Is Twitter Turning Your Friends Into Jerks, Or Were They Always Like That?S

Who are these people we follow on Twitter? I'm not referring to the celebrities or the joke accounts. We don't care about those people that much, right?

But who are these people who have the names of our friends?

I don't recognize many of them. One of these people seems funnier than the friend with whom he shares the same name. Another has the name as my friend but not the discretion. You might see a person on Twitter with my name. He's more of a shill than I think I am, always going on about the stories published on the website he runs.

Who are these other people who have the names of people who, in the real world, I like? They're the same people, of course, but different. In the Twitter world, so many of these nice people are grumps, mutterers or other species of insufferable.

What has Twitter done to the people we know? Or is it just showing what these people were like all along?

As a reporter and as a creature of the second decade of the 21st century, I keep Twitter open on a computer screen or on my phone for many hours of my day. Through Twitter I witness an avalanche of short ideas, bits of news, and, from time to time, THINGS THAT MUST BE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.

I know that most of what passes through my Twitter feed has no great significance on my life or my work, but I'm afraid to turn this faucet off. I'm afraid I'll miss something. I'm worried I won't see the news or a reply to something I've said. If I were to shut down Twitter, I would also miss something I wasn't privy to in the years before I joined Twitter. I would miss the thing I now experience daily in 140-character murmurs: the incidental buzzings of people I know, or who I think I know, or who I think I want to know-but maybe no longer do.

I've oscillated between thinking that Twitter obscures or illuminates the real people whom I thought I knew.

I don't know if I've come to know the people I follow on Twitter better than I do the people I see in real life, but I know that I know the people I follow on Twitter differently. I know them in a way that I wouldn't if I only saw them for a drink or dinner. And the people with whom I do sometimes see over a drink or dinner? I experience them strangely on Twitter. They are, some of them, practically different people than the ones I thought I knew. I've struggled to account for this difference.

I've oscillated between thinking that Twitter obscures or illuminates the real people whom I thought I knew. I've debated whether to flee from Twitter and to not have it distort (or clarify) the identities of the people I follow. But I've decided to stay on, because I've become convinced that Twitter is, for all its faults, something that is good for the way we know each other. I dare say it is improving human relations.

***

Twitter is, like much of online communication, a performance. Tweets are our transmissions to our audience. With each Tweet we turn our head from the stage to address the crowd while the drama plays on. We make a remark about what is happening. The rest of the players remain unaware of our wit. Who cares what the players think or no? We have fans to impress.

Twitter is the way to complain about a bad taxi driver without him knowing it. Twitter is the way to grumble about some new law, some bad TV show or some loudmouth on the bus. Where once we might fear our complaints would only find air or hostility, we can now assume they reach sympathetic ears, or, more accurately, eyes.

Twitter is, to give it one more metaphor, the box seat that the old guys in the Muppets sat in. It's let many of us be Statler and Waldorf. There is a show going on around us, and we have something clever to say about it.

Perhaps Twitter has made us complain more, essentially given us a currency and therefore an incentive to kvetch.

I am, as I've said already, more of a shill than a complainer on Twitter. I'm a positive guy in 140 characters, most of the time. I'm slow to attack though quick to defend. If I complain, I complain with a joke, which is what many Twitter users do. We've all learned, possibly from the stand-up comedians who first joked about air travel, the art of complaint as entertainment. And on Twitter that's what we do, turning an aggravation—some momentary deficit of happiness in our life—into the profit of the re-Tweet. Where once was only instant loss in life's stumbles, now there is the almost-as-instant gain of the applause from our audience as we report the gaffe. We benefit from the chortle or the other affirmation that we've skewered our prickly life back and skewered it well.

Perhaps Twitter has made us complain more, essentially given us a currency and therefore an incentive to kvetch. Perhaps, too, it's made me more of a shill for my website. Perhaps, more positively, it's also brought more of me to the people who follow me, delivering more of my thoughts about politics or about boxing or about the person I can't believe they just hired to write Superman comics, (but not about how bad the C train is because we don't get cellphone service underground and therefore the urge to whine passes before I'm above ground).

I'm just not sure I'm really me on Twitter. I wonder about who the people I follow on Twitter really are and I am unsure how well I've come to know them one Tweet at a time.

***

I had a theory I've overturned. The theory was that on Twitter we role-play. We professional-wrestle as outsized characters of who we really are. We strut for the crowd. But meet us in person and we're kinder, more nuanced, more realistic. We complain less in real life.

We shoot from safe distance from our rhetorical unmanned drones. We are more honest at range, where we feel safe from retaliation.

The overturned version which is now my new theory: over drinks, over dinner, during the small talk that follows the smiling and shaking of hands, we role-play. In real life we prattle about things we don't most want to discuss. We subdue our real reactions so as not to agitate the person in front of us or the people beside them. We keep our most honest self to ourselves, because, otherwise, what gain is there in telling the taxi driver that he's a terrible taxi driver? We fake it in real life. But on Twitter we are more real. We shoot from safe distance from our rhetorical unmanned drones. We are more honest at range, where we feel safe from retaliation.

We use Twitter as a new way to express thinking, closer to real-time, without revision or worry. We give the world access to the comic-book thought balloons above our head and let anyone who so desires to read them. We essentially invite people to know us more intimately and more consistently, from minute to minute than most people have ever known the people who live miles away from them.

***

On Twitter we talk and assume people are waiting to hear. When we follow dozens of people, we see so much chatter. We're given access to batches of internal monologues. What, then, of the amount of negativity among them?

This is the unsavory revelation: follow a bunch of people regularly on Twitter and you'll likely be exposed to ever more complaining, more snark, more unhappiness. Meet with these same people in real life and you'll likely hear fewer complaints. The same people will be more pleasant, but perhaps only because they're paradoxically more distant from us when we see them in person. They're no longer visible to us at the granular level. I'm reminded of images of human skin under a microscope. I'm reminded how the beautiful when paid closer attention to can appear so unpleasant.

Should I despair that Twitter has collated the thoughts of the people who I most want to hear from into a clamor I'd rather not experience?

If only I had the courage to shut off communication, though I'd risk missing the next important thing they might say.

Maybe I can change these people and their messages? Where would my intervention begin? "Can you complain less?" "Can you?" "Maybe you could?" "Can you stop yelling, you stop ranting and you stop making mountains out of life's speedbumps?" If I were to not ask such things, what else could be the process of my complaint? Twitter allows us the passive un-follow, the equivalent of walking out of the movie theater while the feature is still playing. It's likely to have as much effect on the person we followed as on the director of that film.

Why would I turn away from it at all, if Twitter is my means for knowing the people I follow better? Do I want to be friends with characters or do I want to friends with people whose thoughts I know?

This is the more important question to ask about the din of complaining I experience from the people who I've chosen to follow: why would I turn away from it at all, if Twitter is my means for knowing the people I follow better? Do I want to be friends with characters or do I want to be friends with people whose thoughts I know? Do we actually want to know our friends less? Is that the position I really want to take?

Thanks to Twitter, I now know of more of the world's burned toast and inept cashiers, just as I now know of more mortar rounds lobbed by murderous regimes. I now know how life's troubles have made this group of people—who I've chosen to be an audience to—feel. I know more of what makes them smile and more of what makes them frown. That they frown so much disorients me. Yes, I know they complain in part to entertain. But they really are uncomfortable more than I thought they'd be.

I don't think it's all performance. They were not turned into jerks or boors by Twitter. Nor were they jerks or boors or shills or whatever else all along. But the latter is, I now believe, closer to the truth. Twitter does illuminate.

We are aware of more of life's thorns thanks to our Twitter feed; we are now more aware of who is scratched, who bleeds and how often. We are reminded of discomfort more frequently. We have a choice to un-follow or to accept this buzzing in the background of our life. I'm choosing the latter. It seems more right to want to know than to want to ignore.

And yet what should our response be to all this negativity? It may be, I submit, to report in 140 characters not just the ruts but the verdant valleys, not just our hard climbs but the gorgeous heights. It might be to Tweet about the wind at our back and the taxi driver who actually knew the address we mentioned and whose foot pressed the accelerator smoothly. In witnessing more negativity through Twitter we might gain empathy, and from empathy, I believe, kindness and a desire to be positive eventually comes more naturally.

Twitter may be the new mumbling under one's breath. It may be the new complaining and the new thinking out loud. I think it's also the new understanding of the thoughts and the reactions of the people in whose lives we are the audience. It doesn't change our friends; it just changes how we know them, often awkwardly these days as we see the spill of their gut reactions. But I think it will ultimately help us know each other better. It will be something that is good for us.

(Top photo: The Muppets Statler and Waldor in 1977 | The Evening Standard/ Getty Images)