Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

why the jerks didn't win

The conclusion of this Jason Kottke post got me thinking:

People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life. I even lost real-life friends because my online actions as a person were viewed through a conceptual lens; basically: “you shouldn’t have acted in that way because of what it means for the community” or some crap like that. Eventually (and mostly unconsciously), I distanced myself from my conceptual counterpart and became much less of a presence online. I mean, I still post stuff here, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so on, but very little of it is actually personal and almost none of it is opinionated in any noteworthy way. Unlike Persson or Fish, I didn’t quit. I just got boring. Which I guess isn’t so good for business, but neither is quitting.

When I think about this in relation to my recent posts on Twitter, and Erin Kissane’s recent post, and the increasing number of periodicals that have eliminated comments on their articles, it all tempts me to think: the jerks won.

The jerks: the people who use social media not converse but to crow like demented roosters, to nurse every petty grievance, to do the typewritten version of this — they’re powerful. I don’t know how many of them there are, or what percentage of readers they are, but their persistence is amazing, and eventually they drive most people of good will out of the territory. Eventually a guy like Jason Kottke, anything but a belligerent or controversial person, just starts keeping his opinions to himself because it isn’t worth the trouble of dealing with all the nastiness — not disagreement, the nastiness, of the kinds listed above and others — that comes when you express a point of view about anything.

And yet no. The jerks haven’t won after all, unless we let them.

For one thing, they can’t change the fact that before they grew in numbers and influence, Twitter was pretty cool and many of us made friends there that we wouldn’t have made elsewhere. Take, for instance, Erin Kissane and me. According most socio-political metrics we might not seem to have a lot in common, and if socio-political metrics were the only ones available, Erin and I probably would never have connected. But we both like books and reading and we laugh about some of the same things; and I deeply admire Erin’s determination to be kind even to people who are unkind, even as she stands up for the causes she really believes in. (She’s far more charitable than I am.) She’s one of the best people I have met on Twitter — and I don’t think I ever could have met her had it not been for Twitter.

There’s no question that the increasing power of the jerks on Twitter makes it much harder to cultivate friendships there now; but it doesn’t take away the friendships that have already been formed. Nor does it take away the possibility of cultivating those friendships. While there are seasons for making new friends, there are also seasons for strengthening the ones that already exist. It might be time to start thinking about creating, or going back to, tools that help us achieve those goods. And it’s not just a matter of tools, as Erin explains:

Beyond the tools, though, I’m trying to make an emotional shift from exuberant joyful angry frenetic Twitter to something subtler and gentler. When moved to discuss something about which I feel strongly, I’m beginning to default to a longer form first, to reduce the heat of my Twitter conversations and boost the light I work by elsewhere.

To “boost the light I work by elsewhere” — that sounds like a really good idea.


  • Reading the post by Kottke reminded me of the discussion some time back about "digital dualism" and augmented reality, and despite the fact that I found much of it to obscured more than it clarified, a voice in my head responded to the Kottke article by saying: "you're a digital dualist"! In any case, I appreciated your (Mr. Jacobs) commentary at that time where you said that your critique of the critique of digital dualism that it gave us " fewer means of sorting through our complicated technological experiences."

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