I had an interesting experience reading this. I had some downtime on a Sunday and I was aimlessly scrolling through Twitter. This is not a common pastime, but I like to see what it’s like every now and then. In my timeline I came across a tweet by Jeff from a few days ago which caused a bit of a stir
(@codinghorror apologies for dredging this up, but it provides context for my experience)
I have my own views on the subject that have evolved over time. I had a similar view to the one Jeff expressed at one point. After discussing the topic with friends and others who worked in tech (and some in tech unions) my view has shifted. Some of the things I learnt along the way are expressed in that Twitter thread.
I found myself reading the entire thread. While the thread contains a fair number of useful references and points, these are outweighed by sarcastic, personal or highly charged one-liners. While I don’t hold the initial view Jeff expressed, I found myself briefly (for 3 seconds) tempted to tweet, something I hardly ever do, to point out that sarcasm was not the best way to inform someone (or something like that), and then thought “What the hell am I thinking?”. Positional discussion (aka ‘argument’) on Twitter is largely pointless.
In fact, I thought, why did I just read that entire thread? I could have spent that time outside, with my girlfriend, or doing literally anything else. I already knew what was going to be said in it, but I just kept scrolling. Perhaps out of some perverse curiosity to see what other semi-witty (but mostly pretty banal) put-downs people would come up with next, but also because it was so easy to do so.
So, leaving Twitter, I came over to Meta, saw this topic, watched Evan’s great talk and read some of the linked discussions and the interesting thoughts expressed in this topic, including those by Jeff. As you can imagine, my mind was reeling at this point from the whiplash of being ensnared by the “viral” content and UX on Twitter and the “meta” discussion of that phenomenon going on here.
The thought this left me with is that, like Evan as mentioned, the intention of online discussion is key. Jeff can speak for himself, but it seemed like the intention of the initial tweets was to solicit responses that challenged his view. Whether the various people who responded with one-line takedowns intellectually understood it that way or not, the unstated assumption of the takedowns were that he was stating a political position that reflected something about his identity.
Now, both can be (and typically are) true at once. You can raise something to have a discussion about it, and also be stating a ‘political’ view that reflects your identity. However, what can often happen in an online context, particularly with the constraints of a platform like Twitter, is that the intention behind the statement is overwhelmed by the political or identity aspects of it.
And perhaps in some online contexts, like Twitter, this is to be expected. I think we often mistake (or hope for) Twitter to be a ‘open discussion platform’ when really it’s an ‘open identity platform’ with side businesses of sharing information and humour. It’s largely a way for people to signal their identity and find like-minds. Which has a role in public life, but can be easily misunderstood.
This misunderstanding, about the character of online discussion platforms and posts within those platforms, can be addressed in a number of ways ranging from the community design (as @erlend_sh mentioned), to the structure of posts and posting to include some notion of intention (as Evan mentions).
That said, I wonder whether a “learning intent” badge on Jeff’s tweet would have changed the reaction to it. On balance, I feel like the structural and “character” aspects of the forum of online discussion matter more than people’s appreciation of the specific intent of the poster. As I alluded, I think many of the folks responding with one-line put-downs to Jeff probably did understand, on one level, that he was putting a view out there to learn more about the subject at hand.
Whatever methods you employ, I think what I would like to see more of is a better understanding of the different roles and purposes of different platforms, both in specific cases and in the public debate about them. Twitter is not designed to produce civilised discourse, and Discourse is not designed to produce viral content. But we often view both (and other) platforms through the lens of whatever utopian vision we have for society, politics or the community we’re running and try to mould the platform to that vision.