There’s No “I” in Tweet

Twitter can be a really selfish place.

It’s where we can add noise to a crowded room, trying to shout above the din, to share our day-to-day or cat pictures, quip about the news, recommend what we’re reading or viewing, or try and get retweets from followers: It’s where we can self-promote.

As much as I hate to admit it, I use Twitter for mostly selfish means. It’s a medium to get authors I follow to retweet my mention of them, as I’m about to start their new book. Or, I’ll hope that my quips get favorited by strangers or followers. I even linked this site to my Facebook and Twitter so real-life friends and total strangers alike can see my writing.

In a practical sense, this last one is fine. But I’ve been tweeting much longer than I’ve been writing, so my previous motivation is something more sinister.

When we get notifications that others interacted with our online activities, through likes, comments, retweets, or favorites, there’s a brief rush–dopamine?–rewarding us for our use. So we repeat, hoping for another rush (though for some reason though I don’t get excited about LinkedIn endorsements).

It feels just like successfully overcoming a challenge in a video game: A digital high.

And like a lot of ways that can lead to a high, social media can lead us to regrettable decisions. And, for me, that’s where this intersects with masculine norms.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve reflected on my use of social media sites, and one particular event stands out as the perfect example worth exploring. I was listening to a recent interview with Jen Kirkman, comic and and author of I Can Barely Take Care of Myself on Citizen Radio. At one point, co-host Jamie Kilstein, who is also a stand-up comic, and Kirkman were discussing the hateful and sexist vitriol tweeted at female comics.

So because I had seen some of the shit people tweet at Rob Delaney, my internal motivation machine went in to action. I thought I could come up with something worth getting a retweet from either Kilstein or Kirkman. I got more than a retweet though. The response, though, was not what I was expecting:

When I initially saw the Connect button light up, the rush was on. But then when I read the reply there was this weird adrenaline/anger combination. I felt like “Trust me” was just dripping with condescension, when I felt like I had made a pretty good point. I responded, trying to be civil, but I was actually in over my head. I was so caught up in my own self-interest that I had missed the whole part of their conversation when they were talking about female comics.

It took me a while to process through all of this and really make meaning of it.

My initial motivation for using social media is inherently flawed. The selfish attempts to fuel my reward centers in my brain caused me to bypass the parts that involve critical thinking or empathy.

But I wouldn’t be writing about this if it hadn’t been for that feeling of anger that arose as a result of how I perceived that initial response. While I was aware of my internal motivation and my genuine belief that my comment was a positive contribution to the discourse, Kirkman called me out and with two words took the whole thing down around me. That opened the door to actually explore the selfishness and arrogance that really was the foundation of my tweet, and how I tried to recover to protect my ego from the dissonance.

When I read Kirkman’s tweets, I felt condescended to, and this did not sit well with me. As a (straight white cisgender American) man, consistently rewarded by society and the education system to believe that I am smart and right, I arrogantly believed that my comments were both relevant to the discourse and important enough for Kirkman or Kilstein to share with their thousands of followers. This is, of course, ridiculous.

When Kirkman essentially said that I was wrong and that I didn’t do my research, I didn’t know how to express my anger. I wisely chose to disengage, because I at least recognized that I was wrong, as I my second tweet was both true and a cover for my ego. But I fumed internally, keeping it concealed that my partner didn’t even know it was in my head until she read a very early draft of this post. And the reason I was angry about it was the same reason I didn’t talk about it: Guilt.

Now, with some time to reflect on what I did and didn’t do in this situation, I realize that my lack of comprehension of the interview or the hateful tweets made my initial comment a tacit approval of those hateful tweets (and depicted me, accurately in this case, as a man who has a long way to go in standing against sexism).

So, what I perceived as condescension was more likely Kirkman’s frustration with Internet asshats like me, because she can’t read my (somewhat) good intentions in my tweet. If she could have seen the irony regarding motivations, I would fully expect her to call me out more directly. It took a while to acknowledge that the blow to my ego was dual: as a person, adding noise to the Internet, and as a man who felt condescended to by a woman.

The Internet is filled with noise, ranging from the mundane and banal life updates to the vitriolic and hateful trolling. Because we are so easily motivated by the attention given to our contributions to the noise, we are all veering dangerously away from the ways in which new technologies can foster dialogue, social justice, progress, and change.

The participation-reward cycle of the digital high no doubt plays a significant role in making these new technologies part of an anti-social media, where anti-social behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. What is it when a genuinely held belief about white racial superiority or of appropriateness of female oppression is expressed, if not anti-social?

So we have the option to continue using our tweets and posts as a selfish means to share our wit or the fun in our lives, boosting our egos, indifferent to the ways in which that can reinforce hegemony and oppression.

Or we can realize a greater purpose: Instead of aiming for retweets (or WordPress site views, even…), we can work for quality interactions. We can use these tools as engaging online forums where we dialogue, seeking to understand the positions of others, so that the replies are mutually beneficial. Yes, we’ll still receive the rewards from that little blue dot on our Twitter apps, but by sharing and making mistakes and gaining perspective from others, we’ll be rewarded by learning with and from each other–well, at least 140 characters at a time.

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