David Heinemeier Hansson

February 15, 2022

This just wouldn't happen on Twitter

I'm slowly regaining my faith in debates again. You know, the ancient practice of listening, presenting arguments, accepting counterarguments, and progressing towards a deeper shared understanding. Even when the topics are hot. Even when the counterpart is a stranger. And it's giving me vintage internet vibes!

Take this Canadian trucker protest, for example. I've heard from a lot of Canadians on the topic. Some support the protests, others don't. It's clearly a topic where a Canadian might feel like a Dane shouldn't have standing to participate in the discussion (and plenty do!). Yet literally all the many debates I've had over the past week since writing about this topic have managed to be civil and respectful despite also occasionally being tense. Remarkable.

That would never, ever happen on a platform like Twitter. Like every hot topic these days, the ideological ditches have already been dug, the enemy completely vilified, and the battle drawn into the total war mentality of dichotomy politics. You're either with us or against us!

But what's interesting is how I can envision all of these interesting, courteous, and illuminating email debates rerendered in the realm of Twitter to predictably nasty, bitter outcomes. BY THE SAME PEOPLE!

It's not that there's a new subspecies of homo sapiens inhabiting Twitter, and then another living on email. It's the same people. But the change in environment prompts them to flip from that resentful, incriminating stance in the one area to the curious, good-faith stance in the other. That's both fascinating and heart warming.

It's evidence that humanity hasn't been terminally broken. Even in places like America where it might so often seem like it. We are currently trapped in some bad platforms producing bad outcomes, but the people participating often just need a change of venue for the dark clouds to clear.

This is even more true with in-person debates (remember those?). Since Denmark dropped all restrictions several weeks ago, I've had a number of really pleasant lunch conversations with interesting people. Something I basically hadn't done consistently in… checks calendar… years. And it was even more obvious that the change of venue completely changed the tenor and humanity of the exchanges.

Being able to discuss the most charged online topics – from wokeness to the pandemic to crypto to China to climate to drugs – with an intensity that's free of animosity is incredibly intellectually thrilling! The bigger the topic, the more exhilarating a good-faith debate can be.

It therefore seems tragic that so much of the current online political climate is focused on adjudicating who's allowed to speak about what, and to hunt those who stray from their ideological pen. But maybe that just is the natural end state of the kind of social media we've developed over the past decade plus.

That would be Jaron Lanier's argument from Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. That eventually the algorithmic optimization will optimize us all to be these resentful, angry people online. Not even through executive malice, but because these systems run on autopilot when exploiting our all too human flaws.

I should know, I was very much there, in that soup, for years on end. Becoming ever more optimized, ever more successful at triggering those human exploits the algorithms would feast on.

But those tactics thankfully just don't work when engaging one on one. You're not even tempted to reach for them, because it would so obviously degrade the possibility to carry a conversation. You start hurling Twitter dunks at someone on email, and they'll just stop replying. There's no audience to cheer the attack, just the silence of a cut connection, and thus no dopamine reinforcement. That's a self-correcting cycle for most people!

Look, the genie is out of the bottle. I don't have Lanier's faith that we can put it back. But I do have some faith that we can dilute the poison held within. When you have these good-faith debates with people you disagree with outside of the thunderdome, it can't help but change your perspective of what's happening inside the thunderdome. 

Every such exchange is a seed planted in your heart. Who knows what'll grow over time.