If you want to optimize your Twitter experience do what you do in real life: mute insane people

I was at dinner with an author friend the other day and he was lamenting how his next book was going to make his life miserable. Without going into too much detail, he wanted to take an honest look at the divide between logic and reason in our most polarizing debates (race, gender, science, religion, etc.).

Although he thought the book would be important, well-read, and helpful to society, he had decided he didn’t want to spend his life having to defend himself in these hot-button areas.

“You’re spending a lot of time on Twitter right?” I asked.

He admitted he had, and lamented the neverending stream of people misconstruing his arguments to make him into something he is not. He lamented the way folks ganged up on people without actually reading what they had written.

“So, the crazy people on Twitter are determining what a bestselling author is going to write next?” I asked.

“To a certain extent, yes” he replied candidly.

And there you have it, folks — the inmates have taken over the asylum!

[ Click to Tweet (can edit before sending): http://ctt.ec/7lP31 ]

How the crazy people took over

Blogging was an amazing innovation in which individuals could construct arguments on their blogs and get reaction from the world in the form of a trackback or a comment. It was a very balanced system because in order to join the debate you had two distinct options: 

  1. Write a comment, which would always be subservient to the main post & controlled by the author (i.e., if you got vulgar, abusive, or insane, the author could delete your comment and/or ban you from posting again). Commenting felt just open enough: if you were disrespectful the owner of the blog could excuse you.
  2. Write your own blog post on your blog to challenge the author (thus earning a ‘trackback’ — which basically means the two posts are linking to each other). If you wrote something compelling, folks who read the first post would get to yours via a search engine or link on the original blog post.

This system was super balanced because you had to be able to write either a quality comment or a full blog post to get people to pay attention to you.

There was no 140-character retweet machine gun at your disposal. Your account wasn’t on the same footing as mine by default like it is on Twitter. No, if you wanted to build up a subscriber base on your blog you were welcome to do so: by writing intelligent stuff every day for a year or two!

Twitter opened up the debate in a huge way by making it easy for the less considered folks — those only capable of writing a sentence — and that was awesome. For a time.

Today, the same openness that made Twitter so easy to participate in it is slowly killing it. The smart folks are being stalked and harassed by a combination of mentally ill, broken, and biased individuals.

In fact, Twitter is the perfect medium for the following people: 

  1. Biased individuals: If you have an ax to grind you can quickly follow and find your tribe on Twitter, as well as those folks from the rival faction. You simply search for their news stories and either follow them or harass them.
  2. Broken individuals: If you’ve been hurt in your life, and we all have, but you haven’t healed yourself yet, Twitter and Facebook are extraordinary platforms for finding people to give you sympathy or to get into fights with. Those fights validate the pain and suffering, and broken people can sadly get addicted to them (“You’re exactly the reason why I’m where I am … you’re just like my daddy/mommy/etc. who did the same thing to hold me back!”).
  3. Mentally Ill: Mental illness is a disease with a greater magnitude, and more pervasive, than ebola today — but given a fraction of the attention. On Twitter it takes time for folks to realize they are talking to someone suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, or any number and combination of diseases. These folks need clinical help but they typically have great moments of clarity, and engaging people is part of their illness in many cases. Twitter is perfect for them. 

Intelligent people, doing great work in the world, are having the mentally ill, biased, and broken individuals of the world flood their streams.

Over time these individuals will grind even the most intelligent person to a halt — perhaps even to the point at which their lives are steered by them!

There is a reason why Evan Williams, the creator of Twitter, went from building Blogger (short to long form) to Twitter (shortest form ever created) to Medium.com (long form).

If you hang out with clowns your life becomes a circus

There are some simple best practices I’ve designed for protecting yourself on Twitter. If you are dealing with this insanity, here is how to bring sanity back to your life:

  1. Mute screamers: If someone is screaming at you and their points make no logical sense, do what you would do in the real world if someone followed you down the street doing this: mute them. Click the gear box on their profile page and mute them.
  2. Block attackers: If someone is literally threatening you, hitting the gear box to block and/or report them is an option. Do know that if the person is mentally ill you may have just tipped them over into rage.

The mute button is the best tool, much better than blocking, because it uses Skinner ‘extinction’ theory, which is to say the person gets no reinforcement — not even the knowledge that you muted them. They can follow you, they can comment, and they can go crazy — and they think you are ignoring them. It will make them go mad for a short period and then they will go find someone who engages them and their diseases. 

Note: I have great sympathy for people suffering from mental illness in this world, but that doesn’t mean I want to interact with them all day and night while I’m working. If I did, I would have gone into the medical field.

best @jason