Why Twitter altruism in Covid second wave gives us hope for social media

Amidst the shortage of critical medical equipment and the overflowing of cremation grounds, one cannot help but be struck by the great altruism and activism of thousands of regular social media users.

Written by Atish Padhy

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us several painful images in the last two years. During the first wave, the image that stayed with us was of migrant workers walking inhuman distances in the wake of an arbitrary national lockdown.

During the second wave, the enduring image has been that of our social media feeds awash with desperate calls for help. Yet, amidst the shortage of critical medical equipment and the overflowing of cremation grounds, one cannot help but be struck by the great altruism and activism of thousands of regular social media users.

People have collated resources and connected patients to hospital beds, stepping in to fill the gaping hole left by the Indian state’s ineptitude. It has been a little bit of a miracle.

But how has Twitter (and the larger social media ecosystem), which at the best of times appears to bring out the worst in people, managed to incentivise strangers to go out of their way to help each other? How have the same platforms that often feel fundamentally inhuman become the great beacon of humanity?

I have arrived at two possible explanations for this. The first has to do with the fundamental nature of human beings, which, contrary to popular belief, drives them to be altruistic in the face of crisis instead of being exploitative. This is the premise of Humankind: A Hope History, a fascinating new book by Rutger Bregman. The second has to do with the “orality” of Twitter.

Orality refers to the quality of specific kinds of verbal expression. Used in sociology to describe communication patterns in cultures where writing is unfamiliar or limited in use, the concept also has significant implications in communication studies and politics. It helps us understand that the medium of communication (oral/written) has psychological and social consequences, incentivising certain behaviours and values over others, eventually creating a “culture” that embodies these values.

The work of cultural historian Walter J Ong, media theorist Marshall McLuhan and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci helps us identify the defining characteristics of oral and written cultures. Before the invention of mass print technologies, writing was a rare skill, and almost everything of value was retained in human memory. Thus, oral communication, by definition immediate and transient, had to be “memorable”.

Techniques employed to enhance memorability, such as rhythm, repetition, wit and rhetoric, became deeply entrenched in the larger culture. Even today, despite the proliferation of print and electronic technologies all around, great oratory continues to arrest us. Invariably, great orators use the techniques noted above (think Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech).

Given the close link between emotions and memory, a culture of orality tends to be conversational and interpersonal. It enables the creation of a shared sense of community between listeners and speakers and is better suited for the communication of emotions than complex ideas. On the flip side, the inherent need to be memorable means that oral communication tends to be antagonistic and simplistic, rarely dwelling in details (because then it begins to become monotonous) and often lacks nuance.

Meanwhile, written and print communication is less dependent on memorability, given that it exists on literal or metaphorical (like the internet) “paper”, which can always be referred back to. Unlike oral communication, writing is not immediate and ephemeral. It enables complex ideas to be communicated effectively without reducing them to their most emotional and simplistic form.

There is more “room” for nuance in writing, as one can afford not to be rhetorical. Thus, the spread of writing and print culture has more fundamental effects on the human psyche by incentivising particular cognitive abilities over others. The work of media theorist Neil Postman helps us better understand how this might be so.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he writes, “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.”

Despite its virtues, written communication is somewhat unnatural. Mass print culture and the universality of writing are relatively recent phenomena in the history of humankind. It is orality that comes most naturally to human beings. Yet, writing has become ubiquitous because it solves the fundamental hurdle of scale in human communication.

Given its transient nature, oral communication cannot reach many people and is effective in communicating emotional content to a small number of people. Broadcast technologies like radio provide speech with a much larger reach, but only by compromising real-time interactivity, characteristic of orality.

Indeed, what makes oral communication memorable and powerful is the high degree of listener participation and interactivity. In this regard, radio is a lot more like writing (little real-time interactivity) than regular speech. Walter Ong calls this secondary orality. Consequently, while the radio is a lot less effortful to consume than a book, the passivity of the medium means that it is not as powerful a medium for creating intimacy or antagonism as can be expected from an oral medium. For the longest time, the tradeoff between interactivity and reach thus seemed inevitable. And then social media was born.

Consider Twitter. Despite being a text-first microblogging platform, it displays all the fundamental characteristics of orality. As pointed out by Zeynep Tufekci, the immediate, ephemeral nature of interaction on social media closely resembles oral communication. Remember that oral communication, especially in preliterate cultures, was simplistic and rhetorical in its subject matter because of the inherent need for memorability. On Twitter, meanwhile, the creation of simplistic and rhetorical content is incentivised by the character limit of tweets and the sheer volume of content on one’s feed. The slow, careful process central to creating a written work is absent on Twitter, with people using the medium as a public record of their stream of consciousness.

This framework helps explain why polarising content is rewarded by Twitter’s algorithm while also explaining how it can become a powerful lifeline at times of crisis. The orality of the platform facilitates the communication of emotional content, thus incentivising users to post angry, antagonistic, and, at times, panic-inducing tweets. Much of Twitter is full of sentences that would be at home in a private, oral argument before one has had the time or energy to process information slowly and allow nuance to take hold.

But this very incentive structure is valuable in times of crisis. The cascading of panic-inducing tweets that are generally harmful can save lives. Similarly, the psychological consequences of orality also tell us that antagonism and vileness is only a part of the whole picture. Like in-person oral communication, social media is adept at creating a sense of community and shared identity.

Indeed, within the larger cesspools of fake news and hate speech, countless communities thrive on social media, often held together by strong emotional reactions to certain sociopolitical and interpersonal events. The power, and many of its challenges, stem from its ability to marry the intimacy and interactivity of orality to the scalability of print and broadcast communication (and then multiply it manifold).

This shared sense of community that can be scaled up massively reaching thousands, if not millions of people, is at the heart of networked mass movements, such as Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution and the Arab Spring. In many ways, Indian social media’s altruistic response to the Covid-19 crisis gives us adequate reason to be optimistic about human psychology, communication and, above all, social media.

The writer works at Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru

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