How Twitter “incentivises, rewards and then destroys intimacy”…

To presumptuously answer Kellie’s question about what Doug Beattie might eventually learn from his experience of the last few days, I hope one of the things he learns is to stay off Twitter for a while. And some of his colleagues could do the same.

I don’t think many politicians understand what this micro blogging platform is good for. It’s not even that good for making money for its owners. And it has not just made a fool out of the UUP leader (who at least tried to man up in the end).

Today three young female Sinn Féin MLAs had some of the most embarrassingly misogynistic (among other things) tweets dug up and made public and broadcast on public radio. I joined Colin McGrath and Allison Morris on Nolan yesterday morning:


The foul language involved is not for the faint hearted. I have screenshots of the offending tweets but have no intention of sharing them here. All four have gamed and in turn been gamed by the bleed-to-death functionality of the Twitter platform.

Returning to my favourite academic of the moment, Professor Nguyen, in that great podcast on the gamification of society, he makes the telling observation that “:Twitter is a machine that incentivises, rewards and then destroys intimacy”.

He references Ted Cohen’s early 1980s book called Jokes, In it is the theory that “every joke involves the surprise disclosure of a piece of shared background knowledge: something that you know and believe in common has to come out at the end”.

But that shared background knowledge has to be a surprise. He explains…

…since the joke teller can’t give you the backgound knowledge ahead of time, then every joke is a risk. What you’re gambling on is that there’s a pre-existing shared intimacy.

When the joke comes off it emphasises intimacy, where intimacy lies in a shared background of knowledge.  Twitter is short and it works because suddenly there is some shared background emerging that you [feel] have to share.

Twitter gives you so much reason to make jokes, incomprehensible to people without shared background or context, [whereas] it’s only funny when there’s background shared or context.

Then it gives you the retweet button which lets you rip something out of context and show it to people that won’t get it.

That applies whether you’re Doug Beattie or the three young SF MLAs. What gets said in the Rock Bar or in Thiepval barracks stays there among true intimates. On Twitter it becomes part of a general “fall into banality, without any possible redemption.

To deputy First Minister the behaviour of the women was unacceptable. Unacceptably embarrassing, perhaps? Abusive, sectarian, misogynous language ought to have no place in our politics, and before Twitter it was vanishingly rare.

As the good Professor has noted:

“…when you let yourself be gamified by Twitter or Fitbit you’re outsourcing your values” where “conspiracy theories offer you hyper simplified explanations of the world”.

Stephen Bush says of the crisis in Downing St there is an “absence of a central political mission to pivot to”. That’s a direct result of party’s spending too much time on the internet and not enough thinking about what they have to offer the electorate.

Twitter is the sheugh of knee-jerk politics. If Beattie a great hope for a revival of liberal unionism, a key reason he has stumbled here is because a lack of what my friend David Amerland calls ‘Future Gazing’. In his book Intentional he notes:

Future gazing allow us to see the future we want to exist in, so we can actively take steps to make it happen for us. Planning long term provides us with a sense of direction.

It allows us to see the need for transformation. The need for transformation enables us to handle knowledge and skills differently. We learn better, understand more.

I’ve no intention myself of vilifying anyone for their clumsy stupidities on Twitter. It’s a gamified platform that makes it hard for individuals to behave in ways that serve their own best interests if they’re intent on playing to its rules.

Away from Twitter, Northern Ireland is changing in line with the values of the Belfast Agreement. People are getting on with it without the help of politics. An ambitious politician would ask them (rather than Twitter) for a clue of what the future holds.

Politics should be a game of positions and difference on matters of long term substance. By all means use twitter to sell those. But lay off the easy (poisonious) low hanging conversational fruit and sell us your values… not your childish banter.

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