Twitter Mob Got You Down? Just Say No

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The Globe and Mail is this morning running a lengthy think-piece by American freelancer Brandon Ambrosino bearing the improbable title "It’s a mean world. And kindness is our only way out."

Ambrosino believes that "compassion and kindness belong to our nature as human beings. To the extent we practice these values, we deepen our own humanity. To the extent that we neglect these values, we distort our own humanity." In support of this idealistic claim he cites the Dalai Lama, Charles Darwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among other moral luminaries. Arguably, the book Ambrosino ought to have read is Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)—if only to test his hypothesis that "the more we evolve as a species, the wider our circle of compassion reaches: from our tribes to neighboring tribes to our nation to our species to even other species." To judge from the relatively recent carnage of the twentieth century, a better case can be made that human progress is contingent on our widening circle of reason, rights and the rule of law.

But be that as it may, the bulk of Ambrosino's piece is about the proliferation of hate speech on Twitter, which seems on the surface at least to contradict his main point. He suggests that the planetary scale of the Twitter phenomenon—330-million subscribers blasting out hundreds of millions of tweets daily—is worrying evidence that we may be losing our capacity for compassion and kindness en masse. "Forgetting the humanity of those we interact with on Twitter tricks us into forgetting our own," writes Ambrosino. "And so some of us tweet that so-and-so deserves to die, or that someone else deserves to lose her job and never again collect a paycheck." He invokes acclaimed MIT social-science prof Sherry Turkle to the effect that "'the amount of time we spend alone'—say, hate-tweeting—'is a radical aberration for our species.'"

Ambrosino's altruism notwithstanding, Twitter can hardly be said to represent a species-level aberration in our moral evolution. Indeed, larding up any critique of twenty-first-century social media with lofty appeals to moral philosophy lends them a salience they do not deserve—at least not yet. Let us not lose perspective. Twitter is a celebrity- and slogan-driven platform whose most popular accounts are Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. It is barely a decade old. It is voluntary. As a discursive medium its pedigree lies somewhere between greeting cards and graffiti. It can be hurtful and debilitating, yes. But it can also be ignored, mocked, forgotten and uninstalled—just like any other app.

Want to feel better about yourself and the future of humanity? Unplug.