Culture

Twitter, the Digital Town Square With a Bittersweet Allure

A closer look into the microblogging hub might reveal it to be a near-perfect simulation of what is obtainable in the real world.

An iPhone screenshot showing a list of social media apps, with the Twitter icon, magnified.
Despite the debauchery it is often associated with, Twitter has proven to be a tool that, more often than not, has been utilized for good and perhaps, as a controversial source of entertainment. Photo by The Septum

While many people view Twitter as a platform for connecting with friends, sharing memes, and promoting causes and opinions, others see it simply as a community replete with chaos. Twitter, the ever-growing microblogging platform, with more than 330 million users and counting has, in current times, had tumult reign supreme. Much of this ‘tumult’ can be attributed to the divisive and often inflammatory language that users deploy unchecked on the app. Like every social media application and website, Twitter isn't exempt from blurring the line between public and private speech, allowing users to be anonymous and unchecked leading to name-calling, disinformation, and slander that can quickly spiral out of control. This results in an atmosphere that is mostly filled with pointless debates and aggression that often overwhelms the genuine conversation that the platform was designed to foster.

Well, It doesn't look good.

Twitter has (and will) always be a hub of controversy, with its propensity to spark debates that often lead to intense and passionate clashes of opinions. A prime example of this lies in political discourses. Just a quick scroll through one’s timeline will inevitably reveal some particularly tense exchanges between the right and left sides of different political, religious, and even moral aisles, the flames of which only seem to intensify as the years go by. Even the most mundane of tweets — a random update about your day or a post about an uneventful movie that you just watched — can inspire an explosive conversation that has absolutely no logical explanation. From the ever-popular 'unpopular opinions' to the slightly inane and unexpected questions posed to the Twittersphere, one never knows what the next tweet may bring.

And then there are the Stan Wars scourges that have been allowed to spread on Twitter. Stan wars are a perplexing, yet increasingly common phenomenon that has taken off in recent years. The term ‘Stan'—a portmanteau of the name ‘Stan’ and the term ‘fan’—is coined from the Eminem song Stan, representing an online slang for an obsessive and devoted fan of a celebrity, brand, or media property.

Stan wars on Twitter have become a source of contention between the supporters of those famous individuals, bands, and franchises who argue the merits of their chosen mate. This contentious and often unpleasant behavior has risen in use over the years as the platform Twitter has become more popular and widely used.

Primarily, stan wars consist of arguments that oppose one celebrity, band, or topic and promote another. These debates usually take an antagonistic and often abrasive tone, as armies of ‘stans’ are quick to outdo each other in terms of vocalization and passionate defense. The arguments range from light-hearted conversations about the talent of the celebrity in question to more critical commentary on their personal lives and the decisions they have made. It is not uncommon for these stan wars to get to the point where two opposing sides attack each other out of anger and frustration. At its core, a stan war relies on strong admiration and unwavering support for a celebrity. Hence, it is from such devotion that the arguments begin, and it is only after the supporters have become so emotionally involved in defense of their idol that they become willing to argue and even fight with other people over the merits of their idol.

Groupthink, another ill-effect of social media, specifically Twitter, has had a powerful implication on those who use the platform. It is a psychological phenomenon referring to digital media where a single influential opinion has the potential to spread quickly. This influence by like-minded persons causes irrational thinking within the group as well as hinders one's ability to express dissenting opinions thereby encouraging self-censorship. In other words, it removes thinkers from conversing about their opinions and analyzing for a constructive outcome. What is created as a result is an ‘echo chamber’, with little to no room for dissent, or an atmosphere where users overlook differing opinions negatively thereby influencing the conversations, causing a form of ‘mob mentality’ and a false sense of security—an atmosphere where an individual’s beliefs are blindly accepted and reaffirmed.

Another jarring decadence to Twitter is the reality that the app has birthed a world soured by many users' deceptive practices. Photoshopped and doctored images are often circulated on Twitter to mislead users into believing a particular viewpoint thereby giving undue influence to a small but vocal minority while exploiting the gullibility of many users. This disruptive environment has been further amplified by the rise of trolls — accounts that exist solely to antagonize and intimidate other users. And by flooding the comment sections with hate speech and false facts, trolls often spoil the originality and reality of real debates. They take advantage of the chaos at hand to create even more chaos. What stems as a consequence of all these is a hostile and harsh community steeped in hell, with distraction, deception, and trolls defining the everyday life of its users, even far beyond the digital realm.

The chaos that exists on Twitter isn't contained entirely within the platform. It has rather become intertwined with the reality of everyday life — people talk about Twitter, argue over tweets, and kick off a public discourse around the latest scandalous affair or controversial hashtag. Politicians and celebrities alike have embraced Twitter as a mechanism for connecting with the public — for better or worse — in an unprecedented manner. In doing so, they have actively caused the platform to become a pertinent part of countries’ political, cultural, and economic fabric, so much so that the public's opinion on an electoral system can be tampered with.

Despite the occasional infighting, though, I find the awakenings of passion that this app manages to evoke to be quite exhilarating and addicting. They are almost like a spectator sport, where we, as audience members, can sit back and watch with careful interest as the scene unfolds.

But it is not all bad…

Of course, the ultimate Twitter experience doesn’t always end with a heated political battle or a sarcastic jab at an A-list celebrity. Twitter is an undeniable haven for expressing thoughts that may be deemed controversial in other settings. It is “a place” where you belong until you don’t, an app that for some serendipitous reason belongs to the public, and then it doesn’t.

Twitter has positioned itself as a world of possibilities and limitless creativity and it has much more to offer in terms of its good. Allowing users to express their thoughts freely and almost unfiltered, Twitter is a tool that is especially attractive to anyone who wants to be heard. Whether it’s jokes about current events, scathing reviews of celebrities, or even throwing shades at the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Twitter gives users a platform where they can exercise their creative liberties ‘usually’ without the pesky repercussions, especially in a country where the government can take a joke, in spite of its comical inducements.

Another undeniable good that has spawned off the “bird app” is its ubiquitous utilization as a large force for social change. The platform has now become the go-to destination for raising funds for social causes and helping individuals or groups in need. A prime example of this is the #EndSars campaign organized by Nigerian youths.

In October 2020, the #EndSARS hashtag began trending on Twitter in Nigeria — and later, globally — after reports of police brutality, abuse of power, and relentless extortion at the hands of the Nigerian police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit formed to combat high levels of violent crime but quickly became notorious for its arbitrary arrest, torture, and extortion of ordinary citizens. The peaceful protests that soon followed the abrupt surge of reports, provided the perfect platform on which Twitter users could express their frustrations at the government’s complete failure to address the grievances of its citizens. Uniting around the hashtag #EndSARS, Nigerians used Twitter to draw attention to the movement, share their stories and experiences of SARS's unjust activities, and document acts of police brutality. Operating within the bounds of the law, activists were able to tap into the power of international digital forums and attract crucial attention to the cause. The digital public sphere provided by Twitter allowed #EndSARS activists to quickly and successfully exercise digital citizenship, allowing a new level of global visibility and public engagement with their demands. By making use of multimedia tools such as video, photos, and digital graphics, #EndSARS activists were able to document evidence and bring the extent of the violence and repression to light. Twitter was also used to spread information and organize collective action. Fundraising campaigns were organized to provide emergency assistance to fellow activists who had been incarcerated or injured, while some created online grassroots movements that provided legal advice and support to those in need. By developing creative ways of using the platform, activists and everyday citizens alike have managed to easily share news, information, and personal stories about the movement, in turn bringing the world’s attention to the fight for a brighter future for Nigeria. Even though the outcome of this protest left an agonizing tragedy in the minds of Nigerian youths, the crucial role Twitter played in the #EndSars campaign cannot be over-emphasized.

Twitter has helped individuals, communities, and organizations who have struggled with one thing or another. As news about tragedies, medical expenses, or poverty becomes viral, people often come together to help. Charities, foundations, and different workforces have all had great success in raising funds on Twitter to help out those in need. Apart from being used as a tool to drive social change, it is an application that fosters several communities of like-minded individuals who, over time, have carved a portion of the Internet for themselves. It also provides a great opportunity for political advocacy as well as the organization of political rallies, which gives everyday people a great opportunity to have their voices heard, whether it is a hashtag campaign or replying to a public figure. With people from all walks of life, many of whom share different experiences and perspectives, it’s an excellent place for users to expand their worldview, learn something new, leave a mark on the world, or put a dent in the universe. From the leader of a country to the average John, everyone is provided a platform to reach millions of users. With a well-crafted tweet, even the quietest of voices can be broadcasted to a wide audience.

The free-for-all nature of Twitter, where cliches can live and thrive, has allowed an unprecedented level of democratization of discourse, pushing out the traditional gatekeepers and allowing more diverse contributors to enter the conversation. It also enables users to express themselves in more uncensored ways. In a sense, this is what makes Twitter so enjoyable — the unfettered and often chaotic manner in which conversations unfold frequently gives the platform a unique charm. One might even say it is a near-perfect simulation of the real world, instant and imperfect, yes, but nevertheless, original.

But, no matter what side of this chaotic or controlled philosophy you may subscribe to, there’s no denying that Twitter has had — and continues to have — an immense impact on society. It has allowed users to communicate their ideas, connect with like-minded individuals, and engage in a debate that leads to meaningful dialogue. While some may find this chaotic and overwhelming, I personally enjoy the debauchery of Twitter and the implications it has had on the way we connect, discuss and debate. I enjoy the unique chaos that it brings to my life and I’m always eager to see what the platform-wide shenanigans have in store for us on any given day, and it never disappoints. With its reckless abandon and carefree attitude, Twitter is essentially an ever-evolving circus of culture, ideas, and nonsense - and I, for one, couldn’t be more amused.

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