I have been Tweeting about Brexit. Being half Austrian, I feel passionately that the UK should not be leaving the European Union. The trouble is, I’m not sure that Twitter is helping my karma.
The trouble is that tweeting is an activity, just like walking to the railway station or hitting a tennis ball. But whereas activity creates a calm sense of agency in those involved in doing it, tweeting has exactly the opposite effect.
When you set off for the railway station, you usually know you will be there in a given time (whether the train leaves on time is a different matter).
Similarly when you are hitting a tennis ball, you roughly know where it will end up (not always, in my case).
But with Twitter you gear up to make a tremendous impact, and it never happens. You might get some likes or retweets, you might get trolled by those hostile to your point of view, but certainly there is not the bandwidth for a healthy two-way conversation in which what you say affects the person with whom you are discussing.
Today, I got a reply to my Tweet from my local MP. I had asked whether there would be enough NHS nurses after Brexit, quoting a study by a respected independent research institute that suggested there wouldn’t be. The response was fairly immediate, but defensive: a quick-fire stat to demonstrate to the world at large that what I had dared to suggest might be the case was, well, just wrong.
To be honest, I’d sent out my tweet before dawn, while still lying in bed, and before the walk to the station for work. And I honestly didn’t mind the MP’s response. But I was struck by the knee-jerk reaction to try to “put down” the question. The game seemed to be to win an argument against an opposing Tweeter, rather than discuss ideas and opinions in any meaningful way.
This is why it’s bad for karma. When you act, you expect the action to have a consequence. But like the name Twitter implies, whatever you say or do on Twitter has about as much impact as bird-song.
There is something deeply satisfying about conversations where one party changes their mind about an important issue. It makes the discussion worthwhile. It’s even better when a conversation you’ve had changes your mind about something.
It is the same feeling you get when you hit a tennis ball and for once it goes exactly where you wanted it to go. Or when someone you are playing against makes a great point and you lose the rally honourably.
But Twitter isn’t like that. The best you can do is to enjoy the Echo Chamber effect of the Likes and RTs and the feeling that everyone is on your side. But that’s the mind-set of the mob! As for those who don’t agree with you, all you can hope for is to niggle them and hope they are rattled enough to leave the field. But that’s a highly unlikely result. Because their own echo-chamber is egging them on, and they are listening to them, not you.
So it becomes a spectacle in which two school bullies blindly take swings at each other, each in their own little world, and only randomly making occasional contact.
So it becomes a spectacle in which two school bullies blindly take swings at each other, each in their own little world, and only randomly making occasional contact. The technologies that were meant to connect us become walls that prevent us seeing and hearing each other.
The effect that activity has on the body is well known. Faced with a threat, adrenaline builds up in the body. Whether you fight or take flight, it is discharged by acting. The build-up of stressors is eased by muscular exertion, and you end up with a sense of calmness and peace, rather like you feel after sport or a long walk.
But in Tweeting, the only action to discharge the tension is the twiddling of your finger and thumb. Small wonder that people feel such rage and impotence.