Twitter can give us the means both to deepen the polarization and to counter it. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The fault, fellow Americans, lies not in our social media, but in ourselves.
Well, to paraphrase a bumper sticker about guns, social media doesn’t create toxic behavior; it just makes it really easy to indulge in. As for Twitter specifically, Derek Powazek noted years ago that you couldn’t have designed a more effective argument generator if you tried. I can’t help but notice with amusement that the suggestions he offered to improve it — some of which have been implemented, more or less, and which Young praises for having made Twitter more tolerable — tend to make Twitter more like the blogs it superseded, which raises the obvious question of why frivolous twits were in such a hurry to bury blogs in the first place. Well, who am I to criticize people for trading in old products and buying them back again in new packaging. If you want to create unpaid content on a tech giant’s platform rather than hosting your own site where you can exercise the sort of editorial control that people are demanding of Twitter, whatever.
Not all possibilities are equally probable. Sure, Twitter can be used for more elevated purposes than trading hostile sentence fragments with strangers, but it’s not likely to happen. New technologies are born into a world already in motion, which is to say a platform like Twitter joins an already-existing pattern of proclivities and incentives among its users. Perhaps there is, say, a “quilting Twitter” where hobbyists converse amiably and helpfully with each other, but in the pop culture/current events section of Twitter, we’ve seen the results, and however different this or that individual’s experiences have been, it seems safe to say that the overall effect on public discourse has been corrosive and intellectually enfeebling.
Relying on pure, heroic willpower to overcome temptation may be satisfying to our egos, but if it’s virtuous online behavior you want, it’s better to practice good habits — like, say, refusing to participate in the dumbing-down and attention-scattering tendencies of social media.