Life in the Bubble

The tribalism of Twitter is everywhere.

For the better part of the last year, until just about two weeks ago, I’ve been wearing a mask when I go for a run. I’ve kept it tucked under my chin, pulling it up over my mouth and nose whenever I come within about 25 feet from another person. Within a second or two of passing them, I pull it back down under my chin again.

I feel like an idiot and a coward every single time I do it. I run on the trails of a regional park, or along the shore of the San Francisco Bay. These are not particularly crowded places. There is, for all intents and purposes, zero chance that I’ll catch or spread Covid by breezing past someone for a fraction of a second in the open air. I know this, but I do it anyway. Wearing a mask while running is not a scientific decision, it’s a social one — a way to reassure people that I’m a member of polite society, that I’m not a dreaded anti-masker. I know this, and the people I pass, who also pull up their masks, probably know it, too. But we each live in fear of the other’s judgment, so we bow to social pressure and participate in these small theatrics because it’s easier than risking confrontation.

If, like me, you’re terminally addicted to Twitter, this stilted, nervous, defensive posture toward complete strangers may feel somewhat familiar. On Twitter, everything is political, and therefore divisive. You can’t have an opinion about the last season of Stranger Things or the best recipe for hummus without running the risk of it descending into sectarian warfare. Since strangers on Twitter are merely avatars, and often faceless ones at that, their entire existence to you is contained in the tweet in front of your face. You have nothing else you’re aware of in common, and no meaningful stake in maintaining a peaceful relationship with them, not even the fleeting mutual interest of not letting the conversation become awkward for everyone, as you would at a dinner party. When disagreements arise, everything becomes about winning the argument and, ideally, humiliating your rivals in the process. 

It’s like a video game version of social interaction, where you’re always guarding against ambush. You’re playing offense and, constantly, defense. You have to assess every tweet you write not just for its veracity, but for how all of the possible permutations of its connotations might associate you with other tweets by other people who are disliked for other reasons, in the constantly shifting alliances of Twitter subcultures. It’s a sprawling cat’s cradle of tripwires. If you’re at all conflict averse, it’s better to just stick to the script your followers and peers are accustomed to, even if you don’t actually believe it yourself. You send the reassuring signals. You make sure you’re not singled out. You blend into the crowd. You pull up the mask.

Whenever I get into political discussions with normie friends who do not spend their lives on Twitter (most of my friends I grew up with have never even had a Twitter account, thank God) I find myself saying, usually in reference to some outrageously stupid political stance, “well, ok, but on Twitter, everyone is saying…”, to which they usually kind of sigh and say, “well ok, maybe on Twitter, but I don’t hear that from anybody.”

My internal reaction to this dialogue is complex. On the one hand, I’m reminded that Twitter is not, in fact, the real world, which is always a relief. I’m also a little bit embarrassed at these moments that such a stupid platform so profoundly shapes my view of what’s happening in public debates, rather than conversations with actual, flesh-and-blood people in the real world, like my friends have. On the other hand, I have begun to wonder if it’s not in fact me, but my non-tweeting friends who are out of touch. Because increasingly, Twitter is the real world.

Whether you spend any time on Twitter or not, you’re probably aware that the incentive structure of that platform has been bleeding into the outside world for some time now. Donald Trump’s presidency was just the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. By now it’s everywhere. Politics has become so high stakes and so all-consuming on a personal level that simple differences of opinion on social issues feel too dangerous to be tolerated. People with conflicting points of view are no longer just people with conflicting points of view; they’re enemies in the collective struggle to create or to save the world we want to live in. And you yourself are always a potential enemy to the person you happen to be making small talk with. Every conversation is freighted with anxiety. It’s like a potential Thanksgiving with your in-laws every time you go to the office snack room.

We’ve been trapped in our houses and apartments for so long, it’s hard to say what a party will feel like in 2021, but I’m guessing that it will bear a passing resemblance to Twitter — at least in the coastal, urban, educated, liberal, middle class milieu that I inhabit. First of all, a lot more people are going to be talking about politics. Second, those conversations are going to feel a little more fraught. There will be the possibility of stiffer social penalties for having a controversial opinion. You might wait a few beats longer before you wade in, taking the temperature of the conversation before saying something that could possibly get you into trouble. Obviously you agree with Black Lives Matter — how could you not? But are you supposed to also agree that in the long term, we all want to abolish the police? That sounds like a radical opinion; is it expected of you? What if you don’t agree? Maybe you even think that’s a ridiculous idea; is it ok to say so? Should you just split the difference and say you’re on board with “defunding” the police, even though you don’t know what that means? But then, there’s also a violent crime surge right now. Is it ok to bring that up, or is it racist?

In one sense, those of us who have rotted our brains on Twitter will be at an advantage in this hazardous context. We’ve learned how to slyly signal allegiance; how to disagree but with the adequate amount of hedging just in case things go sideways; how to backtrack without it being too obvious that’s what we’re doing; how to “read the room,” as we’re constantly advised to do. We’ve learned how to navigate social relations in a hyper-sensitive, tribal world in which we’re routinely asked to defend the most bad faith interpretation possible of our words. We’ve learned how to perform our politics.

When most people talk about how Twitter has degraded the public discourse, they’re referring to the constant tribal warfare that our politics have become. What they’re not necessarily referring to, but what is just as corrosive, is the perpetual self-surveillance and subterfuge we engage in to disguise or conceal our thoughts and beliefs in order to avoid that conflict. But that’s the more common and pervasive experience we have of political polarization — not the existential struggle to dominate others, but the little compromises we make to fit in. Most people aren’t looking for a fight, and will go to fair lengths to avoid one, on Twitter or at a house party. That’s a justifiable, pro-social instinct. But it often comes at the expense of honesty and openness. 

That’s bad for us psychologically and it’s bad for our social relationships and it’s bad for democracy. It’s the death by a thousand cuts that eventually leads to groupthink, without our even noticing. Pulling your mask up when there’s no rational reason to do so is easy, it’s arguably polite, and it feels harmless. But it’s not harmless. It’s a tiny bow to the dominance of symbolic in-group signaling over open, rational discourse. And I’ve taken that bow every single time.