A notch above a monkey » Chirp, Squawk, Cackle, or Honk*

Chirp, Squawk, Cackle, or Honk*

Disappointed I stopped using Twitter at the end of 2011 and have since visited it mostly to follow up specific references. As a medium I found it lacking but ignorable until recently. While I was reading about the aptly named Jacobinghazi affair I felt the urge to tweet and pronounce Twitter as possibly more toxic than Facebook.

This article has been provoked by Tomaž’s polite disagreement and is my late attempt to explain what I couldn’t on Twitter.

My objections

Leon Wieseltier recently described Twitter as a place of infinite discharge of emotion and promotion where nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. It is a great and true enough description of Twitter.

Over the years a number of articles have discussed effects of new media on society in its largest sense. While I am interested in those my comment was mainly about Twitter’s role in shaping how individuals and communities think, communicate and behave.

In blogging heyday I thoroughly disliked celebration of rapid exchange of half-baked ideas. Making them smaller and exchange more rapid is not an improvement. Ideas have always been cheap and plentiful when untested and inspiring to the unwitting. Twitter is vast and there may be much worth reading, but chances are most of what you will read will be soon forgotten fluff. Creating on a medium like Twitter is hard since most things worth saying can’t be clearly expressed in 140 characters, nuance is valued even less than continuity and every good tweet can be buried in a pile of inane responses.

One of the reasons why I originally stopped using Twitter was realisation that I found tweets from a fair number of otherwise congenial and intelligent people regularly off-putting. Twitter did not suddenly found their previously hidden depravity, instead its forced brevity of semi-public discourse made a great deal of it sound like movie informants wearing a wire. It is a great demonstration of how dialogue changes when we think others are listening and an insidious tool for normalising blanket snooping, much of it our own.

Research has shown that our brains keep adapting to their use and improving one skill often leads to deterioration of another or as McLuhan put it: “Every extension is also an amputation.” I lost count of people describing their difficulty with reading longer, more slowly developing articles after an expectation of instant gratification has been built by a steady diet of short ones. It doesn’t get more instant than a tweet and Twitter’s interface is optimised for non-discriminative reading of a never ending stream of tweets.[1] Can this really be good for a thinking person?

My tweet which led to this piece was provoked by an absolutely absurd argument closely matching Alan Jacob’s description of Twitter at its worst. Maybe worst, but certainly not rare. Of course arguments with all the negative baggage are not exclusive to Twitter, but Twitter does seem a more emotive medium than most of them. Discussions on Twitter are commonly a sad sight because it isn’t built for dialog. It is a marketing machine and works best when used as such.[2] Unsurprisingly millions of its users conform to its design hints by sharing content or less obviously with signalling group membership by snarking and sloganeering at sometimes only imagined opposition.

Ian Danskin’s “This is Phil Fish” video essay[3] about the nature of online fame recently made rounds and I can’t recommend it enough. Fame can appear without being sought and the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that the famous will become a stand-in for a concept to which public often responds negatively. This is especially unpleasant and difficult to deal with when the negative concept is tied not to what you did, but who you are or are perceived to be.

On Twitter (as previously noted) tweets may be written with a recipient in mind, but can be seen by anyone so all of them contribute to our public image without it being in our control.[4] Controlling tweets comprehension and propagation by relying on cultural norms to differentiate audiences does not work because those norms may not be well known and are certainly not accepted by everyone.

We speak when we want to pass on an idea. Amplifying ideas of others can be worthy, but we are more enriched when new ideas are created and explored. The really interesting ones can be controversial, rough and in need of a nurturing environment in which to develop. Twitter is not that place.

Mobbing and repression of unpopular opinion happens almost everywhere where opinions can be expressed, but the immediacy, ease of response and pay-off make Twitter particularly popular with trolls, sociopaths and anybody willing to goad their followers into collective sectarian hysteria. There will always be enough of them willing to tweet before thinking to pummel into silence everyone but the most determined. Only ideas at first protected by obscurity can develop and flourish in environment without boundaries.

Three pillars of Twitter design

Twitter earns money by showing ads. There’s another reason to be careful with any ad-based business beyond worrying about their usually insatiable hunger for our privacy. Its value is proportional to the amount of our time it captures.[5] Seeing ads on a site you frequent should trigger an examination of how much time you are willing to spend there.

I disliked Twitter’s design until I realised that its main purposes are spreading messages and increasing its use. It does those two things splendidly and kudos to Twitter’s designers.

I am obviously not privy to any internal information, but to me the foundation of Twitter’s design are three main values: terseness, immediacy and broadcasting.

Terseness is of course the well known restriction of 140 characters per tweet because of a technical limitation which does not really exist any more. Its effect on writing however remains because writing thoughts longer than 140 characters is awkward and will in newest-tweets-first Twitter applications always result in a broken reading experience. It is ill-suited for human dialogue because we don’t express ourselves at tweet lengths and we don’t hear responses first. Life is not Jeopardy! and it is not a coincidence that most messaging applications put newest messages at the bottom.

So why doesn’t Twitter raise the limit? I can only speculate, but I believe there are other benefits to Twitter beyond the limit’s role in Twitter’s brand. Longer text simply requires more effort from writer and readers and makes the platform less engaging thus hurting both of the stated Twitter’s goals.

Twitter does not use time much as a design tool beyond a core belief that real time is the right time to deliver a message and that delivered messages should be displayed in the opposite order they were sent which at some point will practically guarantee broken narratives and constant change of topic.

Most of us can’t effectively multitask because we can’t quickly switch contexts. We cognitively suffer when we try and reading tweets from unconnected authors in order in which they came is really just multitasking at high speed. There is no reason to believe that we listen as well and care as much as we would if our focus would not be constantly drawn to the next thing. Ability to listen fully and steadily is a difficult skill to develop, but quick to atrophy on Twitter.

Twitter may tolerate a moderate use of its platform, but certainly does not want it. It will keep suggesting new people to follow no matter how many you already do to keep the stream of tweets from ever drying up. Without them you don’t have a reason to constantly check your phone for new tweets and fewer reasons to post your own.

The other face of broadcasting is building up your audience which is how you’ll eventually see your followers once you get enough of them to not know many. And ever so helpful Twitter is here to get you to this point as quickly as possible.

First it provides a crude privacy model in which either everything is private or nothing is (ignoring direct messages that are irrelevant for this article). This not so gentle nudge to make output public is further supported by ubiquitous leader boards tracking followers, retweets and favourites, constantly reminding us of everyone’s standing and relying on our vanity to improve it. None of these would need to be so prominent if what really mattered was sharing and chatting with your friends. Putting a scorecard on our every utterance makes sense only if its most important feature is their popularity.

Hoarding followers and followees has another negative effect beside making already described ones worse. For historical reasons and because of web app limitations twitterers often use just one account, so subscribing to it conflates all author’s interests into one stream and while not merging different communities, it certainly exposes them more without them having much say in it. This, together with stilted expression, reduced comprehension and empathy, on a platform that promotes making an instant idiot of yourself in pursuit of recognition is, in my opinion, an important contributing factor to many heated arguments.

In closing

This is not an exhaustive list of issues I have with Twitter, not even important ones (e.g. obtuseness of relying on any one source for important information). Much of what I said is not unique to this service but a lot of it feels more excessive here. What makes it different is the platform’s growing presence and influence in our society by its successful co-opting of promoters in us. Doubtless there is a lot of good that happens on Twitter or because of it, but the platform is also bringing out the worst in us and I find its damaging effects more substantial.

Writing this article reminded me of a larger point I have not made before or not often enough. Technology is not morally neutral or unipolar let alone inherently positive and it frustrates me that discussions often try to cast it thus. As a practising technologist I am obviously not a Luddite, but neither do I assume that everything I am able to make is good even when made with best intentions. Our creations shape what we do, how we do it and even who we are and should therefore be critically examined for what they do for and to us.

As tools transform us and our societies I find pining for previous times unproductive, but I do not subscribe to technological determinism. We used freons for decades, but were perfectly capable of finding suitable replacements when we realised that our fridges would eventually fry us. But we did have to first realise and accept that.

* The title of this post was borrowed from the already linked article written by Leon Wieseltier.

  1. I know there are other clients. Well, mostly were. Twitter has been very open with their intention of eventually replacing all of them with theirs which already is the only one that matters.
  2. Another thing Twitter is not trying to hide. Twitter analytics could hardly sound more marketing oriented and Twitter’s homepage is all about following, not creating.
  3. There’s a transcript and while I usually prefer written word, in this case I would recommend to invest 20 minutes into watching the original video.
  4. Since we can’t control which tweets will be seen by whom and which won’t, it is impossible in the long term to really shape their overall perception unless they are sufficiently dehumanised or we consistently act out only one persona.
  5. Corollary of this is that it makes no sense to rely on a purportedly time-saving services whose revenue mostly comes from advertising.

Comments (2)

  1. Hi Markos,

    I certainly agree with what you say about Twitter encouraging instant gratification and short attention spans. But unfortunately that seems to be the general direction most of the popular communication on the web is heading for. These days almost everyone worries about getting imaginary internet points as well, whether they are likes, shares, upvotes or retweets. I don’t see Twitter as special in this regard.

    I’ve recently reported a bug to GitHub. Their form encourages you to condense your report to 140 characters. My first reaction was to dismiss it as an unnecessary way to mimic Twitter, but now I think it’s a valid way to make people think about brevity and skip the unnecessary fluff. Like it or not, there is so much communication going on these days that being able to compress your message to essentials is a valuable skill.

    I don’t think that Twitter can (or should) replace longer texts, but I think it serves a purpose. Similar to how SMS still lives in parallel to e-mail. Even historically, there was a place for very short texts like haikus and aphorisms.

    A lot of what you are talking about here is specific to Twitter as a company, centralized service and their user interface. In our original discussion I was thinking more about the form of communication itself. Regarding that, I couldn’t agree more with you. I would be much happier if Twitter would be replaced with StatusNet or some other de-centralized technology.

    Comment by Tomaž #
  2. Thank you, Tomaž, for your comment.

    I agree with you that compared to others Twitter does not stand out in what it does and to what end. However what I think is different is Twitter’s scale and hence its impact on society. A website with few thousand users is unlikely to have the same influence. Scale matters.

    I also agree that it is useful for certain purposes. So are off-road vehicles, but I doubt that abundance of SUVs on our roads is net positive for everyone involved.

    In a way you provide a perfect example of the problem. Most bug reports I deal with can’t be adequately describe in 140 characters so why suggest that number? You could promote brevity equally well with 500 or 1000 which is still less than is often needed. It is difficult to imagine that Github would come up with that exact suggestion without Twitter’s influence.

    I think SMS and messaging in general is a good example of something that is in mostly short and immediate, but which does not handicap communication in the same way.

    I would be happier if service like this was de-centralized because it would provide an opportunity to fix and change the most obnoxious parts of it.

    Comment by markos #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.