It’s a while since I blogged anything about Twitter, so maybe it’s time for a response to a couple of the prevailing misconceptions about the micro-blogging service that has substantially improved my life over the last year.
There are three broad themes coming out in the Twitter critique:
- That it’s full of trivial rubbish
- That’s it’s reality TV without pictures
- That is for narcissists and fosters mental ill-health (WTF??)
To which I, not surprisingly, say ‘Bollocks’.
Let’s start with the bigger question of how anyone could come to that conclusion. What is twitter. It’s two things:
- You post your own messages (which can be stand-alone thoughts, or replies to things people have said)
- You read the messages of people you CHOOSE to follow.
No-one can force you to read anything. They can’t spam you like email (even the direct messages on twitter are blocked if you’re not following the person trying to message you), and you can “unfollow” someone just as easily as you “followed” them in the first place.
So how does one make a meaningful assessment of the value of that kind of simple yet broad approach to online communication? By trying it. As Blur said, There’s No Other Way.
So here’s mistake #1 made by almost everyone who’s been commenting on Twitter in the press (or posting nonsense comments about it on facebook)
- Social Media in general and Twitter specifically, are practitioner spaces first and foremost.
Some things work great from a theorist’s angle. Things for which there are solid metric data available that corollate in anyway to ‘value’. Economics is a good theorist space. Genetics isn’t a bad one. Social media is a bloody awful one. Why?
- Because twitter is fundamentally about conversations.
And conversation is not an art that can be ‘learnt’ in a day by dispassionately observing other people do it. If you suddenly change the parameters for conversation, it takes a while to adjust.
Commenting on twitter without having used it for at least a month is like dismissing German as a ‘shit language’ after trying it for a 24 hours. “So, this morning I got up, I asked some people for some good German words to use, but all I got were swearwords and ways to ask for beer. OK, so I asked a bunch of drunken German football fans in London, but it still means that the language is officially shit.”
On Twitter, You choose who to follow, you choose whether to start – or continue – the discussions about things that interest you, and you have to take the time to think about how you’re going to get your point across in 140 characters. So, if it’s full of trivial rubbish, it just means you’re following the wrong people, or are yourself failing to inspire anyone to write anything meaningful.
The flip side of this is of course that much of what makes life interesting and fun is the trivial stuff. What are the top 5 things you remember about being at work last week? Chances are most of them aren’t related to the ‘big’ stuff of your job, but are more to do with the connections you have with the people you work with. Why?
- Trivia is the context that fosters the big stuff.
People who do nothing but talk about big ideas and big concepts can get pretty dull. Sometimes you really do want to know what their favourite record to dance to is.
So, trivia is good, and it paves the way for the deeper more meaningful stuff by providing context.
So people who talk are racists, because racists can talk? Anyone who wears clothes thinks they’re a super hero, because super-hero costumes are clothes? Clearly not. It’s all about conduits and content.
A basic understanding of Venn diagrams puts pay to that. Here’s diagram 1:
The point of this is to show how most of what goes on on twitter has no effect on me. I don’t see it, it doesn’t see me. The celebrity bit of twitter is a fairly pointless sideshow within the grand scheme of things. That there are people who spend all day trying to get an answer from Jonathan Ross or Stephen Fry says more about them than it does about twitter. It’s the same people who hang round outside film premiers. And they don’t reflect badly on cinema as an art form.
As it happens, the celebrities/famous people who do ‘get it’ are in-fact using twitter to enable direct, self-filtered communication with their audience in a way that has previously not been at all possible. The dynamic of Twitter means that the kind of ‘trolling’ behaviour that makes most web forums unusable just doesn’t work there. Precisely because your tweets are only read by those who are following you, and those who choose to click on a reply to you from someone they are following. There is no ‘unrequested push’ broadcast possibility – even if someone sends me an ‘@’ reply that I don’t like, I can block them in 2 clicks… It’s an entirely permissions-based system. So if you want to get a comment out of Dave Gorman or Will Carling or Demi Moore, you’ll have to engage them the way you would anyone else. Celeb obsessives notwithstanding, Twitter is a great leveler.
So when some media berk says ‘Twitter is just reality TV without the pictures’ I say ‘bollocks’. It’s quite a simple equation: your opinion=bollocks. (And I’d happily debate the merits of twitter with Rachel Sylvester, or Oliver James, ‘psychologist’ and professor of fuckwittage at MissThePoint university.)
Anyway, back to the diagrams. To blame Twitter for muppets obsessed with celebrity is like blaming Excel for tax fraud – it’s not the spreadsheet that’s faulty, it’s the data. And you’re in control of the data-set.
Anyway, the third point – I’ve already mentioned that Psychologist Oliver James was quoted in the Times article as saying,
“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”
Which is about the most embarrassing load of balls I’ve ever heard anyone come out with. Oliver James, you sound like Tipper Gore telling America’s young that they’ll go to hell for listening to Prince. It’s equivalent to saying “no-one would ever tell their friends or colleagues what they’re up to if they had a strong sense of identity” – You, sir, are an idiot, a patronising ne’er-do-well luddite, in need of a lesson in communication. It’s amazing how ‘eminent professionals’ can miss the point so spectacularly, while so many people are finding their lives enriched, their friendships deepened, their business networks widened and better connected by just chatting!
Furthermore, I think the opposite is true – if you’re the kind of incommunicative academic-to-the-point-of-being-incoherent buffoon who thinks Twitter is narcissistic, I’d say YOU most definitely have a problem with your sense of identity. Either that, of you’re so utterly self-obsessed, that you just don’t have any friends you’re interested in. Either way, I’d rather be where I am than where you are.
Twitter – and the raft of ‘micro-blogging’ services that are springing up, and will continue to mutate – is changing the way we communicate online, and we’re all the better for it. It’s not going to disappear, and 3 years from now, we’ll all have a twitter name (or hopefully an OpenID-authenticated cross-platform equivalent) the way we have an email address.
So, Twitter-people, how has Twitter helped you? Stories please.