You are totally unreliable Twitter

Your brain is good at making you overconfident about what you see and hear, and it works hard to hide your own unreliability from you.

You think you hear “words” when someone talks to you, for example, but what you actually “hear” is an over-superabundance of noise—waves and waves of messy sensory data splashing through your ears—which parts of your brain that you have no conscious awareness of quietly and efficiently process and transform all that noise into something that your conscious mind can understand. That quiet intermediation is incredibly important, and quite thorough. Your brain eliminates sounds that it decides are not relevant and where there are gaps in what you hear, it deduces what should fill them, and adds them in. It’s startling to realize and take seriously, but much of what you “hear” has already been heavily edited for your consumption, by a part of your brain you aren’t even aware of.

The same is broadly true with vision and memory. You see things, and then a moment later, your brain declares that the memory that you have of what you saw is reliable, a perfect copy. It really isn’t, though. As we’ve learned over and over again, eyewitness testimony is notreliable: we are fully capable of remembering that we saw all sorts of things that weren’t quite there (or of overlooking things that were). The quiet, silent little sub-editor in our heads has not only transcribed your notes from the meeting, but has extensively edited them, cleaned them up, converted the font, and even re-written them with more consistent grammar.

In short, we are always playing a game of telephone with the universe. Our unconscious minds are always taking down garbled transmissions as neat typescripts, or turning impossibly complex slices of visual reality into the kinds of rough line drawings that we could use as a street map. On some level, we know this. We know that sometimes our lying eyes and ears deceive us, or mislead us; to get by, we must be aware of our limitations.

On another level, however, we don’t and can’t. To get by, we must also pretend that we are much more reliable than we are. We must take ourselves on faith, suspend our disbelief in what we see and hear and know. It’s all we have to go on. If we sometimes check the transcript against the original recording, we’ve gotten good at suspending our disbelief, in practice.

Memory, listening, and reading are creative. The most passive-seeming activities can often be quite labor intensive, precisely because it’s a kind of labor that we don’t tend to think very much about. Our brain does that for us. When we are watching the thing we are watching, our brains are processing that visual data into pictures; when we are listening, our brains are processing noise into sounds and signals; when we are sleeping, our brains are processing short term memories into long term memories. And so on. Our unconscious minds are busy.

I’m not any kind of expert on any of this, and I’m not trying to present myself as such. But knowing your own lack of knowledge is a kind of knowledge, too, and these are examples of it: some kinds of knowledge can be relied upon, others cannot, and figuring out how to manage the difference—how to know, or how to estimate, where and how you know what you know is true, and where and how it might not be—is an important skill. It is a certainty that you will make mistakes, constantly and continuously; the question is whether you will be open to that possibility in ways that allow you to correct them. Can you accept that fact that you think you know things that you have actually created? Can you engage with that problem in ways that allow you to mitigate the problems created by it?

As readers—both as readers of texts, and as daily interpreters of things we hear people say—we misread constantly, so much that we might as well regard it as the norm. We misread so much and so often and so invisibly that misreading is the dark matter of our social universe. We must necessarily remain more or less unconscious of the fact that a lot of what we take to be the world we share with each other is, more or less, radically variable from person to person. If I say something, every listener hears it a bit differently; if I do something, every witness remembers it differently; if I write something, every reader interprets it differently. We are the blind man and the elephant, arguing about what this beast is that we’ve found.

We can try to control for this problem—if we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist—but we don’t have many resources in doing so. You can repeat yourself; you can anticipate misreadings and try to correct them; you can even ask your audience to repeat back to you what you’ve said, so that you can clarify and correct. Misreaders are going to misread, and we are all misreaders. Which is why, ultimately, we are always relying on the social contexts and communicative frameworks that govern and clarify where and how we are to listen and understand. In the classroom, students know to listen and hear in particular ways—or they should, if the class is going to work—whereas moviegoers listen and watch in other and very different ways. If you read a non-fiction book, you understand what you are reading in different ways than if you reading what you are told is a novel, or a poem. You will listen to your significant other differently than you will listen to your parents, or children; you will listen differently to someone you’ve just met than to someone you’ve known all your life. And they will speak to you knowing and anticipating that this will be the case, always; we are constantly negotiating the contexts in which we are speaking, and the relationships through which those contexts are construed. Words don’t mean what you want them to mean; they mean lots of things, simultaneously, because of the ways they circulate, are heard, are remembered, and are transformatively interpreted.

Fundamentalist preachers and literary critics, police officers, and Clarence Thomas tend to want to live in a world where we can simply blame the badness of bad readers for this swirling and confusing indeterminacy. If you insist that the words mean what they mean vigorously enough—and if you call upon power to enforce your interpretation—you can maintain the polite fiction that words are self-sufficient. But there’s as much ambiguity in the things we say as there is empty space in the universe. To be a literalist interpreter of texts requires a torturous amount of carefully studied ignorance. But while we are all, of necessity, literalists in how we read—as there is no other way to read—we become dangerous readers when we stop trying to correct for our own failings, when we insist that any misreading is the fault of other people, and narcissistically insist that what we have creatively produced is the real text.

This is why we need more generous readers, and more of them. If you aren’t trying to understand what I think I’m saying—if you’re not trying to reconstruct the patchwork of words and thoughts and references in a sympathetic collaboration with the organic set of ideas that I was trying to stitch together—then you and I are not on the same team, we are working at cross-purposes, and our collaboration is not going to work out. If you don’t presume a base-level of good faith, competence, and insight on my part—and try to correct for your own narcissism, incompetence, and mistakes by also forgiving me for mine—then we are not going to understand each other in any meaningful way. Unless you want to hear what I want to say—and unless we both put in the work—then nothing I can do will change the fact that you will creatively reconstruct my words in ways that will suit you. You may not even know you’re doing it, but your transcription service does it job so efficiently that it gives you what you want even if you don’t ask for it.

For this reason, I try to aspire to read other people with a generosity that I don’t necessarily expect them to deserve. Not because I’m exceptionally selfless—this is why I say that I’d try to aspire to it—but to correct for the fact that I’m extremely selfish in the same familiar and banal way that we all are selfish. It’s because I tend to hear in your words what I want to hear that I need to make an extra effort to hear what you want me to hear. And vice versa.

But this is also why I’ve mostly given up on twitter as a place where it is possible to have meaningful, heated arguments with strangers. I think it’s possible to talk to strangers when you’re not having an argument, or to argue when the person you’re talking to is not really a stranger. But if you don’t know and respect the person you’re talking to (and to some extent, understand where they’re coming from, and want to), and especially if you build up a head of aggressive steam as you set out to crush their arguments, both of you are likely to come away from the exchange pleased and unsatisfied. After pleasantly proving to yourself that you are correct, you will be unsatisfied by the failure of your new mortal enemy to admit it. I describe this experience as a person who has experienced it many times, and who is so very tired of it. But it’s left me thinking that “changing minds” is something that twitter is all but engineered to do poorly. If you think it can be done, more power to you; I hope you are right. For me, it seems like a machine designed for creating mutual enraged incomprehension, an alchemy by which anger plus misunderstanding creates the self-righteous confirmation that I am right and everyone else is wrong. The friction between these divergent confirmations can burn extremely hot.

One reason why this is so, I think, is that “twitter” feels like a public space, but it’s neither public nor a space, and in practice, will always frustrate our expectation that it be those things. After all, when we curate “our” timelines, we do so as if we can control what’s in them and what isn’t, as if our timelines were spaces we have the personal power to regulate (and thus, are semi-private). We often expect to have control over what information enters our feed, and then it turns out that we don’t (and not only over our mentions). If we think and act as if we have control over what we see—as if we are choosing and selecting what sorts of people and voices will appear—we will find that choosing the former does not determine the latter. This is mainly because people are large and eccentric and contain multitudes. If you follow me because I have radical politics, you might be irritated by the fact that I’m obsessed with literature; if you follow me because I tweet about African novels, you might be irritated that I tweet about rape culture; if you follow me because we went to school together, all sorts of things I tweet about may surprise you. In other words, you will find that in inviting me into your timeline, I will probably abuse your hospitality. Yet, to me, you’re the one who followed me; what you might experience as a response to something I said, I can easily experience as an out-of-the-blue invasion of my conversational space.

This produces the sealion problem: we both feel like the other person has intruded on our space. We both feel like we’re just sitting here, in our own homes, and who is this asshole acting like he has a right to be all up in my business? I’ve got things to do; what makes you think you have some god-given right to my time and attention, etc.

Again, part of the problem is that social media can feel like a space, but isn’t. In our embodied social interactions, we’re either in one place or we’re in another, because that’s how bodies in space work: if I’m in your house, we both know it; if you’re in my house, we both know it. If we meet on the street, too, we both know that that is where we are, and what that means (or doesn’t), and so we know to act accordingly. Everywhere and anywhere two people meet, in their bodies, is likely to be a place framed and understood by reference to the social norms that obtain there. But how do you have a conversation with someone where both of you think that you are both in your own house, and both of you act accordingly? Both of you are going to turn out to be assholes. What if I think we are in the street, so I step on my soapbox, but you think you’re in your bedroom, getting ready to go to bed?

What makes twitter a potential perfect storm is that there is no more totally de-contextualized piece of text than a tweet: it’s almost the smallest piece of comprehensible speech it is possible to produce that also feels like a complete thought (or fels like it should be), but there’s nothing more to it than that, that and a name and persona. It has to be self-sufficient, because it has little or no context from which we can deduce what we do not know about it. And yet what text is ever self-sufficient? What piece of data or sensory information is enough, on its own?

In the 1970’s H.P. Grice formulated what has come to be known as the cooperation principle. That latter link is a good introduction to it, but what he articulates in careful academic reasoning is more easily described as, simply, the fact that speakers and listeners have to work with each other to make sense of a conversation. What is actually said is only the tip of an iceberg of assumptions, and without the two speakers more or less sharing a sense of the ground rules for the conversation—and more or less adhering to them, or trying to—the conversation breaks down.

Cooperation doesn’t reliably happen on twitter, I think. We all see the same text, but how often do we each assume a slightly or dramatically different iceberg beneath it? Quite often, I suspect. Yet we have to do this. Nothing we find on twitter would make any sense at all if we didn’t place it in some social context, construe it by reference to assumptions about what it is or what it is doing, and treat those projections as if they were basically valid. We have to assume that we are contextualizing the text correctly. Yet proximity is often misleading, particularly if we presume to know what a subtweet is subtweeting, why, or how; our assumptions about who people are, behind the tweet, are extremely tenuous (and often based in almost no solid information); and our sense of familiarity with people on twitter is illusionary. Like the first audio illusion in this video, the text stays the same while we each place it, mentally, in a different context.

All of which is to say, simply, that I think twitter is particularly well-suited for exacerbating and eliding the basic contradiction I started this piece with: we need to pretend more confidence in our own comprehension than is justified—in order to get by and make meaning—even as we also need to check ourselves, constantly, in order to make up for the moments when our confidence is misplaced. But since we are already divided against ourselves, what happens when you meet someone divided against themselves, and you, also, are divided against yourself, and the two of you start arguing—because you are divided against each other—and you have to tell the difference between a misjudgment of context and a Fundamental misjudgment of The Moral Law of the Universe? One of the most important contextual frames we sometimes apply to twitter, after all, is the notion that we are DOING POLITICS. But if some of us are, some of us aren’t. Sometimes I’m making a joke, because it amuses me; when someone takes that joke as the expression of Political Critique, we are unlikely to find ourselves having a useful communication. Jokes are performative speech; “Critique” is usually understood to be constative. If we don’t observe the difference and allow for it, we can find ourselves taking a joke way too seriously (and thus, misunderstanding what it’s trying to do), or vice versa: a deeply felt assertion of a very serious point can be made fun of, as a humorless person who doesn’t get it.

It occurred to me, yesterday, that you don’t hear the term “flame war” all that often anymore. It occurs to me now that this might be because the old new media (bulletin boards, listservs, blog comments) was structured in such a way that you could talk about one person flaming another person—I was flamed; he flamed me; we flamed each other, etc—and that this transitive verb could have an object because there was a sense of a space being crossed by the abuse being hurled. There could be a thrust and counter-thrust dynamic, a reply and counter-reply.

“Twitter” is an oversimplification. There are many twitters, which is also part of the problem: my twitter and yours are different, but they can come into contact with each other and overlap, and do. We can each think the other person is a holographic projection into our living room, and the rooms are similar enough that we can overlook the ways they are different (and then blame the other person for coming into our house and acting like an asshole). But this also means that talking about what “twitter” is or isn’t, or does, or doesn’t, is a similar exercise in polemic misunderstanding. If the underlying structure of the program is a constant, the conversational norms and practical methods we bring to it will vary, radically and dramatically. Some of the problem is the latter thing: people not only use twitter differently, but they sometimes regard other people’s use of it as illegitimate or wrong. Policing other people on twitter can become particularly heated and vicious, if a police from one jurisdiction comes into another, without knowing it, and attempts to apply one set of laws to someone who thinks they’re operating in another. It rarely ends well. And yet if we keep pretending that there is one twitter (ours), we’ll keep crashing into each other and insisting that it’s the other car that came into my lane. Twitter road rage.

One generalization I’d advance about “twitter,” however, is that it’s so space-less, and also so rapid, that instead of flame wars, we now have nuclear conflagrations, chain reactions that explode fast and hot and with such all-encompassing bitterness that it happens in time, not space. We know when it began, and we can tell when it starts to cool, but it can be almost impossible to tell who and why people are fighting (even as we decide that we do know, but disagree about it, making the arguments all the more intractable). That it happened is the only thing you and I both know, but who, what, why, where, and how get lost in the blast, leaving each of us disagreeing as much about what we disagree about as the disagreement itself.

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Reading You are Unreliable Twitter