When Twitter reflects our behaviour and we don't like what we see

Ed Sheeran is the latest celeb to complain of Twitter haters, but what is it about the platform that attracts trolls, asks Total Media's MD.

While it’s a shame, it is not surprising that Ed Sheeran (above) has been overwhelmed by the negativity from keyboard trolls on Twitter, announcing that he won’t be reading posts on the platform any more.

Social media can be an unpleasant place: a study of 134,000 abusive social media mentions showed that 88% of them occur on Twitter. This was in a single day. But how has Twitter come to be the prime online stomping crowd for cyber bullies? 

While Facebook, Instagram and their ilk are more about life curation – cultivating a positive self-image – Twitter is a messaging platform fueled by crack. The zeitgeist currently lends itself towards more closed chat sessions, such as Snapchat. However Twitter is an external, open platform, all about self-expression – designed as a livestream of thoughts that are relevant for the moment. It therefore lends itself to reactive content driven by impulse – especially given the relative anonymity of Twitter, where many users will have a fictional username.

Even for those who reveal their identity, Twitter is so fast-moving that the consequences of a ‘nasty’ tweet seem small in comparison to the reward of venting frustrations, or getting a laugh out of snarky comments. For brands and celebrities this leaves them open and vulnerable to abuse. Users see something or someone they can poke fun at or complain about, and have the freedom to post It, safe in the knowledge there’s unlikely to be any repercussions.   

This is not just conjecture. In 2013, Dhiraj Murthy and his team at Goldsmiths University analysed 235million tweets and found that people tweet more negatively and more personally from a mobile phone. The hypothesis they put forward to explain this were two-fold.

One significant factor revolved around negativity bias: we are generally more likely to emphasise the negative over the positive. In 2008, Vaish, Grossman and Woodward argued that this even starts in our early development – so we could say it’s a core part of human identity. When we think about our everyday life, we can all realise how true this is. After a bad experience or a bad day at work we will tell everyone but often forget to share the good days. When you combine this with our propensity to tweet out our personal thoughts from our mobile devices, it helps to explain why there are so many negative, trolling comments on Twitter.

The second key finding was the nature of the device people were tweeting with: the very personal nature of a mobile versus a laptop, or even a tablet, means we are more inclined to make very personal statements. People often say that technology is transforming human behaviour, however, in many cases, it simply provides an outlet that we never had before. The internal monologues we have always had are suddenly being sent out to the world in a livestream.

Marrying this all together, it helps explain why there are just so many negative, trolling comments on Twitter. When a technology is designed to encourage us to share our instinctive thoughts at huge frequency, we should not be surprised that a lot of what we think is negative. A realm where everyone shares nothing but kind words may seem nice in theory but this would not reflect reality.

Ed Sheeran may think this is all very mean, but I suspect that if he did not have an army of PR people between him and his Twitter account we may well see a nastier streak – it’s just human nature.

Twitter acts as a mirror to show up our behaviour – it seems that our true nature is being exposed, and people often don’t like what they see.

Thomas Laranjo is managing director at Total Media


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