I’m the first one to admit that there are professional and personal benefits to online social networking sites such as Twitter. But when I came across the Daily Mail news article: “Twitter Can Make You Immoral, Claims Scientists,” I was intrigued. The article makes astute points, and raises some important questions about an individual's emotional and psychological capacity to deal with an overwhelming barrage of information.
When I log on to my Twitter or email accounts, I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Bruce Almighty, in which Jim Carrey, as “God,” opens up his email inbox and is met with an emotional tidal wave of prayer requests, conversation and information. These virtual requests are manifested into literal flying post-it notes, which quickly cover his entire house and body until he is drowning in them, and so overwhelmed that he surrenders and shuts down his computer.
Twitter is the new face of information overload. Even though the 'tweet' message limit is 140 characters… multiply that by thousands of people’s banter, and you have a cacophony of noise, and way more information than you can possibly digest at any one time. (Unless you choose to follow only a very few, select people… but statistically, the main use of Twitter is to build business, so most users follow thousands with the hopes of being “followed back.”) It is likely that the only way a human being could possibly process all of the data in their Twitter account would be to distance themselves emotionally and shut down the type of intellectual processing that requires empathy and insightful reflection.
Due to the fact that there is no delineation between the importance and magnitude of people’s tweets, news such as what someone is having for dinner is intermingled with news of a family member’s birth or death. Both are read through with the same speed and attention, and it’s easy to see why this study suggests that rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the ‘moral compass’ of the brain to process. Scientists also ascertain, “the danger is that heavy Twitter and Facebook users could become ‘indifferent to human suffering’ because they never get time to reflect and fully experience emotions about other people’s feelings.”
I think following Twitter, as well as having to plow through many hundreds of emails a day, is akin to what happens to New Yorkers who ride the subway everyday to work. As a New Yorker, you get used to having to deal with so many people, so quickly and superficially, that you become desensitized to the throngs of people squishing you and breathing down your neck on the F train at rush hour, or the crowds surrounding you on Broadway. You learn to ignore people in public places, because it is the only way to travel through them efficiently and maintain your sanity. This situation applies to our coping mechanisms for 'virtual crowds' as well. When you are constantly barraged with requests and chatter coming through your computer screen, you learn to start ignoring people so that you can uphold some sort of filter from madness via complete information overload. I don’t believe that Twitter (or email, or the subway) actually change people’s moral compass on a fundamental level, but certainly make people less sensitive in these particular mediums as a coping tactic to retain their own sanity.
As with everything in life, the Yin/Yang theory applies. Nothing is neither all good, or all bad. Claims have been made for years that television and video games are damaging people’s sense of reality, but much good may also come from these mediums, such as increased creativity, mental acuity and eye-hand coordination. Right now it’s hard to determine the exact ‘good’ in the case of Twitter, because unlike TV and video games, we’re now dealing with real people in real time in real life situations. It's probably worth treading with caution into the new wave of online media if you place any stock in the aforementioned study, since the article also states that “social emotions have deep evolutionary roots.” Who knows? At the rate we’re going, perhaps the future emotional capacity of the human race could be 'tweeted' into oblivion!?