This is why even the numerous attempts at “constructive” callouts or criticism in the helicopter story saga, directed at both the original story and Neon Yang in later months, merely added to the pain and fury. The sheer weight and volume of so many people bearing down on an individual all at once becomes powerfully destructive, even if many of those people are being “nice.”
How did this come to be? The answer is twofold: design and dissociation.
Road design in countries like the Netherlands promotes what is known as “traffic calming,” reducing pedestrian deaths and car accidents; by contrast, road design in North America promotes high-speed driving, passively nudging drivers to step on the gas, giving them less time to stop, even in crowded areas. Understood this way, you can get away from solely individualist narratives about accidents—about bad drivers or “pedestrians who weren’t looking”—and focus on how design encourages broad outcomes not attributable to any one actor.
Similarly, social media is designed in a way that agitates, rather than calms, its traffic. It leans into, rather than curbs, the augmented reality aspects that arise from computer use—tricking you into believing you’re somewhere other than reality.
You see, nearly all internet use is fundamentally dissociative, subtly divorcing us from the consequences of our words and deeds—what psychologist John Suler dubbed the “dissociative imagination.” In my own research, I came to this conclusion from the other way around, arguing that in online gaming spaces, the magic circle conceit of video gaming enabled people to extend the game’s unreality to their own words and actions. But I eventually realized that it wasn’t just games that had this effect. It was the entire online space, disinhibiting and ludic all at once.
There is a seductive quality to posting into the void, a Möbius strip sense that you’re the voyeur who no one can see, and the exhibitionist who everyone must see.
If it is so easy for good intentions to be perverted by the platform, then perhaps the fault lies in the binary stars rather than ourselves. Like most structural problems, from the ongoing pandemic to climate change to the rampant inequalities that worsen the devastation of both, we cannot delude ourselves into believing that additive individual virtue will be enough to overcome the problem—especially when people commenting on every side feel virtuous.
That doesn’t mean that you have no responsibility when using social media, of course. In both the helicopter story and shoplifting comic sagas, for instance, many progressives who went on the attack were picking up on rumors started by right-wing harassers spreading deliberate disinformation. Abandoning the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” mentality we all have about internet callouts can only serve us well.
But sometimes there’s simply nothing to say that won’t cause trouble, which is one of many reasons why the periodic appearance of think pieces about Twitter discourse masquerading as dispatches from the front line of “The Culture War” are risible. The idea that there is some cabal of lefty Twitter power users convening at a summit to set the right level of ironic vitriol for their tweets, as if setting oil production quotas at OPEC, has always been absurd.