WHY TWITTER IS SO TOXIC IN YOUR 20S
By Emily Parker
Cancel culture doesn't let us learn and grow.
Never has a generation felt under more pressure to get everything right and to always have an answer, and Twitter isn’t helping. Our 20s should be the time for learning and growing; for figuring out our opinions and sometimes making mistakes. But woke call-out culture leaves little space for getting it wrong. As Barack Obama recently said, this moral policing creates an atmosphere where it feels like ”the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people”.
We are already fighting enough battles in our 20s to start making up pointless fights with people on Twitter that we, in all likelihood, probably agree with on most counts.
75 per cent of us are experiencing a quarerlife crisis and 49 per cent of us are experiencing a deterioration in our mental health during the ‘lost year’ after leaving uni. Add to this toxic affair, the pressure to have the latest hot take on a Kim Kardashian clothing line and Jameela Jamil’s latest tweet and you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re constantly falling short and actually self-censor for fear of being policed into silence.
When I recently ventured back into the “brave new world” of Twitter, I felt like a soldier going into battle without an army. Tweets now equal opinions. The more visible you want to be on the platform, the stronger your tweets usually have to be. Now, no one tweets without a perfectly polished viewpoint or agenda. To tweet without conviction is to pre-lash without the lash or to Netflix-and-chill without getting to the chill.
I couldn’t cope in this world. Turns out, I don’t always have something pithy or biting enough to say to have a presence on Twitter. This is particularly problematic given I’m in the business of writing and producing content - people who make their careers out of this are expected to be “good at Twitter”. Does the fact that I’m not make me less smart or likely to succeed in today’s landscape?
Like most quarterlifers, I’m more likely to feel torn and confused by current affairs than passionately, dogmatically in favour of a specific argument. But, without a voice, you’re just a voyeur on this platform. You’re a Twitter rubbernecker with absolutely no reason for being there other than to gawk on as the action unfolds.
Making people fearful of putting a foot wrong only promotes extreme voices who don’t fear the backlash.
Ultimately, this makes the voices we see less representative and adds to the enormous pressure we’re already facing. You can’t simply Tweet in beige anymore. Lukewarm doesn’t make a good tweet. The fence isn’t met with furious agreement or disagreement. The un-spectacular observation from the unsexy middle-ground (where I suspect more of us sit than Twitter would have us believe), won’t get retweeted. Ready salted doesn’t go viral. So Twitter has become a space for only the tartest, saltiest salt n’ vinegar with the crunchiest finish. Pipers, you’re ok. Sensations, oh absolutely. Walkers, even, come on in. But poor old mild Kettle Chips? You can tell your story walking.
We’ve even got to the point where not tweeting about an issue, if you already have an established presence and voice on the platform, can be making a statement you didn’t mean to make. Someone once said, “by not tweeting you’re tweeting. You’re sending a message”.
Twitter has become the greedy woke baby we have to keep feeding and tending to for fear it’ll cry out and humiliate us in public.
Of course, social media has contributed to many positive social shifts; #metoo, spreading awareness of marginalised issues (although sometimes “shadow-banning”) and providing a platform for #blacklivesmatter. These movements hint at one of the best ways to survive on this tricky platform: you must find a tribe, no matter how small, who can and will protect you at all costs. As long as you take the same stance they do, on all socio-political-issues-being-tweeted-about-at-any-given-time-that-can-be-shortened-to-tweet-length and are prepared to take those beliefs with you to the grave. Our lifeboat comes in the form of articulate keyboard warriors who also felt annoyed (or inspired) about the tack taken by the Extinction Rebellion protesters.
Never has a generation been expected to express such strong opinions in order to belong somewhere.
The personal branding necessary to cut through on Twitter means that our views on just about anything must become synonymous with who we are as people. When someone attacks a political viewpoint we hold, they are not only attacking our views, but the core of who we are as people. But this is the price we must pay to find our tribe. Only by holding these views so strongly and so closely with our own sense of self can we hope to connect with others in the wild west of social media anonymity.
Our tribal Twitter survival instinct feels like it could have its roots in our evolutionary biology. For as long as there have been humans, our ability to stay alive has relied on our ability to live as part of a tribe. In tribes we found, and still find today, protection. In numbers, we find safety. Tribalism is in our DNA. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens says, that all having the same take on reality is necessary to bond with people we don’t, and can’t, know: “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths”. We are simply performing our innate need to arrange these people into groups: the knowns and the unknowns, the trusted and untrusted, and the right and the wrong.
This was perhaps my problem when I got back on Twitter after long absence: I didn’t feel strongly enough about any viewpoint to start taking it on as a part of my own identity, however shamefully “unwoke” this made me feel (and look). Strong opinions, tribalism, debate and free speech aren’t bad things in the right contexts. But when we prioritise being right over being able to understand and listen, we freeze people out of opportunities to learn.
Living as truly digital-natives, half in the real world and half in this virtual world, we need to find ways to connect with people beyond our tribe.
When we’re all being told to shout as loudly as we can in black or white, or otherwise stay silent, how can we hope to inhabit the quiet, contemplative, grey middle-ground space where real learning and growth happen?
The vulnerability of taking a naive, middle-ground approach to Twitter is crucial in our 20s, when we’re still working out what we believe and who we believe in. It should be a place where we’re allowed to fail, admit we don’t know the answer, or just observe. Thankfully, social platforms are not just the product of the people build them, but also the people who use them. We all have a hand in creating the space we want to see. So, let’s create room for us to “work it all out” when we’re young, and be kinder to others on that same journey.
Image by Joy Molan.