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The Roots of Online Hostility: Why is Twitter So Toxic

There are a few reasons why social media tends to be so volatile, polarizing, and abrasive. If we ever want to solve a problem, we first have to recognize the problem. Today’s newsletter covers why Twitter/X is so volatile and what to do for your own sanity.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

There are a few reasons why social media tends to be so volatile, polarizing, and abrasive.

If we ever want to solve a problem, we first have to recognize the problem.

It’s a “low context” environment

Calling it “low context” is generous. There is no context.

Most communication is non-verbal. There is a wide range of variance among the experts, but it seems that 70-93% of the information we send each other has nothing to do with the words we use to send it. Rather, we rely on tone of voice, speech cadence and tempo, and body language to disseminate our thoughts.

None of these things are present in digital communication. The richness of the analog signal is lost when it’s compressed to a digital medium. And, just to be fair, the same thing happens when we use another form of digital communication—the telephone—albeit with much less distortion or degradation of the signal.

The message is more preserved because other non-verbal elements—voice tone and tempo—are preserved. But digital communication via writing loses almost everything—except the words.

This phenomenon is why it’s important to develop your writing ability. While the ability to communicate in person is still supremely important, everyone—from young children to senior citizens—primarily communicates online. Making mistakes is easy if you aren’t clear with your words.

There’s no reference point for anything said except for what is said. The person reading it will interpret it based on their context and experience because they have nothing else to code the message with.

The absence of additional information is how someone can read “Don’t take no for an answer” and respond completely seriously, “You must be a rape apologist.”

I used to think a person was intentionally being an asshole, but now I believe that they’re just filtering my words through their experience. You can’t assume people will be rational because they don’t know what you mean. Even with the most clearly written post, vital information for understanding is still missing.

Social media conversations are used to social signal

It’s difficult to have an honest conversation with someone on social media because it is public.

Even if you don’t think this influences you, you are, even if only slightly.

The intention of your conversation gets diluted.

You’re not just speaking to solve the problem or address an issue.

You also become like a politician, careful of what you’re saying so it doesn’t make you look bad or alienate your followers. This motivation changes the focus of the conversation from learning and understanding to dominance and division.

The other big problem is that admitting they’re wrong or the other person is right is extremely painful.

As a result, people double down on a foolish position and close off their minds rather than open up to the possibility of learning and connecting. People often make their social media engagement part of their identity, so they resist anything that would shatter the image they’ve built of themselves.

I find that consistently pleasant people also have bustling lives outside the internet. The strongest antidote to being triggered online is a life filled with meaningful relationships and purpose. If you aren’t content in your real life, your digital life will be filled with contempt

50% of people are dumber than average

You don’t fully appreciate the normal distribution of intelligence until you get on social media and interact with an incredibly large swath of the population.

Then you realize that many people aren’t intelligent enough to consider the implications of a basic argument; this is assuming they understand what you’re saying. If you can read at even a 10th-grade level, you’re effectively speaking a foreign language to people.

People fill in the blanks where they don’t understand

Rather than ask for clarity, people tend to fill in the blanks and react based on how they interpreted what was said instead of asking what was meant.

People will argue and spit vitriol, not because they disagree with what you said but because they disagree with what they think you said—even after you correct them.

I’ve argued with people who use graphs and quote stats to make their point, not realizing that the data contradicts their argument. This misunderstanding happens because 91% of Americans don’t have the numerical ability to analyze or interpret a graph.

most people are bad at math
This is about as bad as the average American only reading at an 8th-grade level.

Social media destroys impulse control

Every time you respond to a notification, you make it easier to respond to notifications. Like all habits, the more you do them, the more likely you are to keep doing them.

When you immediately respond to something on social media—positively or negatively—you train yourself to respond quickly in the future. This habit is particularly difficult to overcome because of how we interact with social media.

Changing a habit rests on your ability to delay response to stimuli. If you can’t do that, the next best thing is to change your environment to remove the stimuli that trigger your habit. This reasoning is the same as why some alcoholics stay out of bars. Our problem is that we’re always connected to the internet via easy-to-use devices.

We spend our days texting, searching, responding to emails, and reacting to notifications. Consider that the first iPhone came out in 2007. I was a late adopter and didn’t get a smartphone until 2011, and it was a Samsung. And, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that a person gets their first cellphone at 18 (though we know it’s often a bit earlier than that).

This means that anyone born in 1993 or later has likely known this as the primary cellular communication method. That’s over 20 years for the population to develop a habit of instant response and reaction.

The first reaction is blurted out, most likely not argued well or with tact, and thus, it causes an inflammatory reaction in return. Before you know it, you’re in another social media war.

The tech companies can implement no solution to mitigate this problem—even if there is, they have zero incentive to use it.

They benefit from you staying engaged with the platform.

It is up to us to be more disciplined, respectful, and open-minded.

The solution to this vitriol?

The way I see it, there are only two things you need to do if you want to stop having a volatile experience on social media.

Be content with your life

The three pillars of fulfillment are health, wealth, and relationships. I’ve met enough people from Twitter to know that if your personal life is out of order, you’ll show up even worse online. While this does nothing to affect the quality of the people you encounter, it will ensure you aren’t unknowingly antagonizing others.

Before I move to the second part, I want to bring attention to something that I did not mention—anonymity. After having different interactions with people at all levels of public exposure, I don’t think it matters that much.

Most anonymous accounts I’ve interacted with have been polite and good-natured people. Same for public accounts. People who have their lives together generally aren’t vitriolic and disrespectful. They don’t need the threat of public identification to be civil. Sure, if every person needed to have their name and face attached to their internet posts, there might be less volatility, but then it would most likely come out somewhere.

Stamp it out immediately

In 10 years of being heavily active on social media, I can’t think of a single interaction where someone was initially disrespectful and then changed their mind about me and became a fan, friend, or customer. However, I can think of several instances where I eventually had to block the person because the disrespectful behavior only escalated.

Before going to the third thing, I want to explain something. I do not simply ignore or “mute.” I block for two important reasons:

If I ignore or mute someone, they can still interact with my posts, meaning they can interact with other people in the conversation. While my posts aren’t all designed to stimulate deep thinking and thoughtful discussion, I also don’t need rude behavior. If a person is muted or ignored, they keep commenting ridiculousness into the void I never see. People use that as a reason not to block—so the commenter keeps commenting without anyone seeing it. But that’s a misunderstanding of human nature.

Commenting still feels good to them, even if you never reply. However, a block lets them know that their contribution to the conversation is so minimal that they aren’t allowed to take place in it. If you doubt how powerful this is, remember that being rejected activates the same brain areas as being hit. And that’s what a block is: rejection.

If you follow these steps, you make it effectively impossible to have a bad time on social media because you won’t be pissing people off, and you won’t let pissed-off people into your domain.

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.

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