messages (phones have, for over a decade, transparently worked around the 140 character limit). One solution is simple: Raise the limit. Even just matching Facebook’s 420 character limit would go a long way towards enabling people to use more natural language in their conversations and interactions on twitter.

The usual counter-argument is that brevity is a feature of Twitter and, obviously, if you aren’t convinced that human interaction sometimes requires verbosity, then there is very little that can be done to convince you that the character limit needs to be raised.

Except that you probably wouldn’t notice much of a difference and that a balance can be struck:

Brevity can be promoted, even if it isn’t enforced. Make the status update character count go bright red once it goes over 140 characters, and make the user click the ‘tweet’ button twice to confirm the action if the character count is over 280, much in the same way as the iOS App Store purchase button works.

-176 Post this anyway

Give people the ability to post longer tweets when necessary and promote brevity through UI design.


Another feature that makes the character limit such a problematic issue is that all of Twitter’s social features require text to be embedded within the tweet itself: Usernames and tags both can easily consume a disproportionate amount of your character quota.

This design has a devastating effect on group discussions, exactly the place where subtlety and civility is the most essential. The more people participate in the discussion, the less meaningful and civil the tweets become, purely because of the necessity of including the usernames of all involved. Add a hashtag in there as well and discussions become content-free confrontations.

The way Twitter has integrated its url shortener into its service points to a way they could solve this problem completely: Usernames and hashtags that are at the front or back of a tweet shouldn’t count towards the character count and simply become a part of the tweet’s metadata.

This solution shouldn’t prove controversial, even with the fans of the mythical benefits of twitter’s enforced brevity.


One of their primary failings is Twitter’s utter lack of anything even resembling permanence.

It can be argued that the lack of archives and the inability to explore past tweets just a the way the service works, the ephemeral nature of each individual tweet would be undermined if Twitter fixed its archival problems.

Discussions are a different beast. The work that goes into discussions and the number of people involved means that there is a strong need to preserve them. They are also the one thing on Twitter that is likely to appeal to outside participants, who often refer to them and continue the discussions in other forums such as weblogs. Twitter users often resort to third party solutions to collect discussions for this purpose, but this is feature that should be provided by Twitter itself: Permalinks for discussions.

There are other problems with Twitter’s discussion views, and many ways it can be improved, but that’s well beyond the scope of this blog post.


Lists are what you’d call in Icelandic stílbrot—a sudden break in style. They are very unlike any other feature of Twitter. Discussions, replies, hashtags, were all developed organically and operate by adding metadata to individual tweets. Most of Twitter’s features are implemented with the addition of metadata. It would seem more logical and consistent of Twitter to have added metadata to your contact list: Allow the user to organically tag the people they follow and let them dynamically filter their timeline based on the tags.

Lists don’t solve the problem of filtering your timeline and increasing the signal to noise ratio. Separating them out from the regular timeline makes it much easier to add even more people to the list and overload it to such an extent as to completely counteract whatever benefits it might have otherwise had to the signal to noise ratio.

Twitter lists operate more like chatrooms than filter mechanisms. Their conversational and social dynamic is different from that of the rest of twitter.


Twitter isn’t a place where you post your thoughts and actions. It doesn’t take more than five minute inspection of the tweets and stream of most active Twitter users to see what it’s really about, what consumes their days, fills their lives, what it is that they really care about—their passion and joy.

Twitter is about consumption, the food you eat, the crap you drink, the things you buy, the sites you scan, the books you read, and the TV you watch.

Twitter is where you advertise your consumption and your opinions on what others consume. Opinion and debate on Twitter doesn’t exist as such, it all hinges around consumption on some level. You don’t debate an issue, you argue about what somebody said in a blog post. You don’t talk about feminism or equality, you tweet about how stupid somebody on the radio is. Twitter is a system for codifying mindless reactionary posturing and displaying it on an online billboard so that everybody can see what sort of person you’d like to be thought to be.

Every tweet is about who you think you are, what you like, what you dislike, what you stand for and against, and none of them are about your fears, your doubts, the anxiety, desperation, and feeling of free fall that comes with any act of creating. Twitter is an identity production and consumption system.

This is why the owners of Twitter will become rich. Twitter is about laying your identity as a consumer bare, opening the wallet at the heart of your soul, placing yourself in the constellation of brands. This is why they will be wealthy. Twitter is desire, mimetic desire, the longing of the savage pack animal who wants to fit in, it is the voice of those who play the game of life by the rulebook. This is why they will succeed. Twitter isn’t advertising, it’s what happens when advertising is internalised.

This is why they will become rich and you will remain poor.


Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, Linkedin… They all have value because they have people, and one of the core tenets, the one article of faith that underlies all of the financing of these companies, is that the more people these sites have, the more value the network will have. This idea is variously labelled as Reed’s law or Metcalfe’s law, depending on how important you want to make your crap sound.

Both of the ideas, when presented by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are about value in holistic terms: the value of the network in its entirety. Which is reasonable, since they’re greedy selfish arseholes with no ambition in life except to get rich, fuck off and leave the ruins of the world to us proles.

However, both ideas, as useful as they are to hipster geeks who want to become rich, fail to address the idea of what creates value to individuals.

It doesn’t matter how many people a network has if its very design makes civil discourse difficult.

It doesn’t matter how many experts a network has if they never talk, exchange ideas, or collaborate.

It doesn’t matter how many writers a network has if they’re forced to use a crippling subset of the riches the written language provides.

It doesn’t matter how big a network is if everybody’s behaving like a fucking arsehole.

A network whose ties are strengthened when the crowd has blood on its teeth and skin under its nails, whose fabric is reinforced when an outsider, or an unlucky stranger is ritually mocked, humiliated and taken apart, is not a network whose value increases with size. It is a savage horde. Every time one of us mocks someone we disagree with on one of these sites, every time we insult strangers because we know it’ll strengthen our bonds with those ‘like us’, every time we set upon the stupid and ignorant like a pack of dogs, the illusion of the knowing man falls further and further away.

Disagree, argue, complain, if you have a point to make, but when you throw a gripe to the crowd as if you were throwing a bone to the dogs, you are using your legitimate issues to feed the community bond at the expense of the fabric of civilisation.

We know social websites can be kept constructive, uplifting, and civil through both technical design and careful maintenance.

But most of them are designed solely to feed the savage and monstrous heart of the packaged and branded consumer.


Will I return to Twitter?

I don’t know.

Because Twitter is a near-perfect Skinner Box, simply avoiding it is going to be easier than just tempering my use.

I wonder if operant conditioning causes the same sort of anxiety in lab rats as it does in young hipsters who don’t understand the nature of self-control.

Quick tip: Self-control isn’t a muscle, it’s a finite resource that runs out if you try it too much, relies heavily on glucose and blood-sugar levels, fails if you’re tired, and disappears if you’re drunk (avoidance is the only tactic that consistently works); bad habits are most easily broken by replacing them with benign ones; you can strengthen your resolve in one area by giving in to temptation in another; if you have to be exposed to a temptation, abstraction works better than distraction (e.g. imagine that the marshmallow is a cloud); and if you don’t want to cheat on your significant other, don’t go out for a late night drink with someone you fancy, if you do, you’ll wake up considerably more single than the day before. These are all things your mother should have taught you when she was raising you (including the crash course in How Not to Cheat).

My method of kicking Twitter was simple: I stayed away from it as much as possible, and, whenever I got the urge to check Twitter, I’d check Techmeme instead, a news source I loathe with a passion. I’d spend 30 seconds staring in disbelief at links to posts written by PR toadies before closing the tab and returning to work. After a few days of being unusually aware of the tech media’s general idiocy, I stopped checking Techmeme altogether.

I didn’t even follow links to tweets or Twitter profiles while I was kicking the habit.

This, not so coincidentally, is similar to the method I used to kick coffee: Every time I had the urge, instead of having a cup of coffee, I’d have a cup of green tea. I don’t particularly like green tea, so, once I’d replaced my coffee habit with a green tea habit, cutting my green tea consumption down to next to nothing was doddle. It also bears mentioning that I haven’t had a data connection enabled (not even wifi) on my iPhone for a year and a half, which makes these sort of temptations easier to resist.

I also know that I couldn’t have kicked both coffee and Twitter at the same time. Anyway…

Twitter is a good way to follow the issues and links that interest the social groups I follow, I may simply decide to try to lurk. A self-imposed ‘no tweeting’ rule would enable me to follow updates but still be available in case somebody throws a question my way. I don’t know if that’s feasible, the very design of Twitter goes against such use, and I don’t know if I have the self-control to expose myself to Twitter and not to fall into old patterns of use.

The tragedy of Twitter is, as it was with Facebook, Myspace, and Friendster before it, that its very popularity consumes the very resources needed to fix the problems inherent in its user interface and design, meaning that its fast growth will be followed by a steady deterioration in user participation. Instead of continuing to improve the user experience, Twitter’s development team alternates between frantically keeping up with continuous growth and haphazard schemes for revenue generation.

I hope this will change, but, as it stands, Twitter is too broken for full-time use.

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