The year: 1981. The place: UCLA’s secret underground laboratories. Professor Heinrich Rudolf von Internet has just put the finishing touches on his masterwork. “At last, I have done it,” he muses, basking in the glow of accomplishment. “I have created the Internet. Soon, perhaps within my lifetime, people around the world will be able to exchange rage comics, half-baked political views, cat photos with captions written on them in the Impact typeface, conspiracy theories, animated gifs of Gary Busey, and pornography. So very, very much pornography.”
Professor von Internet was righter than he knew. Almost immediately after its inception the invention that bore his name was a cesspool. And then, in 2006, Twitter arrived, and the Internet made cesspools look like crystal-clear mountain streams.
Now, Twitter wasn’t the first social networking site to gain traction. Facebook predated it by two years, and its immense popularity made it very useful for discovering just how racist your grandpa is. But Twitter raised the bar. Twitter is anonymous and virtually unmoderated, allowing people to reveal their true feelings about The Gay Menace without having their grandchildren show up and make sure they’re taking their medicine. And while people might not have the perseverance necessary to write multiple sentences full of grotesque, misshapen ideas, the strict 140 character limit on tweets ensures that they’ll be able to share their thoughts even if they don’t have any thoughts to share.
Twitter feels more ephemeral than any other social networking site. It’s the Internet equivalent of shouting in a packed auditorium. It’s not the best format for meaningful interpersonal communication, but something about it impels people to share their innermost thoughts. Even if they’re stupid.
Especially if they’re stupid.
ISIS uses Twitter as a recruiting tool. White nationalists use it to call for apartheid and warn of the dangers of White Genocide. Gamergate uses it to threaten feminists. Creationists use it to promote their frankly hilarious ideas about science. Basically, people use Twitter the same way someone who ate six bean burritos for lunch uses a crowded elevator. And any idea with enough supporters, no matter how ill-conceived it is, gets its signal boosted through retweets. Here, go and do a search for “white genocide” on Twitter right now. Go on. I’ll wait. I’ll even make it easy on you. Go ahead. Give it a click.
So we’ve established that Twitter has some very stupid stuff on it. We need to be aware of what’s happening in the world of the stupid – not because we can cure stupidity, necessarily, but because there’s no hope of curing it if we don’t pay attention. Someone needs to be there to point at a section of the Internet and say, “Huh, you should probably get that mole checked out.”
That’s why we make our home on Twitter: not because it’s the best format for science communication, but because it might actually be the worst. It’s the frontier, baby, lawless and untamed. Saddle up.