Thursday, 26 February 2009

Egotistical? Inadequate? Vacuous? Ah, you must be on Twitter

Ahh, The Times - they're at it again, completely missing the point of social media: on this occasion, Twitter.

Now admittedly the print version of this nonsense appeared in Sunday's Style section, so perhaps to expect deep thought and considered judgements would have been a bit optimistic, after all Twitter's hardly Lady Gaga's trademark big knickers, is it? As for the otherwise demonstrably intelligent bunch of Drs, de Bottons and Oliver Jameses the Times has corralled together to hypothesise glumly under the headline a LOad Of TWitTEr (The Times' own haste and illiteracy implying typography), however, there can be no excuses: the point, gentlemen, is CONVERSATION; the clue's in the name, SOCIAL media.

Not even once does the article mention, or even appear to consider that Twitter isn't merely one-way communication. Instead, we get generalisations such as the following (incidentally, I'm not even on Twitter yet, but misthought generalisations like these are fast persuading me to be):


"'We are the most narcissistic age ever... Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist.'" - Dr David Lewis

"'I would guess that the typical profile of a 'follower' is someone who is young, and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don't have an inner life.'" - Oliver James

"'Twittering stems from a lack of identity... Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.'" - Oliver James

The word 'guess' in that second quote, to me, suggests that perhaps James wasn't entirely familiar with the territory, perhaps even hypothesising purely on something that had only just been explained to him by the article's writer. On the other hand, let's not be too fair to James, if there was any ignorance on his part he certainly doesn't let it get in the way of making a strong sweeping claim, does he?


"'[Twitter] is a giant baby monitor.'" - Alain de Botton

"'The primary fantasy for most people is that we can be as connected as we were in the womb, a situation of total closeness.'" - Alain de Botton

"'Children like to play 'I have a secret to tell you'. It's great fun, but what they say is often not very important.'" - Alain de Botton

Good grief, was there actually the hint of a positive benefit to Twittering there? That it might be fun? How ever did that make it into the article? (Probably because it's still saying that the content of a tweet is essentially meaningless, but anyway).


"...this rolling news service of the ego." - the article's author's description

"'They don't say, What do you think of Descartes's second treatise?'" - Alain de Botton

You reckon, Alain? Just a few seconds of research into the feasibility of a website idea I had the other day proved to me otherwise (it wasn't a question about Descartes I stumbled on, but close enough). Not only that, but how many philosophers have distilled their wisdom into aphorisms? Yep, plenty, and you'll find plenty of their efforts on Twitter; not to mention more contemporary philosophical observations. As for when longer-form discussion would be more appropriate, that's when you switch to e-mail, blogs, the telephone, face-to-face - but that doesn't invalidate Twitter, it's still an elegantly simple way to ask the important questions, to initiate and set up the discussion.

"'It makes us look young. And that is a high-status position in this society.'" - Alain de Botton

So why are so many young people on it? (Oh yes, I forgot, because they're all missing the womb).

"'It doesn't matter what people say in their tweets - it's not the point'" - Alain de Botton

"'Tweets are really just a series of symbols. The person writing it just wants to be in the forefront of your mind, nothing more.'" Dr David Lewis

Really? So the idea of sharing information doesn't come into it anywhere, or altruism, or spreading/breaking news, or any of the reams of sociological and philosophical theory that's been written down the years chronicling the evolutionary benefits of such behaviours, and how they figure in the building of civilisation? And again, what about two-way communication?

I don't mean to make grand claims for Twitter here, by the way, or suggest that some Twitterers aren't in it for the ego, or because of social isolation (and if it helps with that, so much the better), but come on, it's not just about saying 'I exist, look at me.' I mean, look at how many tweets are actually questions, or recommendations, the news stories that have been broken on Twitter lately, the way it's being used to warn people of where the Australian bush fire might be heading next, and so on - in fact, is it not a bit like Google, but more personal? And with greater likelihood that the links will be exactly what you need, that the news will be the news that interests you? Could it perhaps be the ultimate search engine, as well as a handy communication tool?

Hm, actually, those are fairly grand claims...

Dammit. Now I really have talked myself into joining - it just better not be too distracting.

See you on there soon!

UPDATE: Some further thoughts in the comments - in short, a more Twitter sympathetic journalist might have framed what de Botton had to say somewhat differently. (But only 'might'. Either way, he doesn't get off scot-free). 


Randall said...

Thank you for this, very amusing and nicely done. I also read the Times article (the link shared to me via a twitter friend by the way) where I enjoyed the experts seizing the opportunity to air a pithily worded assessment or two, but more than that I was embarrassed on their behalf. Embarrassed that their very act of commenting as an authority was simultaneously revealing a completely superficial knowledge of the topic, almost to the point of brazen ignorance. I realize this happens routinely in every discipline but when the italics come from a person you've admired in other areas of thought, it's time to stop and have a check-in. While I've had only a pair of minor but pleasant email exchanges with one of the stars of the article, to read him in this Times article and realize he was willing to state an opinion when he a limited comprehension of the tool, well, I can only describe my feelings as bemusement and disappointment.

Tim Warren said...

[Sorry, this turned into a very long comment]

Thanks, Randall. I think I'd be most disappointed with Oliver James and Dr Lewis (if I'd known who the latter was before reading the article), they seem to be pontificating not on Twitter itself but a description of Twitter given by the article's writer, probably along the lines of, "People just write what they're doing, over and over again". They really should know better than to so confidently, publicly and dismissively pontificate on something of which they seem to have little to no personal knowledge; indeed, by James's logic, if this is what he feels compelled to do, then he can't have a very strong sense of identity either (though I'm sure he'd say that he does, thus negating his own argument).

In the case of de Botton, I'm more puzzled, as it all seems a bit out of character - the character of his general thinking, I mean. So I had a bit more of a think about his contribution to the article, and while it's hard to get past the "giant baby monitor" quip, I suspect his original comments to the journalist might not have been quite so reductive about Twitter as they seemed, that it might be more in the writer's selection and deployment of them. Also, if you take his comments in isolation, pretty much everything he's quoted as saying could have been in response to leading questions like, "Why, do you think, people might feel the need to update each other constantly on what they're doing at any given moment, however mundane?" and "Would you have any concerns about that?"

In the light of those questions, when de Botton talks about not all tweets being profound, perhaps he isn't necessarily disapproving, just trying to explain something that seems inexplicable to the article's writer, by suggesting that even the most mundane tweets fulfil a deeper purpose, that to tweet taps in to certain basic and natural human needs: the needs for fun, for communication, for feeling connected to others (and underlying that, a nostalgia for the womb, perhaps). Sure, the assumption that tweets *are* mundane is certainly there, but perhaps more in the questioner than in de Botton's answer.

Similarly, when the article quotes him as saying a tweet is like a friend whispering in your ear, and that this in turn is reminiscent of a fun childhood game, he could reasonably raise the objection, "You quote that like it's a bad thing."

I think if de Botton is concerned about Twitter, it's perhaps not that he's concerned that it is partly fulfilling certain of our needs, nor about our having those needs themselves, as I think he would generally characterise them as pretty universal (in their non-exaggerated forms at least), nor even that using it to do so is indicative of inadequacy, just that to attempt to fulfil those needs solely through Twitter would not be healthy.

Having said all that, mind: de Botton still doesn't seem to really acknowledge Twitter as two-way communication; in the last paragraph's air of thinking out loud there's more than a suggestion that, as with Oliver James and Dr Lewis, he isn't exactly personally familiar with Twitter; and if we do take it that the negative assumptions about Twitter were mostly in the journalist's questions, then de Botton's certainly far too ready to accept, rather than question them. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, then, and I'm not wholly inclined to, he certainly doesn't get off totally scot-free.