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Nov. 27, 2017, 3:26 p.m.
Audience & Social

Slow down! Here’s how the speed and structure of Twitter have made it harder to think

“Every incredibly regrettable thing that I have said on social media, I have said within the first five minutes of something showing up. I would feel a lot better about my history as a social media user if I had had a five-minute delay.”

How to Think, a new book from Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs, is very much of the times. In it, Jacobs examines the forces — both mental and technological — that conspire to make it easier for people to dig into their positions, to make it harder to understand opposing viewpoints. One big culprit? Human laziness.

“For me, the fundamental problem may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking,” Jacobs writes. “Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar comforting habits.”

Jacobs, who wrote the book during last year’s presidential campaign, said that the idea was born after conversations he had with U.K. friends about Brexit, which he said was “marked by a lot of mutual incomprehension, a lot of hostility, a sense that if you’re on the other side from me on an issue, then there is a gulf between you and I that just cannot be crossed.” That sounds a lot like 2017.

I spoke to Jacobs about social media’s effect on thinking, the role of news organizations, and why he longs for the resurgence of RSS. Our conversation been edited for length and clarity.

Ricardo Bilton: Why write this book? What’s the origin story?

Alan Jacobs: I’ve spent all my adult life as Christian — I’ve been in churches, often evangelical ones — and I’ve been an academic. I have 30 years of experience dealing with these communities, both of which I belong to and which don’t understand one another and often don’t want to understand one another.

So I thought that, out of that experience, I could write something that’s of more general value about how, without abandoning your convictions, you can avoid willful misunderstanding of other people and really try to understand what their point of view is and give it serious and appropriate considerations.

Bilton: What would you say is your central argument? In the early pages you mention books like Thinking Fast and Slow, which focus on the challenges we face trying to overcome our biases. But your book is taking on something different.

Jacobs: First of all, all those books are incredibly useful. I have read them and I have learned from them. But I thought what we really needed was not a general account of our cognitive biases but some guidance for the moment.

Especially if you’re on social media, you’re being presented with stimuli all the time, stimuli that are demanding a response from you. If that’s the case, how do you navigate that moment? The thesis of the book is that, in reality, we don’t want to master those impulses. We don’t want to, because by responding to those stimuli in an instinctive way, we can signal our belonging. But we ought to resist those stimuli, because the social and personal costs of not resisting those stimuli are enormous.

Bilton: What’s new here? You use a surprisingly vulgar exchange between Thomas More and Martin Luther to illustrate that communication technologies always breed a certain antipathy between people. How has that evolved? Is it just the speed of today’s communications, or the sheer number of people who can communicate with each other?

Jacobs: Your general point is really important there. New technologies always have this distancing or disintermediating effect. When we’re using a new technology to communicate, it seems, for at least a while, to diminish the humanity of the people we’re encountering. That’s a very old story.

Today, though, I think that what all the social media platforms have in common are two things. One is that speed is instant. And the second is that the platform are built in such a way that they encourage you to give responses immediately after stuff shows up. So you have the speed — but it’s not just that it comes at you at a certain speed, but everything encourages you to respond equally quickly.

When that tweet comes in, what comes along with it is a serious of buttons, one of which will let you reply, one of which will let you retweet, one of which will let you favorite. You’re being invited to make one of those responses, and to make it quickly because something else is coming in 10 seconds later. It’s that combination that I think is new. We’re like rats in the cage, pressing the button to get food. It really is a classic experiment in operant condition. We’re in Skinner boxes.

Bilton: Facebook has taken a lot of heat for its algorithm, which is designed to create increase engagement by showing people more of what they already like. That can be a problem when it comes to political discussion. But what about Twitter, which you seem to have a lot more to say about?

Jacobs: It’s actually Twitter that I know much better. In March of 2007, I deleted my Facebook account and started my Twitter account. I hated Facebook. And what I hated about it was the reciprocity. The idea that, if I friend someone, they’re going to automatically friend me. I thought that there were people whom I wouldn’t mind sharing details from my life, but I didn’t need to know what was going on in their lives all the time.

I love that on Twitter, relationships are not reciprocal. The problem is that one of the things that that does is put you in a situation where you’re following someone to whom you’re not accountable and who is not accountable to you, because there’s no mutuality there. That’s kind of understood. We’re not there to gather. It’s nonreciprocal and asynchronous. So you’re already at a distance from people.

And then there’s the fact that there are a lot reasons to follow people. There’s the hate follow for one, where you follow people specifically because you despise them and you want to have that dislike or hatred fed. If that’s what you do, then you love it when they say something that’s repulsive, because it confirms the view of them that you had all along. That’s an especially nasty side of Twitter, because its really easy to have all of your worse suspicions about people confirmed, while also avoiding any people who have a more reasonable articulation of those views you disagree with. You can control the influx of information in ways that confirm your priors.

Bilton: What I found really compelling in your book was your argument that, at the core, all of this is about community and belonging. People vilify people from another group in order to gain acceptance from a different group whose approval they want. It’s all about identity.

Jacobs: Why do you hate-follow people? You hate-follow them so you can hate-retweet them. That’s why so many liberals follow Donald Trump on Twitter. It’s this weird thing where you signal boost people you hate so you can signal to people in your circle that you’re one of them. So there’s this kind of perverse incentive there.

Bilton: How much does it change things when you consider how much time journalists, for example, spend on Twitter?

Jacobs: Journalists are human beings, and they have that same impulse that everyone else does. But they have the additional incentive that, when people say really outrageous things, it’s newsworthy. So you get a situation where they both retweet something with their own commentary, but they can also use that tweet down the line as fodder for a post or article.

It’s really interesting to think how quickly embedded tweets have emerged as not only standard but universal in journalism. Every story, it seems like, has them. And often the tweets that are embedded are the most likely to be controversial and therefore the most clickworthy. Journalism is continually faced with the issue of becoming parasitic on Twitter.

Bilton: Is there a better way for news organizations to operate in this world? We’ve covered anti-filter-bubble tools such as the new one from The Washington Post, which offers opinion pieces with opposing viewpoints. It’s a fine idea, but just because you create something like that doesn’t mean anyone is going to use it. If you’re a news organization that fundamentally believes your role is to make civil discourse better, what can you do? Is there an ideal tool?

Jacobs: I think that a superb tool is already out there — I just don’t know how make people use it: It’s called RSS.

I love RSS, and I loved it even before Google Reader was a thing. With RSS, everything I see there, I see the context of medium-to longform posts and articles, something that’s going to take me a few minutes to read. When I see those same articles on Twitter, what I’m seeing is this kind of bulletpoint version surrounded by many other bulletpoint versions of other things.

What happens is that when people access what you’re doing on Twitter, what they’re getting is a reduced and oversimplified version. We all know that, if you post something that links to a long article, people will respond to your tweet without reading the article.

I know this is utopian, but I would love to see news organizations say, “if you want to follow us on Twitter, great, but we have an RSS feed that gives you a deeper understanding of what’s going on.” Granted, most people don’t want that. They want the bullet points. But I think that if you can nudge people towards RSS, you’d be nudging them towards a tool that has different and better affordances and fewer perverse incentives. It’s utopian, as I said, but I’m not going to give up on RSS.

Bilton: I think a lot of people will come to your book looking for something that’s focused entirely on giving readers actionable ways to improve their critical thinking skills. That’s not what the book is, ultimately, but you do have a checklist at the end of the book that offers techniques readers can use. Of those, which do you think is easiest for people to implement?

Jacobs: I don’t think there’s any question about it: “Give it five minutes.” If people don’t take anything else away from the entire book, it should be that. Every incredibly regrettable thing that I have said on social media, I have said within the first five minutes of something showing up. I would feel a lot better about my history as a social media user if I had had a five-minute delay. And I think Twitter would be doing a great service to humanity if they put a five-minute timer on tweets before people could respond to them. Of course, they won’t do that.

Photo of Rodin’s The Thinker by Freddie Boy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 27, 2017, 3:26 p.m.
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