A somewhat Howard Beale moment happened to me earlier this week, and I came close to going to the ‘eaten-up-by-the-saleable-area’ balcony and screaming at the top of my voice, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Beale, played by Peter Finch in the prescient movie, Network, is a television anchor who becomes sick and tired of broadcast rating games and politics that channels and their managements indulge in, only to rake in more ad dollars. One day, he snaps. Just like that.
I did not snap, but I came close to it after enduring months of hatred on Twitter. The hatred was never directed at me (well, almost never), but there has been a sharp decline in the quality of discourse on what is easily the world’s most influential soap box medium of our time. Instead of debates, there are personal jibes. Instead of repartee, there is vicious name-calling. Instead of sharing knowledge, there is hunting in packs in case your ideology differs from the others, no matter what “side” you belong to.
Twitter battles are now routine between atheists and creationists, BJP followers and Congress followers, Narendra Modi fans and Narendra Modi haters, Rahul Gandhi lovers and Rahul Gandhi haters, IPL devotees and IPL haters, those who think Obama is a Muslim and those who know he is not; the list is endless. As a result, Twitter is no longer an ideas forum; it is a war zone.
Here’s what I did: I unfollowed almost every political handle out there, and signed up with those who follow or will educate me on my interests — journalism, international affairs, cosmology, mathematics, music, books, civil political analysis, stand-up comedy, movies, food, and, in one case, even a financial affairs nerd. Since then, here is what I have experienced on my Twitter timeline: an easy calm and a sudden jump in my understanding of how some of the most interesting jobs in the world are conducted.
On Twitter, I met my childhood idol, the mathematician John Allen Paulos, whose books on everyday-mathematics-and-statistics spurred me to study the subject at the undergraduate level and later graduate in statistics. I began to follow Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His predecessor, Nicholas Negroponte, another idol of mine, is a legend in academia and human-technology interface, and Dr Ito is no less. I feel enriched just following his tweets. If I am fortunate, some day I shall get to meet him, just as I got to meet Dr Negroponte on a few occasions. I probably could not have done this if I had continued with my previous “Following” list.
Arguably, I could do both things together. Not really, because the energy spent in repelling the negativity takes one’s mind off from the beauty of science and mathematics that surrounds us all the time. I would have not been able to enjoy National Geographic’s pictures, or Scientific American’s announcement about the discovery of a new neighbour to our Milky Way galaxy.
I am not alone in feeling this growing unease on Twitter. A few days back, Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, an English language news television channel, said that he won’t tweet his political thoughts, either. Since then, almost all of his tweets have been about music, cricket, promotions of his channel’s shows, and suchlike. But nothing on politics and current affairs that may draw the ire of some of his followers.
It is futile to analyse what’s wrong with Twitter. I often did that earlier, and came up with either no answers or I felt helpless.
Earlier this week, then, the epiphany happened — I was so obsessed with the negativity that I had missed all the good things Twitter has to offer. I turned my head towards positivity, and everything changed.
This is not to say that the forum should not have belligerent voices. Of course, it should, and that is what will keep Twitter alive. It will keep giving voice to those who had none earlier. And with the amplification that Twitter provides, the most unknown voices get heard. These voices can become a movement.
This is the medium’s triumph; indeed, its raison d’être.
But those voices need to be civil. They need to engage, not repel. They need to debate and disagree, not virulently quarrel. If they do not, my guess is, many would just check out of Twitter, even if not exactly leave.
Sachin Kalbag is Executive Editor of MiD DAY. His Twitter handle is @SachinKalbag