I have a confession: I cannot keep myself away from Donald Trump’s Twitter. And after you start reading, you quickly find yourself in a digital sinkhole, following replies, comments and retweets. When you eventually come up for air, you are somewhere else entirely.
I am not the only one. Between 2017 and 2020, Twitter’s daily active users surged from 109 million to 186 million. There are many reasons for this explosive growth, including recent demand for news about coronavirus, but the bizarre, preposterous clown-car circus of US politics must have had an impact too.
And if you follow these melodramatic political debates online, one of the things you cannot help but notice is the radical, painful erosion in the quality of the public debate. Twitter is a warzone. I am sure the same is true for other social media platforms. People are hammered for being right or wrong, with no shades of grey in-between.
And it happens so fast. A single tweet or post attracts thousands of scornful comments within the space of minutes, or even seconds. People are clobbered before they hit send. Judgements are made instantly.
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two modes of thought: the first, System 1, is emotional, animalistic, and operates automatically. The second, System 2, is slower, deliberative and distinctly human. My pet theory is that polarisation and information overload on the Internet, especially on social media, is turning all of us into hot-headed System 1 zombies. This is something all executives, entrepreneurs and businesses need to worry about, because it is this hot-headedness that is squeezing out any form of thoughtful and civil discussion about wealth, business and enterprise in the online sphere.
Let’s take a recent example. When Zuber and Mohsin Issa, two of the country’s most inspirational entrepreneurs to my mind, recently bought Asda with TDR Capital, Twitter went into an absolute meltdown about how the holding company was based in Jersey. Two working-class Blackburn lads, grew their company, EG Group, from ground zero to revenues of more than €20bn in 2019. What an accomplishment, and yet they were judged on Twitter within seconds. The mere mention of the word ‘Jersey’ sent many people into a knee-jerk tailspin.
Twitter is a warzone: people are hammered for being right or wrong, with no shades of grey in-between
Now, why does this matter? Why would anyone care about what a keyboard warrior says about them or their business on social media? The obvious reasons first: claims on social media can quickly become accepted wisdom. Public opinion is increasingly shaped by what is said there, and comments on Twitter will often end up finding themselves in the conventional press.
But what I'm most interested in is that it tells us a lot about how judgements are made in this day and age. In the case of the Issa brothers, people were making a judgement call on two people’s whole working lives based on Twitter snippets and comments that ran to 280 characters, max.
Today, people make judgements on others’ reputations in less than five seconds. This is the brutal flipside of our new instinct-driven, kneejerk, Pavlovian culture.
And this trend extends beyond Twitter. Just compare how you might have prepared for a meeting 10 years ago versus today.
In the past, you might have collated all the information you could find from articles, corporate biographies, books and elsewhere. Whereas today people will just quickly Google someone, flick through the headlines of the results without even visiting the pages themselves, and say, “Got it”. In fact, if you have had a particularly busy and stressful week, you might leave it right until the waiting area before the meeting to brief yourself on the person.
It’s ironic that at a time when reputation matters more than ever before, nine in ten executives rate reputation as their most important strategic risk, according to Deloitte – we now make judgements quicker than ever before on the scantest of information, mere headlines and 280-character tirades.
The lesson is sadly not that we should all try to make judgements on a more considered, thoughtful basis, although I, of course, would urge everyone to do that too.
But, instead, that if you are an executive who cares about your reputation, you have much less time to make an impression these days. Snap judgements are made on very limited information.
So you better make sure the information that is out there is the right information.
Jordan Greenaway is Managing Partner of Transmission Private, a communications firm that advises successful individuals, investors, entrepreneurs and private clients on their reputation. See more at transmission-private.com