Predictions for future dispositions toward Twitter
(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.
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.
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.