Trouble with Twitter

The website brings out the Debbie Downer in all of us.

Bronwyn Miller

Call me a skeptic, but I’ve been slow to buy into talk of Twitter “revolutionizing” anything. While it has its moments and is great for spreading news, my main view of Twitter users’ activity is merely that it has given new meaning to the statement “haters gonna hate.”

The results of a yearlong study from the Pew Research Center confirm what comes as a shock to absolutely no one with a Twitter account: Beating out any particular political slant, the most obvious bias in tweets is negativity. Using 2012 election conversations as its marker, Pew’s study found that the climate on Twitter is more negative than that of both the mainstream media and the general opinion of the public.

Commentators often tout Twitter’s amazing, modern, democratizing capabilities, but are we really reaping its unique benefits? Many argue that Twitter serves as the “great equalizer” and offers surefire insight into public sentiment. But as Pew noted in its study results, Twitter is used by just 13 percent of adults. A different study the organization conducted in Sept. 2012 illustrated that only 3 percent of the general public uses Twitter to get its news.

Twitter’s full potential rarely appears to be exercised. Instead, it just seems like an overblown version of bathroom stall doors riddled with hateful words and nonsensical random musings — a worldwide receptacle for word vomit.

More often than hearing about examples of Twitter’s great contributions to society, I encounter stories chronicling the latest celebrity Twitter feud; the missteps that result in public exposure of private photos (Weiner, anybody?); death threats directed at the love interest of whoever tweens are doting on at the moment or the astounding amount of bigotry that occasionally gets someone in big trouble, as was the case with the athletes suspended from the last Olympics for their racist tweets. I sometimes have to wonder if a platform that allows Chris Brown to publicize a desire to defecate on the face of a female critic to millions of followers is capable of more harm than good.

Public commentary is part of the Internet’s beauty and charm, but people often seem to forget the longstanding adage advising that if we have nothing nice to say, we should say nothing at all. Indeed, the distance between us and other users is alluring, implying a general sense of anonymity and the ability to divulge one’s frustrations without consequences. Sure, the freedom of speech permits you to publish your stream of consciousness even when it is cruel and biting or just an obvious display of #whitegirlproblems. But if Twitter is held up by so many as a great way to “listen in” or peek into American life — even if doing so is an overstatement — do we really want the representation we’re creating?

Importantly, it is we who are responsible. When the Pew study results condemned Twitter users as negative, they’re mostly talking about us. Twitter users are considerably younger than the general public, most often 18- to 29-year-olds, and tend to live in urban and suburban areas. They also tend to be Democrats or at least left-leaning. Well, if it looks like a duck … let’s face it, we’re the culprits.

Critics of our age group already denounce us as the “Look at Me” generation, claiming we’re all desperate for attention. It’s up to us to prove we can use our modern technologies for more than fame-seeking self-promotion. Next time you’re tweeting, remember: Resorting to new levels of snarkdom in 140-character sound bites in an attempt to stand out really sets us back in that fight.