When you’re a lefty — like, the kind that has no dexterity in your right hand — you tend to become a de facto design snob.
It can’t be helped; a good percentage of the objects you encounter in the world as a left-hander are contoured for people who aren’t you. Mugs. Notebooks. Scissors. Guitars. Can openers. They all mock us. I can’t even participate in our rude Western system of writing from left to right without getting a smudgy reminder of my second-class status. I was born this way, you monsters.
(I’m also admittedly slightly bitter that my proposed rebranding campaign for left-handedness has been hijacked and ruined. Which is a shame because “alt-writer” had such a nice ring to it.)
In any case, this sensitivity to design carries over into all sorts of non-sinister (in the archaic sense) concerns. Lousy feng shui, uncomfortable chairs, erratic kerning — they can all put me in a bad mood for hours. Even, and perhaps especially, in virtual spaces, where so many of us spend so much of our time, issues of design play a significant role in not just how we experience the Internet, but how we experience one another.
Design can determine whether an online space is constructive or destructive. (And you can likely guess which way they usually slide.) If you consider the quiet ways that discourse is shaped by design, you’ll see a highly ordered system of structures, symbols, and signs, far from the chaos we conventionally attribute to swamp-like comment sections (no offense).
Take the long dark hallways that narrow into cold damp caves on sites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit (whose recent redesign doubled as an identity crisis over the risk of coming off as too welcoming). These forums seem predisposed, design-wise, to cultivate species of thought that would wither in plain daylight. Endless and wild as the Internet may seem, it’s the forms we force it into that define its character.
Or maybe it’s the characters that define the Internet? Writer and data science student Zack Abrams recently related a story from the 2017 Typographics conference, where noted typographer Jonathan Hoefler proposed a line of handwritten fonts as a way to push back against the real problem plaguing comment sections: “subconscious authority.”
By shifting reader comments into a handwritten-seeming typeface (one that quite unsubtly and anachronistically revives a dusty hegemony of print), order could potentially be restored. Writes Abrams, “Hoefler’s solution was one of meritocratic segregation: the chatter of the audience was not to visually mix with the oration of the expert. Communications within the comments could be individualized and humanized.” (And let’s here remember that expertise ain’t what it used to be.)
Features can have buggy sides. Like upvoting and downvoting, which are meant to police quality through user moderation, but can often force the flow of discussions against any less-represented resistance. Or badging systems like Twitter’s blue checkmarks or Facebook’s blue stars, intended to “verify” notable users, tend to stratify opinions — even the most dangerous and/or idiotic ones.
Twitter, perhaps the least civil of social media platforms by design (though perhaps unwittingly), has finally started taking steps to detoxify itself, and it’s using design to do it.
For one thing, a move taken this past week allows users to revert to the more classic feel of reverse chronology, rather than the algorithmically fluffed timelines that stemmed the flow of Twitter’s once babbling brook into a bog of fetid standing water. This might seem like the platform simply bending to a sustained grudge from longtime users; but it amounts to giving Twitter the circulatory system it enjoyed in its youth — which is frankly far better for its heart health.
Twitter also announced plans this week to make the platform more conversational through design tweaks.
According to reports from The Verge, Twitter is testing threaded replies (which may cut down on threatening replies), presence indicators, which are “status indicators to help you describe what you’re doing while you tweet” and which help reinforce the idea that there’s an actual person here as well as cut down on rampant hashtaggery (arguably another toxin in discourse). Twitter is also testing “ice-breakers,” small snippets of text that steer dialogue toward given topics.
These all amount to making Twitter “more conversational” according to a tweet from Twitter product engineer Sara Haider. And while it’s hard to predict if changing the flow and format of our timelines will be enough to stop the fights that break out on them, and while it remains to be seen how die-hard tweeters will react to changes that alter the nature of the platform, to my mind, any tweaks toward a more civil Twitter are worth a shot — and honestly, it can’t get much worse.
As I learned early on with spiral notebooks, sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to turn the whole thing upside down.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.