Why You Should Be on Twitter

As new communication technologies emerge, it is not uncommon to see articles or essays bemoaning how the new technology will destroy or damage communication as we know it, that a tool will lead to illiteracy, narcissism or whatever social ill might be haunting society at any given time.

Twitter, if we accept Alexander Zaitchik's reading published on AlterNet, is poised not only to dumb down discourse to levels seen only in Mike Judge's hilarious dystopian comedy Idiocracy but also to produce a narcissistic, infantilized public concerned only with broadcasting to the world every banal idea that comes to mind. And, just for good measure, Zaitchik takes pains to remind us that Twitter is not journalism.

Zaitchik is not alone in complaining about Twitter. Rob Horning, writing for Pop Matters, complained that the microblogging service is harming meaningful social relationships. Television quipmeisters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have recently mocked the microblogging service (while I was working on this very article, in fact), suggesting that the site has achieved a new level of visibility, even while becoming an easy target for pundits ready to mock the latest platform for self-broadcast.

Twitter, for those readers who aren't aware of it, is a microblogging tool that allows users to submit 140-character "tweets," either from their computer or via text message. Many Twitter users have also synchronized their Twitter posts to their Facebook status updates.

Most Twitter users follow any number of others and develop a group of "followers," who have access to their status updates. In essence, it is a flexible tool for communicating short bits of information with others in your social network. It can be used to update friends on your day, to contact conferencegoers about a gathering at a local bar, or to link to articles or blog posts you find interesting.

Because Horning and Zaitchik's columns underestimate the potential social uses of Twitter, I think it's important to challenge some of the major arguments that they raise.

As others have pointed out, articles that complain about Twitter typically focus on the content of individual tweets rather than focusing on those tweets in a specific context. It would be similar to denigrating conversation by pulling out individual pieces of dialogue rather than seeing how conversation involves a variety of practices: connecting with others, sharing ideas, linking to blog posts, participating in mini-memes, or whatever.

In fact, these conversations can cultivate what Leisa Reichelt came to refer to as a form of "ambient intimacy" -- the ability to get to know others who might otherwise remain acquaintances. In this regard, Twitter may not function as a broadcast medium as much as it serves as a quick relay service for sharing ideas, thoughts and concerns with others who have similar interests, both locally and at great distances. These practices typically follow the formula, articulated by Barbara Ganley, that we "blog to reflect, Tweet to connect."

Quoting "bad" tweets also misses another key point about the medium. By identifying bad tweets, Zaitchik seeks to discredit the argument offered by Clive Thompson that Twitter is a "literary form" analogous to an "American haiku."

I'm not really interested in making the claim that Twitter is a form of poetry, but Zaitchik's move of identifying poorly written, banal tweets holds the genre to a false or irrelevant standard: just like there may be tweets that don't match the prose style of Hemingway or Faulkner, not all poems are Great Works of Literature (and to be fair, Faulkner may never have written a single sentence of less than 140 characters, so that's not the best example, but you get the idea).

But I would argue that there is at least some benefit in thinking about the constraints created by Twitter. Writing with such limitations forces me to be as precise as possible. Even if we don't buy the argument that Twitter is a form of haiku, it is a written genre in its own right, one that potentially opens up conversations about other forms of writing. In fact, as University of Texas, Dallas emerging media scholar David Parry points out, Twitter is surprisingly effective in teaching students to reflect on the rules of written communication.

And, yes, many tweets entail banal references to a need for more coffee or boredom at reading yet another stack of student papers, but there is something to be appreciated in sharing in the routines of everyday life with friends and colleagues, and even complete strangers across campus, across town or thousands of miles away.

I may be over-romanticizing a bit by connecting Twitter to Benedict Anderson's concept of "imagined communities," which he associated with readers picking up their morning newspapers over breakfast and recognizing that others in their town, and even nearby towns, were doing the same thing. Every time I check my Twitter feed, I'm able to share in the enjoyment of daily routines and rituals: a warm cup of coffee, a long run through the park, a good episode of Battlestar Galactica.

Twitter isn't the only tool that can provide that, but if you look at an individual tweet, you miss the fact that my description of my morning run is responding to someone else's. In this regard, it's worth noting that these articles rarely, if ever, quote a tweet with an "@someone," which pretty much misses one of the defining uses of Twitter as a communication tool. According to my Twitter stats, nearly half of my tweets are replies, suggesting that the genre functions less as a broadcast and more as a conversation.

But one of the biggest misunderstandings of Twitter is the argument that the practice of writing in 140-character chunks suggests that we are thinking in the same bite-sized bits. Yes, Twitter sometimes requires me to engage in some linguistic cartwheels to distill something down to 140 characters, but arguably that's a sign of creativity and facility with language, not a decline in good grammar.

In addition, this assumes that language -- what is written in a tweet, a blog post, or any text for that matter -- is identical to thought, a pretty reductive view of how thought and language interact.

Second, it views Twitter in isolation from other media. Many tweets make reference to other texts, whether films, TV shows, blog entries, newspaper articles. Twitter, in that context, can supplement larger conversations. My decision to link to Zaitchik's article, in fact, sent at least a half-dozen readers over to see what was fueling my barely caffeinated ire so early on a Saturday morning, while many of my "followers" challenged me to defend my complaints more rigorously.

This sense of community is also reflected in the various memes that circulate on Twitter, some lasting several hours, others lasting several days. In fact, the "backflick" meme, in which Twitterers describe the plots of popular movies in reverse, is a great example of creative intertextuality that can take place in these short status updates.

Thus, "W is about a president who becomes an alcoholic and a coke addict." Or my contribution: "Bonnie and Clyde: benevolent kids donate money to failing banks, return stolen cars to rightful owners." Again, it's a form of community building, a quick way to share with others a self-indulgent love of movies in a pretty clever way, this time with a slight political edge.

Many others have already pointed out the political uses of Twitter. The Barack Obama presidential campaign famously used Twitter as a tool for organizing voters. More recently, a number of other politicians, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have used Twitter to broadcast elements of their policy views and personal lives.

But while these uses may be fascinating by themselves, they help to obscure Twitter's status as a conversational, rather than broadcast, medium and one that can help to facilitate real-world interactions.

This potential use for Twitter became vividly clear for me when I attended the first of several local "Tweetups" here in Fayetteville, N.C., where I live and teach. The "Tweetup" brought together several locals who are interested in social media, where we could exchange ideas and discuss shared interests, many of which extended well beyond the computer screen. These online networks don't supplant existing communities. Instead, they provide a useful supplement to conversations that we're already having.

This sense of community and conversation has manifested itself at a number of recent academic conversations as well. At the notoriously overwhelming Modern Language Conference in San Francisco last December, many academics who found each other on Twitter were able to organize impromptu dinner outings and discuss ongoing conference themes using Twitter, many of us posting comments from our cell phones, BlackBerrys and iPhones. Many of these ideas were neatly summarized in a blog post by Cathy Davidson and have provided material for our ongoing scholarly conversations that seek to make sense of how we communicate and how digital technologies may be involved in that.

Finally, Zaitchik worries that Twitter will somehow not only supplement but "supplant journalism," echoing an argument made by fellow AlterNet writer, Rory O'Conner. This argument, in my reading, reduces "journalism" from the activity of gathering facts and checking sources to whatever final product appears on the page, whether on the Web or printed.

Yes, the first photo of the Hudson River airplane landing may have been posted to TwitPic, but that's not so much a "scoop" as it is an initial gathering of facts: something is happening here, and we need to document it. The articles and reports and interpretations all came later in every newspaper and on every TV station in the country.

And guess what? Most of those reports were more than 140 characters. If we want the strongest possible journalistic practices, there is no reason not to tap into the collective intelligence of other people who are witnessing an event, watching a debate, or whatever. Then a good journalist reconciles those interpretations into a longer story, one that hopefully approximates what actually happened.

I'm responding to Zaitchik's article at such length because it seems to fall into some of the worst habits of technological determinism. Twitter is blamed for any number of problems, whether shorter attention spans, bad grammar or poor critical-thinking skills. It also assumes that Twitter can only work as it was designed, a miniature, public status update (implied in Twitter's guiding question: "What are you doing?").

Instead, users have developed any number of new uses for it, some that were clearly not predicted by its creators (hence the need for updates to Twitter that conform to user practices). In other words, Twitter users are not constrained by the limits of the 140-character box, but are largely responsible for creating the genres and styles that have emerged on the site.

While I use Twitter quite a bit -- according to my Twitter stats, I tweet approximately five times a day -- I don't intend to champion everything about it. I've known many people who tried Twitter and found that it failed to supplement their communication with others in any meaningful way.

Sometimes I can get distracted by constantly updating "friend feeds," and 140 characters can lead to misunderstandings, but rather than engaging in forms of unneeded media panic, we need more thoughtful, more flexible accounts of how media work.

Editor's Note: Check out AlterNet on Twitter.


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