The discourse over the past week has led to numerous people on both sides declaring they feel hopeless about the TTRPG community, scared of engaging, and defeated. I have yet to see anyone really say, “Gosh, that went well.”
I’m not good at being hopeless, but I also don’t want to lean into unearned optimism that things could be better/are better than they seem. So I want to step back and analyze some of the larger dynamics in the discourse. Specifically, the role of Twitter as a platform, the role of ambiguity, the role of bias, and ways we can start to improve how we manage these elements.
Twitter as a Platform
This is not the “Twitter is a hell site” comment; this is “Twitter is intentionally engineered to encourage specific types of social interactions.”
1. Twitter encourages intensity of information, not quality or accuracy of information
I’ve covered this previously so you can read more here. But the basic point is, Twitter’s product is engagement. So as a platform, it rewards engagement more than anything (likes, comments, retweets, etc.) Strong emotions, agreeing or disagreeing, spark strong responses. Whether you engage to say, “Yes, exactly!” or “No, you’re wrong!” Twitter doesn’t care; it cares that you are saying something. This means the most emotionally resonant content gets shared the most.
Emotionally resonant is not equal to factual.
It also means that the platform itself is designed to encourage you to engage—even when you don’t want to, or don’t have a significant point to add. How many people have commented they felt pressured to respond…but didn’t want to? Or didn’t know how to? Or felt like they didn’t know enough but had to say specifically why they weren’t responding?
It’s easy to blame social pressure for that, but it would be incomplete to ignore the fact that Twitter as a business is designed to make people engage as much as possible.
2. Twitter encourages curation/the Bubble effect.
Most content that appears on our timelines is from three sources: people you follow, posts liked by many people you follow, and ads Twitter introduces based on your “interests” (i.e. past likes/follows/retweets).
This means that the content we see is often more reflective of who we associate with than the sum total of what is being said. That’s another point many have made: “Wow, this topic has shown how much Twitter curation affects what you know.”
For example, on one side I’ve seen people say, “This came out of nowhere. It must be because the creator recently came out as nonbinary/trans.”
And on another side, you have people saying, “We’ve been complaining about this literally for years, why won’t anyone listen?”
This discourse is extremely different if this current criticism was a complete surprise than if you’re someone who has been having this conversation/critique in some form for a long time.
3. Twitter moves really fast
I remember my one tweet that when truly viral. I knew it was going to go viral within minutes of posting it because people were liking and retweeting at such a faster rate than anything I’d ever tweeted before. When something hits that emotional resonance sweet spot, people react on instinct. Suddenly something that was said 30 minutes ago has reached 10,000+ people.
This is amplified by the fact that many people check Twitter frequently. So the sharing speed can accelerate. And Twitter is designed for quick comment. So quote-tweet and say something can also be really really fast.
This speed can give the appearance that a sudden explosion of conversation is a coordinated attack.
And that’s pretty scary. That’s not, “Wow a lot of people are talking about this.”
That’s, “Wow, people are hunting someone down.”
That hunting/attack? That hugely taps into our fight-or-flight response. Rapid spread of information is alarming; if it seems there is a malicious intent behind it, it’s overwhelming in a panic inducing way.
That doesn’t mean it is a coordinated attack. Twitter is designed for sharing; often Twitter’s design is what gives the appearance of coordination.
4. Twitter Fragments Information
I have spent more time than I ever wanted this week learning how to track Twitter conversations back to their source. It was not easy. It didn’t start with the first heavily retweeted and liked threads; it started long before that. I spent time going back to people’s profiles to read all of their tweets, looking at their replies, and then doing multiple keyword searches on Twitter and Google.
I did that because I was connected to multiple people on both sides of the argument and really, really didn’t want to say something out of ignorance that would make me a target. This goes back to Kienna’s point on how careful marginalized people need to be when speaking on a controversial topic.
But here’s some context: my undergraduate research was in studying online communities from a sociological perspective, especially as it relates to race and bias. I have spent years learning how to investigate, tease apart, and find patterns in online social discourse.
Most people haven’t.
I’m not angry or surprised that most people have not spent hours researching how this discussion began, what vectors it created, and how those started to interact.
But since I have, let me say: 90% of people are missing huge portions of the conversation. When someone says, “There is no nuances in this conversation” I want to be, “Actually, may I point your to a dozen threads engaged in nuanced examination?” Or, “I don’t know why this is happening,” I want to say, “May I point you to conversations over the past month alone leading to this?”
So why haven’t I? Honestly, I have a day job and other responsibilities and I physically can’t. I’m not paid to be the investigative reporter of TTRPG Twitter. So instead I’m writing this article to ask people to consider taking a step back and allowing space for the idea that a lot of assumptions are being made. And at the end of this I have some advice for how we can all be better.
Which brings me to the next point.
Ambiguity & Bias
TTRPG discourse and its related communities are fragmented over multiple platforms: countless discord servers, slack spaces, forums, Facebook, etc. Twitter is one of the few places where everything can clash together. The Bubble Effect still shapes what we see, but as a whole, there is a lot more crossover than most spaces.
Combine this with how Twitter works, and there is a perfect set-up for missing and incomplete information. Combine that with a topic with multiple layers, generational perspectives, intents vs. impact, and different lived experiences, and the discourse will be full of ambiguity.
There are two primary ways to resolve ambiguity:
Looking for facts can be slow, difficult, and often requires us to be in a more patient frame of mind. A sense of urgency and high emotions make this difficult. It also requires us to know how to track down facts, which isn’t the easiest task online.
Making assumptions is quick. We look at the gaps in knowledge, refer back to lessons we’ve learned in the past and mental rules/shortcuts we’ve developed from them, and apply them to the situation. This is not always bad in life; if we’re in actual danger, we need to make assumptions so we can react quickly. But if we aren’t in imminent danger, this opens us up to bias.
The most pervasive form of bias is making positive assumptions about those in our in-group and negative assumptions about those in our out group. Part of this is social conditioning: trust for those we know, possible threat from those we don’t. This is meant on a basic level to keep us safe: trust those who you have evidence are trustworthy, be wary of those who haven’t proven themselves.
But it also means that when we enter into an emotionally charged situation and start making assumptions, we are building on our sense of distrust towards other, we are often making the worst possible assumptions, and that makes it a lot harder to continue discussing. Because now we’re discussing with people we see in a negative light, don’t make us feel safe, and we interpret future conversation from that position. So the chances we can learn more facts and replace assumption with knowledge shrinks.
This is part of why the longer the discourse continues, the more polarized people become.
Addressing the Vulnerability
Considering the challenges of Twitter, ambiguity, and bias, how can we improve?
1. Listen to Confusion
If you are confused or surprised, pay attention. Rather than rush to ease that tension by finding a quick answer, based on assumptions or in-group bias, ask questions.
How did this start? Why are we talking about this now? If my experience is completely different, why is that the case? What am I leaving out?
We as humans don’t like ambiguity; it’s a very uncomfortable emotional and mental state. If you find that you can’t sit with the tension long enough to find answers, consider stepping back. Rather than contribute to the conversation with assumptions, which will distort it, disengage. Or listen. Or journal your stress in private or with a confidant. Find ways to tolerate the distress.
2. De-Center Your Perspective
We as humans like to make ourselves the hero (or protagonist) of our own story. We see the world from our viewpoint/experiences, that can’t be helped. But it means when we look at conflict and respond, we naturally center our perspective. “This is what I know, therefore it must be true.”
There are three steps to combat this. One, listen to other perspectives. Intentionally. Two, practice perspective taking, trying to see the situation from the experiences of the other person. Third, check in. Reflective listening is a helpful skill. It can be as simple as, “I hear you saying [X], is that right?” Or even just summarize back at someone to see if you missed important information.* (*It can be good, especially in Twitter space, to ask if someone has the time/energy for this first. It can be a quick thing to say, “I want to make sure I understand, can I check in?”).
De-centering can come down to as simple a practice as genuinely asking ourselves the question, “What am I leaving out?”
3. Think Hard About When You Speak
Misha did a thread about this so I’m just going to link it.
A lot of the current tension I see now is no longer about the content of the discourse, it’s about who is speaking when. For example, if the first time someone speaks is to change the subject, it comes across as invalidating. This new subject is now more important than the original one. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but we should all be very aware of when we make that decision and who it affects.
Who is being invalidated?
4. Words for Fellow Creators
I know a lot of us look at Twitter arguments, this one and others, and think, “Oh shit, what if this becomes me?” That’s terrifying. It is!
Being overwhelmed by social media negativity is horrible. It’s happened to me exactly once and it took two years for me to be able to see people from that site coming to my content without having a panic attack or nearly having one. It is horrible. If someone hasn’t experienced it, they don’t understand how horrible it can be. Fact.
But we can address that fear in three ways.
One, cut ourselves off from these spaces (or cut ourselves off from making content).
Two, invalidate the outrage and the tactics to try and stop people from doing it ever again, i.e. address the symptoms.
Three, ask ourselves why it is happening and address the root problem. Addressing the root problem requires us to ask questions and listen. Why this response? Why now? What could have been done in the past? This is not an exercise in blame. There is the saying that hindsight is 20-20. Why not take advantage of that?
This process takes longer. It takes replacing assumptions with data and perspectives. But I would argue that it both shows more care for people and is a more effective way of protecting ourselves from this happening in the future. Will it be perfect? Guaranteed? No. We can’t control other people; we can’t control everything. But maybe we should take some time to focus on what we can control, rather than trying to control others.
Now, we all have the right to choose any of those three options. We do. Each has its consequences and benefits. But defaulting to number two as quickly as we often do (oh that hellsite Twitter, people need to stop causing drama, etc.)? Is that about improving things? Or is that about releasing/removing tension?
And if you haven’t watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette before, it is a really good exploration of the harm that is created when we focus on releasing tension more than anything else. Sometimes trying to feel better does more harm than good. Sometimes it causes us to focus on the wrong part of the story. CW for Nanette: homophobia, sexism, sexual assault
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.