Before you head out the door in the morning, how many of you check Twitter for updates on the MBTA? I consider it my quick gauge of just how absolutely atrocious my commute will be. Over the past few weeks? Tweets at the MBTA have looked pretty darn terrible. They often look like this:
How often do you send one of those angry, critical, frustrated, public-shaming Tweets at the MBTA… or Marty Walsh … or Beverley Scott … or Charlie Baker… or the 2024 Boston Olympics? Does it help? Not really. Do they read them? On occasion, yes.
But does it make you feel any better?
If you’ve been up-to-date with NPR’s (awesome) new podcast Invisibilia, you caught last week’s episode on the way computers and technology influence our psyche and behavior. The hosts interviewed a Twitter user named Pete Malachowsky, who is behind an account called @N_Train_Gossip, which documents bad behavior on the New York subway system. He said his increased frustration with his fellow riders’ lack of etiquette almost felt relieved every time he sent out a tweet or photo to his followers—primarily because it provided a sense of validation.
Malachowsky told the hosts:
“When I am taking a picture of somebody, the first thought that I have after it is, good, now people are going to know about you (laughter). Like, it’s really just — it makes me feel better about it because I’m like, you should be held accountable for what you’re doing. You should be held accountable for your bad behavior.’’
Invisibilia called in the expertise of Dr. Ryan Martin, a chair of the psychology department at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who said Malachowsky’s public outrage could actually be “chemically therapeutic.’’ Malachowsky’s release of anger into the Twitter community, which often resulted in retweets, replies, and favorites, supplied not only a sense of street justice, but of personal relief. Martin said:
“And so naturally anyone feeling like that is going to do all sorts of things to get out of that uncomfortable state, like lashing out or going on a walk to cool down. But one really great way is validation. Knowing that the world we live in is a — that there are other people who think the way I do.’’
While this sounds great—tweeting at the T does make sense!—another guest expert, social scientist Arthur Santana of the University of Houston, warns that this form of unfiltered rage can be categorized as the online disinhibition effect, a sort of adopted persona that only exists on the Internet, where repercussions can typically be avoided or controlled. Plus, it’s the Internet, no one can actually see you. They can’t call you out to your face, or tell you that you’re out of line. You can basically say anything you want. No shame! This, Santana says, “makes you nearly twice as likely to be cruel.’’
But remember, moderation is key—Tweeting anger and hatred has not only been linked to actual health problems, it can warp our ability to see the good in things. Invisibilia warns that the more we reep redemption from our complaints, the more we seek out opportunities to complain about. Or as Malachowsky told them, “I was looking for evidence of people just being horrible.’’