"Social media is a toxic cesspool of hate and has no value"
"We all like and play games...a social hobby. Why does this keep happening?"
I only started really participating in online TTRPG communities in the past eight months. In that short time I've lost track of how many events led to escalating arguments that always seemed to end in hurt feelings, factionalization, and abuse of some sort (name-calling, dog piling, cursing out, all the way to targeted harassment and doxing). Listening to people who have been around much longer, this seems to be "normal."
Frankly, I find that horrific and about two months ago decided I need to rethink participating in any TTRPG community or designing games for the TTRPG community.
But cut-off isn't usually my first tactic, so I decided to step back a little and take time to analyze what I saw, in myself and in these larger community dynamics.
The dynamics are complicated. I quit writing my first draft of this blog at 20 pages because my response was spanning too many words and too many topics and still leaving out important factors.
So now, instead, I want to focus down on one specific dynamic I haven't seen discussed much: the commodification of community and the way that shapes interaction.
Social media creates and profits from an engagement economy. This contributes to four crucial social dynamics.
The engagement economy changes what we value in information.
Engagement is ranked based on numerous, evolving factors. Originally, content was rated based on the number of hits it received. Then the number of links (i.e. shares) content received. Then, the number of likes. Then the number of comments, followed by the degree of "conversation", i.e. comments back and forth. Even if we are simply participating in this economy (not trying to profit off it), this value system influences us: we are more likely to be exposed to content with high engagement values. More subtly, we are more likely to be presented with content with high engagement values by people similar to us.
This means information is not about quantity or quality, now it is about intensity. The more intensely we engage (as an aggregate group), the more value that information is given, and the more widely and rapidly it spreads.
We can see this in the viral nature of "Hot Takes" on Twitter. It isn't about quality of information: it's about the intensity of the reaction it generates.
Even if we are not corporate advertisers wanting to profit off social media, the entire system is built to reinforce intense engagement: earn likes, retweets, comments, new followers, and track your engagement in 1 click.
Science has shown that likes on social media is our version of a mouse being given food for pressing a lever: we get a rush of pleasure-based hormones. It feels good. And if acting on instinct, like a mouse pressing a lever over and over, we can seek that hit over and over. Even if we never seek out advice on "how to go viral", implicitly we learn: hot takes, intensity invoking content, drives value.
The engagement economy does not encourage opting out.
None of the major social media platforms have a dislike or "rate low" button. Why? Companies do not want negative recommendations associated with their content. If a product—in the case of social media, any information shared—could be rated low, it could hurt engagement levels. And social media profits by making these companies profit. Just imagine if we took the Steam game rating system to information: if you saw an article had a 1.5 out of 5 rating by readers, would you be as likely to read it? Sure, some people would be curious about why it's rated so low, but many would skip it.
It's not an accident that Facebook introduced "sad" and "angry" reactions rather than a dislike or rating system: sadness and anger communicate emotional engagement. And it makes people curious or feel emotionally triggered themselves. There is a big difference between "I rate this article 1.5" (quality metric) and "100 people said this article made them angry" (intensity metric). Angry engagement is still engagement.
Twitter allows users to mute and block people, but those features are not a desired part of the platform's design from the company's perspective. Twitter's blocking feature has evolved over the years largely because users demanded it be more effective to manage abuse; in one instance in 2013, Twitter tried to change blocking so it only meant you didn't see content by that person, but they could still see you. Muting features were added nine years into the service's lifespan, and are largely what Twitter wanted blocking to do: muting a person simply means you don't receive notifications of their engagement, they can still see, like, comment on, and retweet your content. Opting out on Twitter only became an option as a way to keep people on the platform in general, maintaining the larger ecosystem of engagement.
The pressure to engage influences users, as seen in the arguments about is it okay to mute/block a person, how drastic does their behavior need to be before you block them, and drive to keep responding to someone in a Twitter thread even beyond the point it's clear you won't change their mind or come to an agreement.
Twitter threads sometimes feel like airplane conversations to me: be careful when you start one, because there is no natural way to end it, except when the flight lands. Only on Twitter, the flight never lands.
The engagement economy is peak prosumption.
"Prosumption" is a word for people who are simultaneously consumers and producers. Prosumption takes many forms, but is is becoming increasingly common in our digital age. Booking your flight through online services like Expedia is a low level form of prosumption: you are performing the task of travel agent and consumer at the same time. Modding video games is another form of prosumption: you are creating value in the game by modding it, but also a consumer of the game. Social media is a landscape built on prosumption: we are creating information-based content and consuming it at the same time.
We can rage against capitalism all we want on social media, but the platform is inherently capitalistic and those dynamics shape, often invisibly, how we act as a result. Edward Comor explored this interplay in an interesting article titled "Digital Prosumption and Alientation." He explores how alienation is the result of viewing people and their abilities as capital: it is not who we are, but what we can do that matters. You can see this play out in legions of conversations and complaints about capitalism (e.g. Avery Alder's recent thread on staff coverage is just one example.) We become alienated from ourselves and other people as we objectify both.
Ever heard someone comment they feel guilty if they are not productive? That's capitalistic alienation at work.
Social media's alienation is insiduous because it appeals to our drive for identity and connection, but the actual structures turn engagement into an economy. You ever see someone comment (or do it yourself) something along the lines of, "Ohhh, look at this person arguing in my comments with 30 followers. I feel real bad. Not."
Sure, the content of the person's messages might be trash...but what about that impulse to note their low follower count? It's pointing to their social capital as a part of devaluing them.
If we consider the idea that social media is a form of capitalistic engagement, we can start to see how it affects engagement: value based in social capital (intensity of engagement and followers); viewing people as tools rather than people; a competitive dynamic that generate adversarial assumptions; making "community" and "brand loyalty" synonymous (with all its in-group/out-group bias); pressure to keep producing i.e. keep engaging, etc.
Social media as a capitalistic structure also means people who are not used to having power—or perhaps do not even see themselves as having power or privilege—in other spaces suddenly do in social media. What do I mean? Looking just at Twitter, less than 5% of users have 500+ followers, less than 2% have 1,000+ followers, and 0.06% of users have 20,000+ followers. And in this space, social capital = power.
So for anyone who has 500+ users, when you post something do you think, "I'm the 5%"? Or for 1,000+ followers, "I'm the 2%"?
I can think of countless cases of people with 1,000+ followers insisting "I'm nobody" when they received criticism for how their comments generated a reaction. I can also think of instances of several people with more than 20,000 people asking, "But why did you subtweet me?"
There seems to be a general lack of awareness for many about the power their wield with their social capital...power that is based in a competitive hierarchy of a capitalistic social economy.
Alienation affects relationships.
The research and literature on the damage done by objectifying people is vast, so I won't attempt to summarize it here. Instead, I want to highlight one specific outcome.
Researchers have been exploring how people value and relate to relationships online versus face-to-face. They found that generally speaking, online relationships are valued for their informative and instrumental value: you provide me information and are useful in getting what I want. They are relatively lower in their emotional and appraisal value, i.e. emotional ties and innate value. While some of this may be related to the format of interaction (e.g. not seeing someone's expressions so not forming the same empathetic response), it is likely accerbated by the capitalisic and alienating nature of the social economy. After all, information and instrumentality is the very definition of objectifying someone's value into what they can do.
TTRPGs create an interesting dynamic because voice chat, video chat, and playing games together can have some of the same bond-building as face-to-face interaction. So in some cases, we can have high emotional and appraisal ties to people we know primarily online, while having the more alienated relationship with people we relate to primarily through social media or text-based interactions. If you start look at streaming this becomes even more skewed (and contributes to parasocial relationships) where viewers get that face-to-face emotional bond watching someone play a game, but the streamer does not have that relationship back with a viewer. Not surprisingly, this can lead to imbalances in streamer-watcher relationships.
This means relationships in online TTRPG communities can be complex and confusing, because we can have emotional bonds with some people and instrumental bond with others all in the same online space/community, and unless asked people often aren't aware of how they are judging people within that shared space differently...or how that affects the different ways people interpret criticism or comments within the same chat...or how that affects the ways we expect people to support us when conflict arises.
Untangling Capitalism and Community
Okay Cass, this might be interesting information, but what do we do?
I can't provide the answers for everyone, but I can review a few techniques that have been improving my own relationship with social media and the larger TTRPG community.
1. Clarifying Expectations
Many of the dynamics I highlight above rely on unconscious and implicit forces. Sure, some people think, "How can I make this hot take go viral?" but most are simply reacting within the established system, which leaves them vulnerable to implicit dynamics and biases.
It can be helpful to explicitly define the expectations you have for relationships.
Now, does this mean you need to speak with every person you interact with online about the definition of your relationship? No. Sometimes it just means taking what we know from-face-to-face interactions and explicitly applying it to online interactions.
What do I mean?
We have different types of relationships in life: close friends, casual friends, co-workers, aquaintances, strangers, etc. How we each define those relationships is up to us; the definition isn't as important as the process of applying that same relationship matrix—explicitly—to online relationships.
A while ago I took a step back and looked at all of my relationships in different TTRPG spaces and started asking myself, “What type of relationship is this?”
In some cases, I had to have a conversation with people. But in most cases, I realized typical social expectations applied. There are people I have more personal, mutual relationships with that I consider friends; we share our successes, but also our struggles; often banter with humor; might share the mundane moments. There are people that are more the coworker level; we interact, but in limited contexts or subjects. Others are acquaintances: I recognize their names, I’ve seen them interact in the same spaces, but we have limited personal back-and-forth. And then others are essentially strangers.
The thing is, in almost all of those relationships, the level of the relationship had developed naturally. But social media interaction or being in the same “communities” had blurred these lines.
Making my expectations for these relationships explicit helped me make better choices about where to invest my time, what to expect from other people, who to trust with what information, and by making those better decisions, I ended up happier in all of my online relationships.
2. Addressing the Mismatch
Knowing my own expectations for relationships doesn't solve the problem of other people's expectations. Especially if they expect a more "community" or close relationship than actually exists. I realized a lot of people react to posts or messages with the false assumption of community, i.e. have confused the engagement-driven community of social media with mutuality-based community. So now I stop and ask myself, “If someone is over-familiar in person, or wants a relationship I don't, how do I handle it?”
The answer varies a lot based on context.
If they are being over familiar, sometimes I just walk away or ignore the person. Sometimes I start to avoid them. Sometimes I call in a friend or authority to address it. Depending on safety/comfort, I would tell them that makes me uncomfortable. And now that’s how I look at social media. I will mute people for making me uncomfortable. Or choose to ignore the message. There can be a strong impulse to respond (“This is MY twitter thread, they don’t get the last word” or “People will think I agree or are intimidated by them,”). But you know what? If someone is cat calling me in public, there are almost no circumstances I walk up and confront them so People Know I Won the exchange. I move on with my life.
If they want a relationship I don't, e.g. being friends or more personal than I want, I think about how I manage that in face-to-face interactions. Again the response varies. Sometimes it means having a frank conversation about expectations. Sometimes it means not encouraging them when they engage. It varies.
This might also seem supremely obvious...but it's been interesting to notice in my own responses, how bringing explicit relationship management into social media spaces has often led to responses that aren't "typical"...because they go against the social engagement economy.
3. Opting Out is an Option
The social engagement economy pushes for engagement constantly; it's its lifeblood.
But I realized I can still opt out, and that doesn't mean leaving the platform.
I found myself getting annoyed by certain conversations. And then I asked myself, “Why pay attention?”
So I started muting certain words on Twitter. Not words related to traumatizing or toxic topics; words related to conversations that didn’t interest me. I set a short timeframe at first, and see if the conversation is still uninteresting to me when it expires. If yes, re-mute. If not, leave the filter expired.
Discord and Slack were even easier to manage: conversations flare up and disappear quickly. I could check in once a day, and usually by then people had moved on. If the new topic interested me, I chimed in. If not, I refocused.
This sounds extremely simple and straightforward, but it goes against the impulse to Engage and Be Relevant. There are times people in communities would be discussing the Discourse and it’s natural to want to participate, especially when your friends are engaging in a topic. But I would remember how bored or annoyed I felt around it, and found a different conversation to join.
4. The Intensity Economy & Conflict
Related to opting out, I realized there is power in choosing what to acknowledge. Any engagement adds value to information within social media spaces. If a comment or conversation starts that I don't value...I don't argue or debate anymore. I ignore it. Decreasing the intensity of the response is the most powerful way to decrease value in social media.
If someone posts an opinion I disagree with and get the impulse to respond, I ask myself:
“What is my relationship with this person?”
“How does our disagreement affect me?”
A lot of times I realize I have no personal/community ties to the person. So just like I wouldn’t walk up to someone on the train and say, “Actually that’s a really bad game you shouldn’t play it,” I don’t do that on social media.
Many times I do have a more personal connection with the person. Sometimes I decide to take the conversation private, like a discord chat. Other times I realize our disagreement has no impact on our relationship, except now I understand the other person better. A lot of times, these points of disagreement have let me recontextualize past conversations and interactions because now I see ways we assume or understand differently. Conflicting responses can be illuminating, and it doesn't always need to be resolved; sometimes it just needs to be learned from.
5. Managing Intensity Exhaustion
Platforms that value intensity can be exhausting. It can feel like sitting in a room where everyone is yelling at each other. A simple solution? Get away from the yelling.
But that avoidance usually means avoiding disagreement, or functionally speaking, withdrawing into 1 or 2 like-minded communities. This is a recipe for a few problems: an echo-chamber where assumptions go unexamined; primarily seeking spaces where we have more privilege and power; and the establishing of an in-group out-group mentality that leads to an us vs. them perspective which ultimately fuels more competition and biased assumptions.
As I thought about this problem, I started thinking back to elementary school. My best friends never got along. It was my personal curse. I was interested in many different activities, connected with people from very different backgrounds, and inevitably, people would disagree and I felt stuck in the middle.
Until I realized, even as a child, that the disagreement was for them to resolve, not me.
As I got older I realized these disagreements were important. One, it was important for me to realize how differently people thought and felt. Two, it was crucial for me to realize that these differences were valid and important.
We don't have the agree.
We don't have to like the same things.
And just because, to ground this in ttrpgs, a game isn't for us doesn't mean it isn't for anyone.
And...this my seem like a really basic point? That even an elementary school child understood? But step back and watch the Discourse or the current Upset or Issue, and see how often "I dislike this or don't agree" becomes "This is bad or terrible."
And why does this happen so often?
Because intensity equals value.
And intense emotions, especially negative ones, trigger our stress response which means we start interpreting and reacting to information differently. When we are responding to an actual threat, this response is adaptive: we use mental shortcuts to interpret so we can respond faster. But when we aren't facing an actual threat? When we are trying to have a conversation? These shortcuts lead to cognitive distortions which warp our experiences and how we relate to others.
Managing the intensity effect is not, in my view, about avoiding all conflict: it is about becoming aware of that stress-impulse and questioning my own response. This can be done by checking my thoughts against cognitive distortions. Or by using a helpful shortcut, which is by asking myself, "What am I leaving out?" In my interpretation, in my response, what information am I leaving out? This kicks the executive brain (our impulse-control, analytical side) into action, but it also fights against the tunnel-vision, all-or-nothing thinking of the stress response.
Finally, I want to make one more point about managing intensity. Sometimes we don't deal with intensity burnout by avoiding; sometimes we do it through the scapegoat mechanism. Explored by Rene Girard, the scapegoat mechanism is the idea that humans have conflicting desires build up until the tension is too much, then we release it by singling out one person or group as the source of the problem and expel or kill them. I see echoes of this dynamic when tension rises up in the Discourse and someone becomes the target for piling on, "cancelling", or just disproportionate blame. And that scapegoating relieves the tension for a time.
But that scapegoating hurts people, and doesn't actually resolve the fundamental conflicts. We do that my recognizing and managing our own tension and conflicts better.
I've been trying to do this more myself. If a comment or conversation sets me off, instead of externalizing I try to analyze internally: what is the conflict? What am I bringing to that conflict? Is this something that actually needs to be resolved...or can I just accept it?
And again it seems simple, but realizing how 90% of those impulses can be resolved as "Welp, I guess we disagree. But I'm glad I understand them better now," has resolved a lot of my own negative feelings within social media spaces.
This post is intended to focus on one aspect of the toxicity that can build up in the online ttrpg spaces: the effect of community commodization on how we relate to each other. There are other layers and topics to explore, especially when we look at abusive responses or specific dynamics around marginalization. My relationship with TTRPG online communities and social media is still relatively young; who knows what I will think months from now. But this exploration has helped me at least stick around and feel happier while I do it.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.