Twitterers of the world.
We’ve all heard the questions. The murmurs. The doubts and whispers.
“Twitter is a waste of time,” they say.
“People are just talking about what they ate for breakfast, or what their dog is doing.”
“No good can come of it, no way to spend work time, turning us all into ADHD cases.”
The mother of all social media doubter articles came out a little while back, The New York Time’s Bill Keller on The Twitter Trap:
I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I edit a newspaper that has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto. I get that the Web reaches and engages a vast, global audience, that it invites participation and facilitates — up to a point — newsgathering. But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.
As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.
While I don’t necessarily disagree with every point that Keller makes, I think the thing that bothers me the most is the unspoken disdain for different ways of being social and engaged in the world.
I don’t think Twitter people are less engaged with in-person socializing — in fact, my overall social media presence has made me a ton of new in-person friends both in my home city and institution as well as around the world. And Twitter has been a bit part of that in the last couple of years. In particular, I have to say that Twitter has been an amazing tool for building contacts and relationships within my institution. And even real friendships. And I have a hard time believing I’m alone in this.
Twitter has also become an incredible source of ideas and provocation and engagement. Interestingly that engagement and learning usually happens one of two ways.
Either in a short, bursty exchange with one or more people. Or via a link to a more indepth blog post or article. So in a sense, Twitter is quick and superficial but it often leads to something deeper and more meaningful — but not on Twitter itself.
Sure, Twitter is the source of an awful lot of shinyshinyshiny distraction for me. Is it something I have to work at keeping in check? Of course. But that’s not Twitter’s fault, it’s my fault.
So, where did I get the wonderful title for this post?
A wonderful and subtle defense of Twitter in particular and social media in general, Thoughts on Twitter.
Here is my experience, and what Twitter has done for me: I have never been as well informed or strategically connected in my life. I have never been as current with those I care about and are interested in. I have never been able to identify what people are talking about, across the world and a universe of possible topics, as quickly or easily as I can today, through Twitter. I have never been as consistently entertained or amused, by the regular observations of some very smart people who are now, effortlessly, in my orbit. It is as fundamental a communications tool for me as e-mail and one that, in many ways, is much more powerful.
Twitter is clean, expressive and human. 140 characters, right there. Things to know, reasons to laugh, thoughts or notions to share, updates to consider, information that is helpful or silly, exchanged on your own terms, with people you have chosen to hear from. A link to the most moving or intelligent blog post you’ve ever read, right down to word that some guy on a plane just ignominiously broke out a tuna and onion sandwich, pre-takeoff, which makes you smile.
That’s another great and fundamental thing about Twitter, you build your own experience, to suit your interests and needs. As I’ve said before, in a Tweet, it’s like the most interesting room in the world, because the whole world is in the room – and you can hear the conversations you want to, talk to the people you choose… Twitter is the frame, not the picture, what’s inside is largely up to you.
That’s another key line: “Twitter is the frame, not the picture, what’s inside is largely up to you.”
Twitter is what you make of it, for good or ill. There’s lots of ill, no doubt, but I think there’s way more in the good column.