I've been off Twitter since last Sunday morning.
I'm one of those people who quickly become addicted to social media and check it compulsively. On balance, it's bad for me. But this is a shame because I think there are a lot of good things to be got out of Twitter and similar platforms.
Twitter allows me to chat directly to interesting people I'd never meet in real life - scientists, writers, people in politics. I've met people I just really like talking with, and I've followed conversations that have changed my mind or given me a better understanding of people with whom I disagree.
I started using Twitter in a very careful, curated way. I mostly followed museums, entomologists, that kind of thing. But politics always filters through and I can't ignore it when it does. After all, politics is, in the end, about how we treat each other and the planet. How do you ignore that?
I have my doubts that Twitter is a force for good in politics, or in society. I think it could be, but I don't think that it is. Debate on Twitter tends to be, often, about winning the argument, rather than coming to a better understanding, or exploring different viewpoints. It is very, very common to see people on Twitter say that debate itself is a bad thing. Twitter is for affirming your existing position, and for seeking out wrongthinkers. It is not for understanding your opponent, for grappling with their points, or for formulating logical counter-arguments.
Why is there this fear of debate? How have we got to the point where someone with a different viewpoint must be marked as utterly and totally bad, with no hope of redemption?
I have a theory. In the past, we had arguments in physical locations. The pub, or someone's house. You could end up disagreeing very heatedly about something. But in two major ways, it was different from social media. Firstly, you usually knew the person you argued with. You may disagree with Bill about Brexit, for example, but you know lots of other things about Bill, good and bad things, and his views on Brexit have to jostle along with those other things to make up your opinion of him. It's harder to say about someone you know, that he only supports/opposes Brexit because he's the devil incarnate.
The other thing that is different - and I think this is perhaps even more important - is that you go home from the pub, or Bill finally leaves your house. And the conversation ends. Maybe you'll take it up again but it will be when you meet Bill again, which will be in a week or so at the earliest. But nobody goes home from Twitter. Hours later, you can still be bombarded by angry responses. Or maybe you're just watching from the sidelines as people say hateful things. If you're a heavy Twitter user, you see it last thing at night, first thing in the morning. Does this make us feel always vulnerable?
Maybe we can deal with disagreement when it's contained - to a few hours in the pub, for example. But when it's constant, and it follows us to bed and wakes us up in the morning, maybe it's too much. So we start seeing disagreement not as an inevitable part of living alongside other human beings - something that's actually helpful, in that it encourages us to explore our own reasoning - but instead we see it as an attack. We've developed an allergy to it. We can't handle it, so we try to banish it, to blot out those who disagree with us.
I wonder if a platform for debate would work better if it were more limited. So when you sign up, you can specify a time of day you receive notifications - 7pm-8pm, say. You cannot change it or lengthen the time past an hour. If you need to change it, you have to send a letter to the company. So all discussions would either take place within that hour, or it would be like having a discussion via post. No checking all times of day, no rows lasting half the night. Maybe we'd get our courage back, and start to listen to each other.