Futurist and sociologist Anne Dencker Bædkel writes about how technology and humans interact and intersect. In this column: when Twitter has a meltdown.
Twitter is angry
On the web, we find sorrow, relief, fear, joy, disgust, and lots of anger. We cry over videos of dogs that are rescued from a cruel life in the streets, we laugh over cute babies, and we mourn a family member who has passed away. Our Facebook pro- les are at once a hall of memory and a place we can become disgusted with politics and be furious at people we’ve never met. At times, there’s also lots of pressure and thunder on the internet that make the emotional pendulum swing – just as in real life.
Emotions are both something that exists between two individuals and something that arises collectively in large groups. Consider, for instance, the almost tangible moods that can arise during a demonstration or at other large gatherings. Emotions influence all our relations, actions, and thoughts, and for this reason sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other scientists with an interest in social relations have in recent years begun really studying the role of emotions in society as a whole – not least on the internet. Social media have become a channel for our emotions, while also creating entirely new ways for us to express them, both as individuals and collectively.
TWITTER IS ANGRY
Of all the most popular social media, the strongest emotions can be found on Twitter. Twitter is infamous for online rage and collective emotional outbursts, which has given birth to the expression “Twitter is angry”. When Twitter is angry, it is often as a reaction to real-world events that echo in the virtual world. Readers may recall the episode from the spring of 2017, when a passenger was forcibly evicted from a United Airlines plane after having refused to give up his seat when asked by the crew. Video recordings of the incident quickly spread online, and the web exploded in collective outrage. Unsurprisingly, Twitter was the driving force of it all. Another example is from 2015, when Justine Sacco, then director of corporate communications at the US media house IAC, sent an insensitive tweet about AIDS and Africa just before boarding a plane to Cape Town to visit her family. The tweet, which went “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”, was according to Sacco herself meant as a politically incorrect joke, and she was very surprised by the reaction. When she stepped out of the plane some hours later, her tweet had spread all over the internet, and Sacco was subjected to hatred by Twitter’s hive mind – even though she only had 170 followers on the social media site. In the end, it cost Justine Sacco her job.
Episodes like the two described above can happen because the reflections of individuals, which in the past were only stray thoughts, now become tweets. And tweets have handles and hashtags that get them picked up by large groups, which in turn attracts even more reactions. This
can easily give rise to online mob mentality or a hive mind whose collective emotional outbursts are impossible to stop once they have gathered momentum.
A NEW TONE
People exchange emotions by (at least) five means: touch, facial expression, body language, sounds, and words. Online, we only have words and a few signs and emojis. And since we are cut off from some of the five means that help us understand each other, misunderstanding becomes easier. The lack of facial and body language puts barriers to how nuanced we can express ourselves, so things are often said and written on the internet that few probably would have said to the face of another person. It feels frustrating to be limited in our communication the way we so greatly are online. I often nd myself being in strong dis- agreement with online opinions, and it almost seems I can get much more riled up by anonymous strangers on the web than I can in face-to-face discussions and arguments. In real life, my temper is buried much more deeply in my gut. So, why do I become so irate when I disagree strongly with something I read on the internet? It is probably because I am frustrated by not being able to use all the means of communication in my interaction with other people – eye-roll emojis just aren’t as effective online as they are in the office or at a dinner party.
In 1997, the media professor Mark Poster declared that the internet was becoming an integrated part of our daily lives: “The internet is no longer merely another tool that people use, but an environment within which they operate and live.” 20 years on, this is truer than ever. Today, the internet greatly influences everything we do – including how we communicate emotions to each other. Increasingly, the internet is where we both live and feel.
Image: Eric Sonstroem