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The Mind Virus That Causes Twitter Voice
Adventures in 21st century operant conditioning
“I know all those words, but that sign makes no sense” - Lisa Simpson
You know when you’re at a social gathering and you hear someone say something and you can just tell they are regurgitating it from the internet? Like verbatim? Like this guys’ mouth is outsourcing its opinions to the “original” commenter’s brain and you can sorta feel that his —ostensibly casual— utterance is inauthentic?
Or similarly, in your digital travels perhaps you’ve come across a meme, reference, or something vaguely unsettling that dripped out from a poorly-insulated corner of the internet, and it’s just so alien and weird that even if you don’t understand it, it serves as a nice reminder of why you left (or are trying to leave) those spaces in the first place? Something from someone so wrapped up in whatever digital world they’re stuck in that they don’t seem aware of how strange they sound?
Recently I saw a screenshot of a Tweet that just… well, take a look:
Now, you might have an idea of what this guy is trying to say, and I’m sure that given enough time one could figure out whatever point he’s getting at. But personally (as my therapist would be super happy to hear) I just don’t care enough anymore to spend hours of my limited life investigating and dissecting the clues to figure out what the heck this person is really saying. Because I already know who is saying it.
No, not Mr. Andreessen. Not directly, at least. I’m talking about that Twitter voice.
Twitter voice. You’ve heard it a million times before, even if you’ve avoided the platform. Performative, confident, a little mysterious, a little smug. Like if TED talks had teaser trailers. When you encounter a whopper of a phrase like “woke AI mind virus” in the wild there’s a temptation there to dig a bit and find out what Mr. Andreessen could possibly be really talking about. Or you may already get what vibe he’s going for, so there’s also a temptation to rebut (or show support) in some way.
It really doesn’t even matter if you agree with what’s being said or understand the “lore” involved with tweets like these. Anything said in that voice is, at it’s core, engagement bait in service of the algorithm. Even if the author is not consciously baiting others (what I would call indirect-intentional toxicity) speaking that way is a learned behavior that for some reason the Twitter algorithmseems to favor. And as many of us are personally aware- that voice cannot be engaged with earnestly because whatever it says is not coming from a place of authenticity.
Twitter voice is the result of what happens when you put millions of human brains into the distributed Skinner box of corporate social media and allow them to slowly develop new mental pathways as to what “works” to get noticed on the platform. It’s the grooves that form in the rock of Plato’s cave when the algorithm drip-drops dopamine onto the same spot for years. If someone is seeking to maximize re-tweets, they’ll eventually stumble into talking that way.
It’s not just Twitter either. It’s the reason YouTube thumbnails all trend the same (Big red arrow, person looking surprised while pointing at something). YouTube has a “voice” too: casual, excited, a little deviant and playfully urgent. Like a friend asking if you want to go see a dead body.
Reddit —a website for people who’s greatest fear is being presented with a topic they have not yet formed an opinion about— has the voice of a stranger you’ve politely nodded along with at a party while looking for an exit. Reddit voice is kinda pompous and weirdly confrontational. When I think of the “Sealion” meme I think of reddit.
Instagram doesn’t have a “voice” per-se (imo, anyone trying to have a discussion in the comments of an Instagram post is swimming upstream) but it does have its things that seem to always get a bunch of engagement no matter how often they get posted. And those things give Instagram it’s general vibe; which I’d describe as “comfortable”, “confident”, and “shallow”. Like a television commercial for a bank.
Bo Burnham’s song “White Woman’s Instagram” would come off as mean if it wasn’t also so on the nose. The fact is, posting content like that to Instagram gets attention. One can wrap literally any message in that aesthetic and it will have legs. Remember pastel QAnon? That’s some seriously complex lore, but when it was expressed in “Instagram voice” it spread.
I do want to be clear- we shouldn’t automatically disparage an individual for making posts in these “voices”, and I suspect in most cases users aren’t even aware they’re code-switching into them. It’s not until I started spending less time on social media that I really noticed their existence in the first place. There are billions of people on these platforms with unique perspectives coming from billions of different backgrounds, and yet the longer the experiment runs, the more the users begin to sound alike.
It’s a fact that we all have things we’re insecure about, and these platforms poke at different types of insecurity in order to make us perform for them, because without our performances, they would have no content. But all content that is shared inauthentically is inherently toxic. I wrote about toxicity recently, and I said this:
Too much consumption of toxic content, and it will eventually “soak in” and make the consumer (you) toxic too. Then you start posting and consuming intentionally toxic content, and it spreads on the platforms like a self-replicating mind-virus.
This is to say that when you start adapting yourself to better fit these systems, you’re experiencing the early stages of infection. The mind-virus capitalizes on innate insecurities to cause its hosts to act a liiiiitle bit more inauthentically each day in service of the platform’s goals. Without treatment, before you know it- you’re tweeting stuff about woke AIs (or weirder) because that’s where the algorithm has led you, and you’ve forgotten how important regular, authentic human connection is to a sense of well being and feeling grounded.
Someone is in the final stages of infection when they begin to use their internet voices in the real world. But in real life scenarios, using Twitter voice is weird and awkward. Nobody wants to be performed at in a private setting. It just doesn’t work. Instagram-infected people on the other hand may decorate their house (or bodies, or vacations) with a borrowed aesthetic instead of what is meaningful to them. They may wonder why everything that’s supposed to be enjoyable feels commodified.
If the infected has a healthy (analog) social support network, they may gradually get back to their old selves when their friends don’t respond well to the changes. Alternatively, the infected may retreat to the platforms where their borrowed personality does get a positive response, where they’ll perform and perform, spreading the disease to others.
Who is safe?
People who enjoy the attention of strangersseem particularly vulnerable to infection. Maladaptive narcissists (those with a "bottomless pit of need") have a dangerous preexisting condition that leaves them extremely susceptible. Computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier identified a similar effect on these people he calls “Twitter poisoning” which he describes like this:
What do I think are the symptoms of Twitter poisoning? There is a childish insecurity, where before there was pride. Instead of being above it all, like traditional strongmen throughout history, the modern social media-poisoned alpha male whines and frets.
If you need social media to advertise your art or company or whatever, it’s important to keep your personal immune system (aka boundaries) strong. Look at what you’re giving of yourself to the platform, and look as what you’re getting in return. And keep an eye out for initial symptoms of the mind virus. There’s a fine line between editing your content for clarity, and editing for engagement. Do enough of the latter and it may start to feel a little too natural.
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Important to point out that we often place blame solely on “algorithms” for encouraging bad behavior on social media. But in addition to actual computer algorithms, many of these platforms just simply don’t try and stop the natural “algorithms” in our brains that can cause us to ignore our better angels and be nasty to one another. “Robert's Rules of Order” existed well before social media for a reason.
Sometimes literally! https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/pop-culture-news/youtuber-logan-paul-sued-over-suicide-forest-video-n1252610
A lot of social media influencers are people who crave attention, but I actually don’t think all of them are “infected” per-se. Many are, but others are using the algorithms to maximize attention on them (which in this case translates directly to income). I think an influencer adapting their “work” to the whims of a platform is akin to a dancer at a strip club investing in breast augmentation with the goal of increased tips.