I’m on Twitter. I tweet, I retweet, and I like tweets. I do the Twitter things. I succumbed to the urging by peers and mentors that an academic–or even just a thinking person–ought to engage on the social media platform du jour. But I can never shake the feeling that I just don’t like the platform.
It’s not that I don’t understand the utility or intrigue of the platform–and you certainly can’t deny its potential for revolution. But there’s something about the culture of the site, the kind of exchange it engenders, that turns me off. One would think that I, as a poet, would be at home in the compression of the form, and it’s true that compression is one of the few things that excites me about it, but more than that, I’m annoyed by the way it brings out the quippy, over-simplified worst in all of us–especially those of us that (kind of) make a living with our writing.
In a recent exchange with a friend and colleague, she posted something that seemed intentionally inflammatory–snarky and radical in a way that didn’t really surprise me, but that was perhaps cranked up a few notches. Being a tweet, her comment arrived on my feed without context and without complication: this is the way things are, it declared. (I’m refraining from sharing the details to preserve her privacy).
But I knew her to be a thoughtful person, so I challenged her: are things really that simple? I asked. Isn’t it always more complicated? And right away, she admitted, yes, of course, but not on Twitter. Ay, there’s the rub.
I realized that my dislike for the platform was connected to the same thing I actually liked about Twitter–the space restriction. It’s more than that, though. This space restriction, which can engender poetic compression and even a zen-like minimalism, creates a culture of snarky self-righteousness that’s so often indulged and encouraged by thousands of followers.
In a socio-cultural moment when we need more attention to complexity and nuance, Twitter tends to encourage oversimplification and binary thinking. This is certainly the case for perhaps the most famous Twitter user on the planet right now. Especially in stark contrast to the eloquence of his predecessor, President Trump wields the punchy tweet deftly–precisely in the way it was (ostensibly) designed to be used. Trump’s Twitter is not a perversion of the form; it’s the epitome of the form. A quick search through the various scandals, upsets, and vitriol that have raged through Twitter reveals endless examples of similar statements.
Furthermore, it’s become increasingly clear that Twitter facilitates the spread of misinformation. In the study published in the March 2018 issue of Science, which tracked some 126,000 news stories that were independently identified as either true or false, researchers found that
Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.
This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t outliers. There are many folks who use Twitter beautifully–to make art, to stay in touch with friends, and so on. It does not, however, seem to me to be a medium that encourages the kind of dialogue we so badly need. Even those Twitter users that seem to be pushing against the shallowness of the format–someone like Dave Rubin, maybe–are nonetheless pulled into the fray and its attendant pettiness from time to time.
In an age where false news stories are rampant and clearly have an effect on American democracy, we need a push toward depth rather than inflammation–a move toward complexity rather than simplistic chants and mottos. Despite the undisputed power and importance of the platform, I don’t expect to find that complexity and nuance on Twitter any time soon, though I sincerely hope that’s not always the case.
The question then becomes what might be done about it: should we use Twitter conscientiously and thoughtfully, working against the current of reductionist hashtags and slogans, or are we better off abandoning the platform in favor of something else, something long-form like Youtube (which carries its own host of complications). Personally, I’m not quite sure. What say you?