Predictions for future dispositions toward Twitter

by mike_hawke1 min read14th Mar 20215 comments

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(This was previously a shortform post.)

I have such strong opinions about Twitter that I figured I should make those opinions pay rent in the form of anticipations, so here they are.

My Beliefs and Opinions

Twitter is psychotoxic--it has a negative influence on one’s mood, habits, personality, reasoning ability, and so on. Using twitter causes people to practice mental behaviors that are corrosive to clear thinking and agency, both immediately and longer-term. The easy availability of bite-sized content is eroding people's ability to read longer-form content like blog sequences or books. Twitter deserves the same condemnation that the 24h news cycle gets and much more. I believe that if far fewer people used Twitter, my life would be noticeably better.

I feel my attention being tugged at by the Twitterverse even when I have been away from it for weeks or longer. This is partly a sensible worry--things on Twitter do have noticeable effects on the world, worthy of offline concern. But this attentional capture is mostly due to the manipulative, addictive design of the service.

This is a hackneyed pattern, but: Twitter is the 21st century’s tobacco. It is an addictive, next-gen intoxicant.

A while ago, I heard some podcast guest recommend that you “avoid letting Twitter be the background music of your life. When you’re hanging out with your friend, don’t browse twitter while they’re in the bathroom.” I didn’t realize people did that. I think I need to start asking my friends if they are doing this when we hang out, and trying to get them to stop.

The full effects of twitter on individuals and groups is still an open question, slowly being answered by massive, natural experiments.

My Anticipations

In a good future, people will consider the comparison between tobacco and twitter to be basically correct, if somewhat clichéd and superficial. We will look back on the present state of affairs with pity, embarrassment, and a bit of queasiness.

The Internet Research Agency was just the beginning; we will hear of ever more numerous and galling examples of social media used to twist people’s minds. In less than 20 years, the dev race between offensive psyops and defensive countermeasures will be widespread and well-known, not a niche interest.

Paul Cristiano has imagined a future in which information from the internet is scrutinized by an AI for harmful/manipulative information before being shown to a user. I strongly anticipate that considerations of this kind will be much more mainstream within the next 20 years. If we are not able to implement direct solutions with AI, I expect that serious, tech-savvy people will cobble together other tools and systems for a partial solution.

Perhaps in the near future, heavy twitter usage will be generally seen as a yellow or orange flag for lifestyle problems. For comparison, consider the thoughts you have when you notice that someone needs at least 2 drinks to fall asleep, or can’t go a day without a liter of soda, or spends all their time online and never socializes in person (not during a pandemic).

The situation is currently so dire that I would be pretty surprised if “Digital Minimalism” and “attention rebellion” don't catch on. Tech companies will try to build and sell attention-protecting tools and services to those who prioritize their health and productivity.

Summary

Twitter is awful and I will be at least moderately surprised if in 2036 it is normal for smart people to endorse how they were using it in 2021.

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:35 PM
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"Twitter" has a high variance. For some people (probably the vast majority of them), the comparison to smoking is certainly relevant; for a few others, Twitter is very beneficial. Here are a few variables that I think have a huge impact on the overall value a user derives from Twitter:

  1. Who are you? What's your mental state like?
  2. What do you want from Twitter (read thoughtful discussions? participate in them? be aware of relevant news and opportunities? meet like-minded people? influence people? increase your follower count / gain status? escape from boredom? etc)?
  3. Who do you follow, unfollow, mute, partially mute?
  4. When and how often do you engage with Twitter?
  5. How frequently are you reading vs writing publicly vs writing DMs?
  6. When you're only reading, how fast are you scrolling and how much are you thinking?
  7. What client do you use?
  8. Do you read tweets from your home timeline, from lists or from specific users' profiles?
  9. Are you continually trying to improve the quality of your experience?

I'm probably missing many others.

I currently only use Twitter to the extent that tweets are forwarded or posted somewhere I happen to see them.  And I'm fully with timot.cool on this - "twitter" isn't a single thing - it's a combination of how you use it and what bubbles you're in/following.  For me (and I suspect many others), it's even less of a thing - it's an adjunct to other communication channels.

My prediction is counter to mike_hawke's (maybe).  I have no clue if it'll be called "twitter", or if it'll share the same naming or posting mechanisms.  But I'd wager that attention-oriented interactive media will continue to be an important part of human lives until humanity changes in fundamental ways.  Call it 2 generations (50 years) minimum.

I endorse most of these predictions. And I actually don't think it will take 16 years; by the end of the decade, Twitter usage will be regarded as a vice, though like smoking it might be something that a lot of people find difficult to quit.

On a related thought:

information from the internet is scrutinized by an AI for harmful/manipulative information before being shown to a user

This seems very likely, but arguably even worse, because the propaganda value of getting to train the bot would be immense. My prediction is that there will be more than one of these, and with one you use will be politically/tribally coded.

I'll make a contrary prediction: I think that twitter, used correctly, can be an extremely powerful tool for learning new things & meeting new people, themselves some of the most important things to get right in life. In the future it will be seen as flawed in some ways, but overall a clear positive, and hopefully the progenitor of even better ways of connecting information and people.

If you are the kind of person that wants to use technology to force your values onto other people via manipulation of discourse, AI driven or otherwise, then you don't get to complain when state or other actors do it too. You're only complaining that you aren't holding the reins.

The real issue with the internet (and social as a subset of that) isn't state actors fucking with people, it's that it actually connects people together in a way that isn't trivial to stop. State actors (inclusive of large companies) want to own you, the last thing they want to do is have you educating yourself and organising with the likeminded. What even is the point of the state when it is undermined by ever more partial interests?

When it comes to social media red flags: If you can look at a bunch of pictograms on the bio and immediately know that someone doesn't have a single original thought in their head then why bother. Give them a wide berth and let them eat each other.