An interesting, if far-fetched, post by Steve Fuller on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences site. Fuller’s post, “Aphorism and twitter”, makes a case for the beneficial use of Twitter: he claims no less than that it can be “a distinct medium for constructing knowledge”. I’ve heard some claims for Twitter, but this takes some beating. Fuller claims links between the Vorticists and tweets; it brings to mind the close association between some of the Italian 20th-century modernists such as Marinetti and Fascism, for example an article on Wired.com.
Quite apart from the aphorism idea, I thought it would be good to summarise what I find good and not so good about Twitter, leaving aside links to the Futurists:
Twitter is good because:
- Instant exchange of views with others – almost instantaneous feedback.
- Hence, very rapid dissemination of ideas. Twitter works very well for live updates to sports events, for example.
- The benefits of summarizing, in principle – but this turns out to be more difficult than you might think. Some topics refuse to be summarized.
- Hashtags provide a handy ad-hoc way to group posts around a topic. They represent quick and dirty metadata: they work, for a short time.
Twitter is not so good because:
- Retweeting has become a standard business technique. People from the same company like and retweet each other’s posts. This leads to:
- Mutual back-slapping. Retweeting is the logical conclusion of making creativity as simple and limited as possible. Even if you haven’t got the ability to state why you like something, you can still click on “like” or retweet something.
- An arbitrary limit of 140 characters, and even 280, seems to reduce discussion to slogans. You can try to summarize Hobbes in a series of tweets, or give a whole presentation via Twitter (as Toby Green did at a recent conference), but it is a parlour trick. I am the greatest supporter of concision and summarizing, but simply limiting the number of characters doesn’t generate a summary.
- There are too many distractions. I can’t switch off irrelevant tweets. It resembles web pages with multiple flashing adverts interspersed with the content.
- Poor governance by Twitter: even if Elon Musk’s criticisms of Twitter are motivated by self-interest, there are undoubtedly whistle-blower accounts that suggest that Twitter has not done as much as it should to manage unacceptable posts.
- The very simplicity of hashtags, however, brings with it a threat. Trolling and abuse, largely aided by anonymity and pseudonyms, are rife on Twitter, and largely through hashtags – just search for #buildthewall, or #lying. That, for me, is the most painful part of Twitter, and I feel that by using Twitter I am accepting the atmosphere of abuse that seems to pervade the platform.
Fuller’s piece is an attempt to create a respectable ancestry for Twitter. Sadly, it doesn’t really add up. Vorticism, the idea of things being energized, is hardly an apt description for Twitter. I’m not sure how “energized” tweets like those below are (on the subject of introducing traffic congestion charging for the city of Cambridge). If they are “energized”, it is a very distorted kind of energy, that avoids reasonable discussion and replaces it by insults:
And so on. Instead of reasonable debate, here is a succession of slogans, largely, it seems, for the benefit of their supporters: a bunch of people frantically retweeting statements they like, and dissing statements they don’t. Neither advances the discussion.
Fuller’s suggestion for using Twitter to write summaries is not, I think, an integral part of Twitter culture. He is suggesting a way of learning, by creating a summary of a topic, then explaining what you have read in a summary – and, paradoxically, he suggests 500-1000 words for the summary, which is way beyond Twitter limits. It looks to me like shoe-horning an argument for the benefits of summarisation (which I completely endorse) into a justification for using Twitter – a strange logic.
Twitter is not really about a common culture, even though it creates a spurious sense of community. It reminds me of the primary school playground: with hindsight, you notice a frighteningly easy drift to bullying and ganging up on others. Repeating mindless insulting slogans is what happens in the playground, and on Twitter. Ultimately, although Twitter is used by many researchers to share ideas, I can’t separate the good from the bad. It’s that poisonous mixture that makes Twitter distasteful. It seems to me that by its very nature, Twitter encourages the reduction of discussion to trite phrases. For the most part, aphorisms are bad, not good: once heard, Donald Trump realised many years ago, a phrase sticks into your memory, even if it is plainly untrue. True or not, “Lying Hillary” is what people remember. Eventually, Trump was banned from Twitter for making false statements. Have you noticed a reduction in the number of false and offensive statements on Twitter since then?