Last week, my colleague Sarah Kessler wrote an excellent analysis about whether August was actually a terrible month because, well, it sure felt like it.
She cited data from social media analysis firm General Sentiment, which tracked the mentions of 170 million topics across Facebook, Twitter, and more, assigning each update a positive or negative sentiment. Although it’s not a perfect measure by any stretch, the goal was to determine whether that sinking feeling really did reverberate across social media.
Short version: Plenty of people thought August was unusually awful, although the evidence wasn’t quite conclusive.
Twitter in particular–where news surfaces first, where conversation is (mostly) unfiltered by algorithms–seemed to be steeping in its own unique brand of awful. Users seemed angry, and that (mean)spiritedness was perhaps best encapsulated when Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda fled the service after bullies trolled her in the wake of her father’s suicide. (She’s back now, by the way.) It was as if sewage seeping from the nether regions of 4chan and Reddit had contaminated Twitter’s groundwater.
So let’s ask another question: Was Twitter always this mean?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Twitter is mostly what you make of it, and how it feels is determined largely by who you follow, any impending Facebook-like algorithm changes to the feed notwithstanding. You are provided a wide-angle view of what your follow list is chatting about. But for now, if you no longer find someone else’s Twitter feed pertinent to your interests or goals, you can click the unfollow button or block them. The opt-in is what makes Twitter Twitter.
But the idea that Twitter–which, at least in the beginning, seemed like a cheery place to chat with strangers–is somehow becoming more inhospitable to people without a thick skin has some merit. A 2013 Civility in America survey by KRC Research found that 70% of 1,000 people surveyed think incivility has risen to “crisis levels.” More instructively, 34% of the participants surveyed blamed Twitter.
“As more people use Twitter or hear about uncivil tweets, Twitter is becoming easier to blame for worsening civility in America,” write researchers. “The Internet may be a leading cause of incivility because of how frequently Americans are experiencing incivility online, which is reaching an average of nearly nine times a week.”
It’s mindlessly easy to be snarky and mean when you’re firing off tweets into a pseudonymous crowd of mostly discombobulated headshots. I’m as guilty of this as anyone! But the trope that people are not nice on the Internet is an idea that’s as old as the Internet. People are not particularly kind nor receptive to ideas they don’t already agree with; any comments section of any website can tell you that! While Twitter allows for users to maintain their anonymity, research has shown that even using our real identities does little to curb trolling. Or name-calling. Or ad hominem attacks on someone you don’t know.
Cyberpsychologists call that sort of icky web behavior the “online disinhibition effect.” The term was coined by Rider University psychology professor John Suler, whose research concerns the online environments and settings that allow otherwise nice people to say not-so-nice things. “In the real world we react to other people’s body language and facial expressions as a way to modify what we say to them,” Suler once explained to me in an email. “If we notice a grimace, for example, we ease up on anything we might be saying that is inappropriate. Online we don’t have these non-verbal cues, so without that feedback some people find themselves digressing into an inappropriate rant.”
In other words: The lack of IRL face time makes us less empathetic to the people around us, because it dulls the sense that there could be real-life consequences. People use the shield of cyberspace to disown behavior and words they wouldn’t say in the real world. Trolls are gonna troll and meanies are gonna be mean–Facebook login or not.
None of that is particularly new knowledge. But there is one more wrinkle worth considering: Some evidence shows that angry tweets actually perform better than any other kind of emotion, and it’s the reason the term “Twitter outrage” exists in the first place. In 2013, researchers from Beihang University in China tracked 70 million messages from 200,000 users on Weibo (which is kind of like Twitter) to figure out what kinds of emotions were most viral. Messages associated with sadness or disgust, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not spread very well. Happy or joyful Weibo messages performed slightly better, but still did not perform as well as anger. On average, angry Weibo messages had an average reach of three degrees.
Angry thoughts have the tendency to spread the fastest on the social web. Oftentimes, people will simply retweet something to alert their followers when something is afoot and news is breaking. It’s why bad news (and let’s face it: most news is bad news) can fly across the web with amazing velocity. And as Sarah mentioned, in August, there was plenty of stuff to be angry about.