Death by a Thousand Emotional Microtransactions

How much do you care what people think of you? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think of you? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think about any individual choice you make or opinion you share? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think of the specifics of the format, timing, wording, tone, or technological means of the opinion you’ve shared?

If you use Twitter, or social media in general, you already kind of know the answer, or at least you’re learning it.

I have been learning some lessons myself about social media; how it can be used either passively or with intention; how it informs our personal identity; and how I have allowed it too much unfettered access to my nervous system, among other things. Clearly, for all its benefits, Twitter is also an enormous source of potential stress, eliciting what I call the Torrent of Feelings. I won’t get into the myriad factors that make this so. Browse this here blog, and you’ll see other ruminations on this subject.

What occurs to me lately is that a lot of the stress that Twitter (et. al.) engenders has to do with our perceptions of being judged. The more you present yourself on one of these platforms (and I’ll just use Twitter for now, since it’s my traditional platform and I’m tired of typing provisos indicating “et cetera”), the more you have your sense of self and identity wrapped up in it. And that can make one sensitive to the scrutiny that comes with such exposure.

Freddie deBoer recently put it like this:

“You’re doing it wrong” is the internet’s truest, most genuine expression of itself. For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world.

But what is being judged? The more I think about it, the more I think the answer is “everything.” And not “everything” in the sense of one’s whole self. That is happening, but it’s piecemeal. Very piecemeal, granular in the extreme. Because of course no one can encapsulate their whole selves in a tweet, or even a series of them, so judgment comes in small units. The hyperscrutinization that people experience (I know I do) on Twitter happens tweet by tweet, and on down.

Of course you can be called out for the substance of your opinions and choices, whether deservedly or not. But you can also be derided for your word choice, the timing of your tweet, your grammar, your nuance, your lack of nuance, your hashtag use, your frequency of tweeting or lack thereof, what client you’ve chosen to tweet from, and so on. And in those instances, though they are highly focused, the effect on the recipient is to add it to the collections of judgments about themselves as people. As Boone Gorges puts it, “A life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions.”

And while I strongly advocate using Twitter and social media with great intention, there’s not much you can do about this micro-judgment phenomenon besides not using Twitter. That’s because Twitter is used by humans (usually), and humans, even the ones we really like, also tend toward the shallow and the knee-jerk response in an environment that fosters that kind of thing. Gorges again:

Every tweet I read or write elicits some small (or not so small) emotional reaction: anger, mirth, puzzlement, guilt, anxiety, frustration. I’ve tried to prune my following list so that when I do find myself engaging in a genuine way, it’s with a person I genuinely want to engage with. But there’s a limit to how much pruning can be done, when unfollowing a real-life friend is the online equivalent of punting his puppy across the room. So all day long, I’m in and out of the stream, always reacting to whatever’s coming next.

And there’s a domino effect. Especially during times of collective stress (such as the siege on Ferguson, the death of someone notable, etc.), those on the periphery peek in, see the Torrent of Feelings swirling around them, which causes them to judge the validity of that. Erin Kissane writes:

In the flood of information and emotion from something like Ferguson (or war crimes or an epidemic) … there we all are, gradually drowning. So people get huffy about the volume emotion that these events arouse—angry that others are angry about the wrong things or too many things or in the wrong register. … (I am properly angry, you are merely “outraged.”)

It should be noted that of the three writers quoted here, all three have left Twitter. DeBoer’s been gone for a while I think, and the other two announced their exit in the quoted posts.

Now, I’m not leaving. I have too much invested socially and professionally in Twitter to foreswear it. I will have to make do with diligent pruning, and accept that it will require a degree of fluidity: maybe I mute or unfollow certain people at certain times, and then bring them back to my feed at other times, for example. I will probably screw some of it up.

All of this is to say that Twitter is valuable, but we human beings are so damned vulnerable. The Twitter service does not care at all about this vulnerability, and probably thrives as a result of it. But I think we can do a lot to both harness Twitter’s positive value while being highly mindful of its power to kill by a thousand cuts (and this is before we even get to outright abuse, harassments, and threats, which is a related problem at a much higher temperature). I’ll be thinking about these things as I tweet and react, but also as I take in the reactions of others to me. It won’t be easy.

Image by Shutterstock.

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