Essays on Technology and Culture

Alice Maz on Twitter Randos and Splaining

Communication is hard. Like, really hard. Brain-to-brain state transfer is impossible, so we rely on an untold number of tools, signals, assumptions, wild guesses, and luck in the hopes that we can get someone else’s black box to generate something vaguely similar enough to our original for practical purposes. (And the bastards usually don’t even have the common courtesy to echo it back so we can see if we did it right.) What strikes me about “splaining” is that it’s so widespread–both the ostensible act and the complaints about it–and so consistent. Two reasonably distinct groups of individuals speaking on arbitrary topics, but the interactions generally resemble the same form and end up in the same place. While it would flatter me greatly if the vast majority of the people in my out-group turned out to be malicious and/or stupid, it seems more reasonable to conclude the groups communicate differently and as a result have a difficult time communicating with each other.

—Alice Maz – “Splain It To Me”.

An interesting take on a social media phenomenon. This is well worth your time.

I suspect that a large part of the problem with “splaining” and other communication failures on Twitter and elsewhere is that we lose much of the metadata of conversation. To borrow Alice’s example, you can tell from tone of voice and mannerisms what someone means when they say “Get the fuck out of here!” to you. In a textual environment, we have to draw inferences from our relationship to this person and our previous encounters with them.

Even among nerds who value information sharing over other forms of communication, we still need some conversational metadata to fully divine meaning. A “Get the fuck out of here!” @-reply could be positive engagement, or it could be a threat. It’s possible to know this with clarity, but the nature of the medium makes it harder. And with a “rando,” it becomes harder still.

Alice also writes a great footnote on Twitter mentions, and what “public” actually means online. It’s 323 words that could be a standalone essay of their own. One problem, of sorts, with Twitter, is that we all use it differently. For some of us, it’s a salon, for others, it’s a megaphone. I think the average Twitter user is somewhere between the two. It would behoove Twitter to keep this in mind, and adjust the platform to give users a more granular degree of access from the world-at-large, rather than the binary options of “public” and “private”.