opinion | What Twitter can learn from Quakers

It’s a lack of imagination to think that our choices are the social media platforms we have now or nothing. I keep thinking about something that Robin Sloan, a novelist and former Twitter contributor, wrote this year: “There are so many ways that people can relate to each other online, so many ways that sharing and socializing can be organized. Look at those screens, that flood of pixels, that liquid potential! What colossal crap that Twitter has pulled out a local maximum, that its network effect is still (!) consuming the fuel for other possibilities, other explorations.”

What has surprised me the most as Twitter has been shaken up over the past few weeks is how worn out the social media cabinet really is. So many are open to trying something new, but until now there hasn’t been anything that feels new enough to try. Everything feels like it’s on Twitter. It can be faster or slower, more decentralized or more moderated, but they are all variations on the same theme: experiments in how to attract attention rather than deepen it, platforms built to encourage us to speak rather than help us, to listen or to think .

Allow me an odd twist here. This year I became interested in how Quakers reason. As a movement, Quakers have consistently been well ahead of the moral curve—early to abolitionism, gender equality, prison reform, to pressure governments to save Jews from the Holocaust. That’s not to say the Quakers didn’t do anything wrong, but what made them do so much right?

The answer in Rex Ambler’s beautiful book “The Quaker Way‘ is silence. At a typical Quaker meeting, Ambler writes, members of the fellowship “sit in silence for about an hour, rising only to speak when prompted to do so, and then only to share some insights of which they believe that they are of value to others.” When they must decide a matter together, “again they wait together in silence to decide what to do.” There is much that debate can offer, but also much that it “In order to get a clear sense of what is happening in our lives, we Quakers try to go deeper,” he writes, “We must let go of our active and restless minds to do this. We become still and let a deeper, more sensitive awareness emerges.”

I find that powerful in part because I see it within myself. I know how to react in the heat of an argument when my whole being is strained to react. And I know how to process difficult questions or difficult emotions after quiet reflection, when my mind has time to settle. I know who my better self is.

Democracy is not and will not be a long Quaker meeting. But there is wisdom here worth pondering. We make our best decisions, neither as individuals nor as a collective, when our minds are most active and restless. And yet “active and restless” is about as accurate a description as I can imagine of the Twitter spirit. And after getting us into an active, restless state of mind, Twitter encourages us to fire out declarative statements on the most controversial topics possible, always with an eye on how quickly they will garner likes and retweets and therefore viral power. It’s insane.

And it’s going to get a lot worse from here. OpenAI recently released ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence system that can take requests in plain text (“Write me an argument about the benefits of payer healthcare, Taylor Swift song-style”) and churn out remarkably passable results.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/11/opinion/what-twitter-can-learn-from-quakers.html opinion | What Twitter can learn from Quakers


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