A Twitter Parallax

As long as humans have been around and arguing with each other, there have always been disputes about what the interpretation of events. During these disputes, I’d imagine that people wished we had ways of capturing events in real time, believing that this would eliminate disagreements. If everyone could work from a shared set of facts, then of course we would end disputes, right?

While I’m sure that’s what I would have thought if I’d lived 100 years ago, our recent age of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and real time Twitter updates has taught all of us that things are not so simple. Every time we see an example of this, I think of one of my favorite words: parallax. Defined as “the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer“, it reminds me that our perception of things sometimes depends not only on the object itself, but also where you’re standing.

If this is true of physical objects, then of course emotional situations up the ante. In the best of circumstances human communication can be prone to difficulties, and differences in perception can complicate things enormously. While the promise of technology is often that it will improve communication, the reality is that it often just creates new opportunities for differences in perception.

I bring this up because I had a really interesting example of this in my personal life recently, when the same Twitter thread led to two really different conclusions.

In the middle of one of the many many Twitter controversies of the past few weeks, I noticed some rather high profile people reacting to a Twitter thread from someone I knew was an acquaintance of my brother. Their reactions were not kind, and she was generally getting kinda dragged. He and I had talked about the issue previously before I knew she had jumped in, so I texted him the thread as an example of what I considered a Bad Opinion.

Basically while opining on the issue of the day, this woman had tried to make point X, but in the process had (IMHO) completely minimized counterpoint Y to a comical extent. My opinion was shared by others, who were mocking her for it.

When my brother and I talked a few days later, I mentioned the incident, and was surprised to find he disagreed with me. He said he didn’t at all see that she had minimized point Y, and in fact had emphasized point Y with points Y1 and Y2. At this point I got confused….I hadn’t seen either of those points made. My mind spun a bit. My brother and I have been arguing for years, and I knew he wouldn’t make something like that up. I was in the car so I couldn’t check the Twitter thread, but I started to wonder how I had missed the points she had made. Had I been scrolling too fast? Had I been projecting? Had I jumped to conclusions? I admitted to my brother that it was possible I’d missed something, and agreed that if I had I’d misjudged his friend.

Later that night it was still bothering me, so I went back to my text and reread the Twitter thread. I read all 31 Tweets she had sent, and discovered that neither point Y1 or Ywere in there. Now I was really confused. Like I said, my brother is one of my oldest sparring partners. We’ve been arguing for decades, and at this point I know he would never fabricate a point like that. I also knew that he would have mentioned it if he’d seen it elsewhere. So what the heck had happened?

As I pondered this, I reflexively hit the button “show more replies” to see if I could see some of the reactions he had mentioned and found….there were 4 more Tweets in the thread. Apparently at some point after she had sent the one she labelled 31/31 and said “thanks for listening”, she had added on a few other points. I’m not sure, but I think that because of the time delay between the initial Twetts and the add ons, Twitter hid those Tweets from anyone who accessed the thread directly. Since she had indicated it was the end of the thread, no one reading it that way would have known to go looking for other Tweets. When I clarified this with my brother, he mentioned that when I’d sent him the thread he hadn’t actually clicked on it, he’d just gone directly to her Twitter feed. Since Twitter shows things in reverse chronological order, he had read her added on points first, and then read everything else through that lens. No wonder we’d ended up with different opinions.

I was very struck by this whole thing, as it got me wondering how often this happens in our everyday lives. We believe we’re seeing the same thing due to the promises of technology, but the way it’s presented to us skews our reading. If my brother and I didn’t have years of good faith arguing behind us, I would likely not have been so curious about our different perceptions. If we weren’t both so interested in how information gets presented, we may not have cared or considered how our way of accessing the information had colored our subsequent reading of it. Our belief that we were both seeing the same thing might have actually impeded our communication rather than helped it.

I don’t have a good answer for how to get around this, but it’s good to keep in mind as more disputes are started and perpetuated online. While eliminating some pitfalls, technology does create new ones on a much grander scale. Just because you’re looking at the same thing doesn’t always mean you’re seeing the same thing.

8 thoughts on “A Twitter Parallax

  1. Good object lesson. I can only guess how many times something like this has happened to me and I never knew why. In a discussion(argument?), I try to get agreement on the facts, definitions, etc. On my best behavior, I strive for clarity of understanding of each person’s position. I find agreement and persuasion usually to be illusory pursuits.


    • I was so glad we figured it out! I agree that shared definitions and facts are a good place to start. Apparently shared screens should be added to the list!


  2. You are usually quite cautious about such things, as is your brother. At one level, I would tell neither of you to especially worry about this, as the American problem is the many more people who don’t check for the other side even when it is handed to them on a platter.

    Yet I take the point. It is not enough to be merely innocent in degree.


    • I think it was so surprising to me because it’s not a place I would have thought to be cautious about. I know to be careful not to paraphrase if I can link to direct words, or to take things out of context, but it didn’t occur to me that the context would change out from under me.


  3. I remember a discussion I was having with a guy, which was heating up into an argument, when I suddenly heard what he was saying at the time. We were actually in agreement, but we hadn’t been listening to each other.


  4. This relates to a concern that I have about the algorithmized internet. It may be somewhat convenient for me if Google or Amazon show me results that are tailored to me personally (it can save me a lot of time sifting through irrelevant results).

    But if enough of what I see is pre-filtered in ways that I’m not aware of — or don’t consciously understand — then I risk the very real possibility that I will become increasingly isolated from my fellowbeings because the way we experience what purports to be the same thing is diverging.


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