Twitter’s Software Engineering Leads to Mind Engineering

One technology columnist discovered that Twitter had the power to change the topography of his brain.
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August 27, 2019 11:29 EDT

In an article published by The Week, technology columnist Navneet Alang recounts his successful attempt (at least for the moment) to wean himself off Twitter. Addicted since 2007, the author describes how Twitter has succeeded in deforming his perception of the world.

At one point, he focuses on how the social media platform is set up to work, revealing a deep truth about the medium. He says, “Twitter has what scholars call affordances: a set of conditions and characteristics that shape how we use it.” Can we really afford such affordances? When Twitter shapes our ways of using it, it also shapes the contour of our lives, our personalities and the perception we have of our social relations.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Allowances to act or interact that are designed to exploit, for the profit of the institution that offers the affordances, what users feel they can afford to lose, which includes both time and money. The concomitant loss of dignity, civility or sanity is an unintended but inevitable by-product.

Contextual Note

We can think of affordances as a set of rules and boundaries that make consistent interaction possible. This is the case whether we’re speaking of Twitter, with its limit on the number of characters, or a tennis court, which defines where players should stand at certain moments and where they can send the ball without losing a point.

US President Donald Trump, Twitter’s most avid user and top promoter in the world, provides a glaring example of how dignity, civility and sanity can disappear entirely, even when the stakes of maintaining all of them are very high. To be fair to Twitter, which has been accused of encouraging extreme narcissism, Trump was already an extreme narcissist before Twitter afforded him a place on its platform.

The trend toward narcissism in US culture didn’t wait for either Twitter or Trump to impose themselves, as Christopher Lasch’s book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” insisted back in 1979. But given Twitter’s affordances, just as a tennis court serves no other purpose than allowing people to play a game with a racquet and a ball, the only obvious justification of Twitter is self-promotion and ultimately something resembling the narcissistic impulse. Indeed, the idea of Twitter could only have emerged in a society that not only encourages individual assertiveness as the key to survival, but also promotes it as a fundamental social virtue.

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Twitter is also the product of a society that instills the belief that “time is money.” It’s a society that believes there is no time for context, no time for nuance, no time for building a relationship when the whole point of relationships is to prepare and effectuate a transaction. The idea of reducing supposedly meaningful communication to 140 characters and then, belatedly, acknowledging that 280 characters might be necessary to get the crux of the message across offers not just an “affordance,” but also that most essential of attributes: a convenience.

The consumer society that took wing in the 20th century dedicated itself to the notion of convenience. Providing convenience proved to be the surest bet for making money. Invent something — whether it’s a dishwasher, garbage disposal, a health watch or a social platform — that saves time and effort, allowing people to do things they either like doing or have to do, and you too can be at the very least a millionaire, and if the convenience is substantial, a billionaire.  

Historical Note

Alang highlights the truth about Twitter when he discovers, in his own personal history, “how all-consuming it can, and is often designed to be.” While his phrase “often designed to be” might seem illogical — since design only takes place once (possibly followed by redesign) — Alang’s hyperbole points to a serious truth about Twitter. It isn’t about the Twitter team designing the platform over and over again, but rather the fact that Twitter’s impact amounts to a series of repetitive actions that design and redesign the user’s own mind.

Analyzing the history of his own 12-year addiction to Twitter enabled Alang to discover and understand the deeper principles of its design. Like so many social media networks, Twitter follows 20th-century consumer society logic but deploys it to a 21st-century end: not just to provoke a purchase, but to re-engineer the minds of its users. And it does this by making them complicit in its strategy. Users feel empowered precisely because they are “afforded” the opportunity to recruit other users and build their own audience. But they have unwittingly empowered the platform to control an important segment of their lives. They feel that they are engineering the experience, but it’s their minds that are being re-engineered by Twitter.

Alang reveals this confusion of perspective that certainly represents one of the major effects of Twitter. The platform’s creators designed it as a product that would be perceived as both promising and affording a certain type of convenience, that of interacting with a vast, expanding community that each user could help create. Most people see Twitter, Facebook and Instagram primarily as entertainment media offering content for users to consume but, at the same time, allowing the users to play the role of entertainers, encouraging their narcissistic tendencies.

Entertainment in the 21st century thus represents a radical break with everything that went before. Much of 20th-century entertainment (from cartoons to Hollywood blockbusters and pornography) was created with the intention of occupying people’s minds and, increasingly, of consuming those same minds to neutralize their critical faculties. Although it may not have been the initial intention of its founders, Twitter succeeded in re-engineering its users’ thinking processes, reducing their conception of the nature and even of the size of their thoughts (first 140 and then 280 characters) and pretty much undermining the notion of dialogue, replacing it with the principle of competing or complementary monologue based on simplistic messages, observations and judgments (including insults, of course).

Because in the age of social media we all have something to sell — if it isn’t merchandise, it’s our public image — we all become locked into the dominant social media. We perceive it as part of our civic and personal duty to be assertive. We perceive it as the key to surviving and thriving in today’s competitive society. Unless, of course, like Navneet Alang, we wake up one day and realize that our mind has been re-engineered in conformity with the affordances Twitter, Facebook and all the others have designed for us.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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