Since its inception, a primary goal of Twitter has been to attract followers as yet another measure of success in the modern quantocracy. But is more always merrier?
One way to answer this question is to ask not how to attract followers—but how to repel them. The easiest way is to tweet something undemocratic or vastly unpopular with a democratic audience, and ‘presto,’ you’ll be left with an account that is hated.
For example, a controversial or unfair tweet about a specific group of people (such as the elderly, women, LGBTQIA+), will quickly be rebuked. Despite that, however, you do stand to get engagement from such a tweet. Now, whether that engagement is positive or negative is another story. But, for the most triggering and inflammatory comments, a pile of additional tweets will likely be generously, even if ragingly, donated to the account that took the time to tweet it off. Perhaps this is one reason Musk decided to allow Trump back on the platform. He’s good at inflammation, so he will be good for business.
Oddly enough, as much as a tweet like that will earn a degree of infamy, surprisingly it’s not guaranteed that everyone will rush to block such an account. In fact, such disrepute may even allow the tweeter (twit?) to fire off additional tweets in the same fashion. Of course, they’ll receive the same reception, often from the same people who, oddly enough, keep coming back for more.
In fact, these “nasty” accounts pull in significant engagement on Twitter. Indeed, they may well be more popular than accounts that tweet sincere and kind things. Why? Because they provide cheap amusement, as many seek out that which outrages them. It seems as though the ultimate click-bait isn’t something to help, assist, teach, or even coach someone to a better and more productive life. If you can piss people off in the set character limit of a simple tweet, they’ll throw away all else for a chance to burn down the offending tweet.
Why would people do this?
Because these tweets use the same marketing approach that click-bait does. Put a picture of a spaceship above the title, “The President’s New Plane is Amazing!” and sure enough, despite the image being absurd, people will check it out.
In short, Twitter is largely a place for fast and easy amusement. Many look to it when they are in between chores, tasks, or even riding public transportation. It’s for the instances of daily life where one might have a few minutes not dedicated to anything productive. A few minutes to spare that can’t be committed to any long-term endeavors.
From using the app, you can see that the authors of initial tweets might also be in the same situation. Most tweets seem to be more knee-jerk reactions than well-crafted comments and critiques.
The typical tweet might be an outcry against the latest political candidate no one seems to like or an homage to how one’s family dog enjoys a bowl of ice cream while watching Jeopardy reruns. Thus, the click-bait analogy is clear–Twitter is a mentally low-energy app-based hangout for the uncommitted. And there’s nothing more low-energy and low-effort than taking out one’s frustrations and pains on someone who looks to be literally asking for it.
This is the normal flow of Twitter and it’s when this conventional flow of shock-and-respond is interrupted that Twitter flaneurs do a double take. As Heath Ledger’s Joker said in The Dark Knight—“Nobody panics when things go according to plan.”
And when does this happen? When you start tweeting things that take people out of their comfort zones and push them to think critically about whether their views make sense.
For the inflammatory engagement seekers, who many find amusing, the show stops when tweets start challenging people to question their own preconceived notions and engage in genuine discourse and debate over ideas.
Of course, the truth is most people are not on Twitter to chat about their beliefs. If anything, they are there to reinforce them. And when you prod them to re-examine and question their beliefs and worldviews, you often dive off the cliff of entertaining indignation into the abyss of authentic outrage.
Indeed, on Twitter few things seem to earn genuine hatred more quickly than pointing out obvious but painful shortcomings of someone’s beliefs, worldviews, or ideologies. People will lash out, not in an attempt to be amused, but in a desperate play for survival. Survival of what? Survival of the one thing many people live for–their tightly held beliefs.
It’s unfortunate that a powerful platform like Twitter is largely used for such shallow exchange. There is an opportunity for people to genuinely engage in debate and discussion about how our society can address its many problems. And it’s even more unfortunate that Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform, if it survives, promises to do little more than intensify this shallowness.
So, it might just boil down to choosing between making a difference or pawning off your Twitter soul for engagement. It’s fine to be hated. Because if you truly want to do something to help our society by using Twitter, you can start by questioning and challenging beliefs. You’ll lose followers, to be sure. But you can also be comfortable that in your tweets you have prioritized quality over quantity.
And if you do this, be ready and willing to be challenged back—that’s the goal and that’s the means by which social media might be more than a vast ode to click-bait and followers and instead become one vehicle through which people work on bettering society.