It is ten years since I joined Twitter and I have to confess, I still like it.
Of course, I mean ‘my’ Twitter feed. The quality of the experience depends on your personalised selection of sources and your behaviour. As a platform it stands accused of coarsening public life, ruining careers, making nice people miserable and fixing votes.
Twitter as a social network is completely unrepresentative of real life. What people say on Twitter doesn’t even properly represent what they think. Not just the character limit, but the whole performative nature of it. That combined with the algorithmic dynamics that reward outrage, means it is only a version of what we are, or our views, let alone our relationship to other people and events. Generally, most Twitter users are much more considered and considerate IRL. But it can still be a good place to meet them in the first place.
It’s easy to do academic research on Twitter so that means it is vastly over-represented in the literature about social media. Check out how many surveys of ‘social media’ or claims about ‘public opinion’ turn out to be based on studies of this one exceptional platform. The most opinionated people use it and they are a small, liberal-leaning, more youthful minority of the general public. That means it distorts our view of politics and society if we use it as any kind of ‘mirror’ of reality.
Full Of Lies
Yes, it’s full of nonsense, lies, anger, hatred, propaganda and even harmful ‘speech’. The tone of discussion – even amongst the lovely, clever people I follow – can be predictable, binary, attention-seeking, herd-like, and crassly contrarian. Some days it can feel like an endless parade of moral preening, intellectual point-scoring and pedantry. Tom Phillip’s seminal “29 stages of a Twitter storm in 2018″ was all too accurate in its portrayal of the platform’s increasing tendency towards semi-automatic ‘reactivity’.
Many of my more sensible and sensitive students – who are precisely the kind of people we want as part of the ‘global conversation’ – won’t go near it. They see it as the social media equivalent of an all-day drinking den where fights are constantly breaking out, with digital broken glass likely to strike even innocent bystanders.
As David Zwieg has pointed out in this article where he used a browser extension to remove all the numbers from your Twitter account, it is a platform that uses follower or RT numbers to drive increased usage in a competitive drive for status and attention.
And yet I still find it useful and inspiring. Why?
I joined Twitter back in 2008 to see what all the fuss was about. As an ex-hack newly turned journalism professor I felt I should experience as well as observe new platforms. I use it largely to promote my own and colleagues’ work and to access interesting analysis and research by others. I run a think-tank that seeks to ‘improve’ the news media and its public value, so I am very happy to advertise jobs and other people’s endeavours, even by ‘rival’ institutions or people I don’t agree with.
I hope to stimulate debate, but I don’t have any personal desire or professional need to churn out clickbait or provoke uproar. I am lucky to work for an institution that likes attention and public engagement but frowns on uncivil argument.
It is still the best topical, interactive source for my areas of interest: media and politics. That’s because so many journalists and politicians use it. And those people who want to either attack or defend them go there a lot, too. So it works for me as an information hub. Although it is better at the reactive rather than reflective content. I find people and information on Twitter that I would not have discovered otherwise. But I work much harder now to find other sources elsewhere, including ‘talking to people in person’. Again, I’m lucky that I’m paid to do that for a living.
Rude And Hostile
I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I used to because of its limits. Also because the tone has become more rude and hostile. I love an argument. But not every hour of every day. Not every single post. Not over every flipping thing.
I have made mistakes (they didn’t teach grammar in 1970s comps). I have left people feeling bored, angry, patronised, confused or disappointed. Sorry about that. Only human. Being an academic/journalist means that a degree of self-regarding, smug pomposity is an occupational hazard. But I certainly don’t intend to offend or mislead.
I don’t seem to get any of the anger and trolling responses that plague the most outspoken Tweeters. It’s not because I am particularly virtuous or rational. Come listen to me at a West Ham game and you will see my self-control is not perfect. Anyone who reads my blogs or listens to me teach or debate can tell that I have strong personal and professional views (aka: prejudices, biases, inspirational insights…).
Every day I delete the drafts of half a dozen devastating, brutal take-downs. I would like to pretend to quote my late mother saying ‘if you can’t say anything nice etc’ but that would be a lie. She was a hard woman. I just don’t want to smash people around their digital heads on Twitter with my vituperation on every topic all the time. Why add to global negativity?
Lack Of Diversity
I have tried to flavour my feed with people I disagree with or those who have fresh perspectives, but I accept there’s a lack of real diversity in my timeline. For me Twitter is a personalised set of sources and (generally positive) critics, not a representative sample. So I try hard not to confuse my generally metrosexual, liberal, western, media-centric Twitter with anything remotely related to ‘objective’ truth. I try to avoid saying ‘people think’ when I mean ‘people in my Twitter feed think’.
After ten years, it still kind of works. Imperfectly, but then journalism is the imperfect craft. If nothing else, Twitter is living proof of both the hazards and joys of confirmation bias and the real, if limited potential of networked communication to add value to our personal and professional lives.
I wish Twitter as a company (and its users) would do more to restrain the harmful, to discourage the unpleasant and to protect the positive, creative and less powerful or more vulnerable voices. But in the end you get the Twitter that you have chosen. As I have mentioned, I am lucky to have the power (and an expensive smartphone) to benefit from this platform. I am also fortunate to have met, read and responded to so many interesting people through this network over the last ten years. Thanks to them all.
So I will keep at it. And if you hate what I say, well, just unfollow, block or mute me.
This is a good article on what would happen if you turned off Re-Tweets. Shows that the design of a network or platform dictates the quality of the experience in many different ways beyond the merely functional.
This article by Charlie Beckett @CharlieBeckett