There’s a lot said about Muslim Twitter (MT) being toxic, but I think it extends to most corners of Twitter. Let’s be frank, there are trolls and delinquents everywhere. I’ve been on Twitter approximately two years now and when I joined, I didn’t even know there was such as thing as MT. But soon after I was cautioned to its nature, and like most things I engage with for the first time I looked at it primarily as a learning experience.
So, here are some brief reflections:
1. The good far outweigh the bad. Like in many realms, negative experiences can stick with a person and make it seem that this is what something is predominantly like. But when you don’t take Twitter too seriously, it’s easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. The majority of interlocutors have been wonderful and civilised, and the engagements productive. You can see the few trolls from a mile away, and that’s what the ‘mute’ or ‘block’ button is for.
2. Social media is a safe space for people to be who they want to be, not who they are. The meek become warriors, the mild become belligerent, the calm become zealots. Personalities play up to populist expectations when they’re actually quite relaxed in real life. You’re often not directly dealing with a real person, but their wild imagination. It’s definitely a skill to identify such persons and an important one for keeping things constructive.
3. Delinquency isn’t limited to young people. There are well known middle-aged personalities that hastily mischaracterise people and name-call, but then complain when it’s done to them. Their parochial agendas force them to overlook optics. They rail against being misunderstood yet cannot accept that they often misunderstand others due to their tunnel vision. Don’t assume maturity is a given.
4. Twitter is stressful only if you forget it’s not the real world. The nature of engagement is different. Because you can see all the connections: retweets, retweets with comments, and who’s liked what, the ego can turn you schizophrenic trying to keep up with things you think concern you or are about you, driving you to presume everyone’s intentions: “Why did she ‘like’ it?” “Why is he retweeting it?” You also have to be open to the idea that uninformed people will be particularly belligerent and forceful with their ignorance. Of course, this doesn’t tend to happen in-person as people are far humbler and more careful because there isn’t any anonymity. In order to overcome a lot of this, one is required to form strategies to deal with it, as well as it taking some getting used to.
5. Most might be literate, but getting what someone’s saying or where they’re coming from in the context of their statement is something many can’t do. It’s an intellectual skill that’s learned. People tend to conflate issues off the bat, and struggle to differentiate between abstract theorising (conceptual thought) and practical application of theory. If something doesn’t sit with preconceived ideas, many will mischaracterise or misrepresent what’s being said because it’s then easier to dismiss and remain in one’s comfort zone. I get it, change is both painful AND scary. And when it comes to Twitter, understanding people properly requires patience and often a little background research, which goes entirely against the ethos of a platform built to play on human impulsivity, “man is ever hasty.” (Quran 17:11) I’m not necessarily making a value judgement – these are human habits, but it’s important to be aware of them for our own personal development.
6. In English, we tend to speak about 300 words a minute, so a very short five-minute explanation (which everyone can handle) amounts to a 1500-word article/essay (which unfortunately most cannot/do not engage with). It’s not always about how well you can articulate yourself, but also about how well people can understand the written word. Now tweets are restricted to 240 characters, around 50-60 words which literally amounts to a one-minute explanation. In the realm of ideas, Twitter is a space for very simple and/or reductive debates. If a substantial argument is to be made or presented, it’s good to have the substance written up elsewhere in complete form so that people can see where you’re coming from. It’s also good to choose who you engage – don’t feel the need to respond to everyone nor win them over. If it’s a general point you’re making, then only discuss with those able to engage with the generality of the proposition. If you don’t ignore tangents, as @tafsirdoctor advised, the point being made will be lost and inferences will be made from something you’re not even saying!
7. There are people all over the world who’ll engage with you, that come from very different circumstances and cultures. They just won’t get where you’re coming from intuitively, as you might expect someone from your context to. Leave them to it.
There are many more points we all could add, but the very brief ones here hopefully lead to the point I’d like to make:
Whilst the world is getting increasingly populist and reductive, we ought not feel the need to follow it. We like happy and positive places. We like productivity and enjoy constructive conversation. We see constructive curiosity as a virtue. We see friendly disagreement/variance and discussion as a means to exploring issues in a way that broadens and deepens our thinking. We should want to substance and depth, and abjure superficiality and reductive thinking. al-Baihaqi relates that al-Shafi’i said:
من تعلم علما فليدقق فيه ، لئلا يضيع دقيق العلمal-Shafi’i
“Whoever learns something then let him seek its intricacies, so that the intricacies of knowledge are not lost.”
In the interest of intellectual and emotional longevity (i.e. not getting burnt out), we must avoid toxic spaces, people and situations. If Twitter proves that for you, simply turn it off and seek God, His messenger and the believers:
Your true allies are God, His Messenger, and the believers: those who keep up salah, pay the zakat, and bow down in worship. Those who turn for protection to God, His Messenger, and the believers [are God’s party]: God’s party is sure to triumph.Qur’an 5:55-56