not your typical annihilatrix (furiosity) wrote,
not your typical annihilatrix

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Why Twitter Fails as a Communication Platform

(Note that I refuse to use ridiculous cutesy terms like "tweet", "tweeple", etc -- I think twitter as a verb aptly describes what actually happens on Twitter.)

I'll start with this: I think Twitter is a great thing, generally speaking.

Twitter is incredible for online information sharing or for kicking a joke back and forth between friends or acquaintances. The question Twitter poses is "what are you doing?" -- so it's also awesome for posting updates about your day, no matter how mundane; not because anyone cares but because you can. On LJ or other blogging/journalling platforms, one-sentence posts filled with daily minutiae are generally scorned as boring or useless, but on Twitter, they're neither, because Twitter is there to ask what you are doing -- it doesn't say, "If your life is interesting enough for anyone to care, tell the world what you're doing!"

Nobody is asked to care, and people with a narcissistic streak who also don't want to annoy people like Twitter because it lets us be narcissists without imposing. Why do you think celebrities took to Twitter like Draco to Harry's cock? It's not because it's easier than blogging; blogging is ridiculously simple and can be done from mobile devices just as easily as twittering. Twitter wants you to talk about yourself. For someone with any degree of self-satisfaction, self-importance, self-indulgence, or self-centeredness, this is AWESOME. And who do you think is more self-involved than your average film celebrity?

I'm not saying that all Twitter users are self-satisfied, self-important, self-centered, self-indulgent, narcissistic assholes (though what got me started thinking along this path was an article where a blogger said exactly that -- I can't find it now). I'm only saying that I believe these self-focused/self-involved traits, in ANY degree, separate people who enjoy using Twitter from people who don't (and by "using Twitter" I mean actually posting to it, rather than just having an account to follow people you're interested in).

Aside from the self-indulgent aspect, Twitter makes it quick and easy to reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Whether you just bought a Porsche (or Trabant), are sitting with your friends on a patio drinking girly drinks with little umbrellas in them, are lonely and cold during a power outage with nothing but your mobile device with its two battery bars, are miserable because your dog was just hit by a car and died -- you can share your feelings right away. We're social creatures, and we very often want to share how we feel, but often there's no one there to share them with or we're in a situation where we feel it's redundant to say how we feel because everyone already knows it.

Generally speaking, it's not socially apt to run up to people on the street and announce you're pregnant (or, conversely, not pregnant), and this inability to share in-the-moment can be frustrating in a non-specified way -- we feel like we're restricted from doing what we want by something we can't control. Twitter lets us circumvent that restriction. And as we reach out, other people on the Twitter network often reach back. Sometimes they're not people (i.e. robots that spider the global Twitter feed and auto-reply to certain keywords), but usually they are, and usually they're people you know in some fashion, which makes it even more rewarding.

And even if nothing momentous has happened and you just want to engage in a bit of light chatter, Twitter is excellent. You can reply to a friend's posting with a joke or a related link; you can squee over your other friend's cute cat picture; you can play a game or post a poll/meme result and invite others to participate.

And thus we arrive at the gate where Twitter's usefulness ends ("please remove any metallic items you are carrying... keys... loose change..."). Chatter and banter, while certainly a worthy form of communication, do not equal thoughtful discussion.

I consider a "communication platform" something that enables people to share views and opinions meaningfully; this definition excludes mere proclamations of one's opinion or superficial chatter. And Twitter isn't actually good for anything beyond narcissistic spew and chatter. Both of these things have their place in the world, but their ability to facilitate information/idea exchange is too limited.

The reason is actually pretty simple: Twitter operates in a context-free environment, and context is one of the most important considerations for meaningful dialogue. Without context, dialogue makes no sense.

It's easy to think there is context when you're engaging in a Twitter debate about pro-life vs pro-choice, but most of the time the context is inferred from the speaker's individual assumptions, and that's not where context actually exists.

Here's an example: a friend on Twitter posted a link and a comment expressing seemingly genuine dismay that US President Barack Obama (I just love saying that in full; don't mind me) was going to reverse the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy in the US military. My immediate emotional reaction was that of incredulity and anger: I was reacting to the message as it was. Then I sat back to consider the source: I had always thought she was pro-gay rights, so it made zero sense for her to say something so ignorant. So instead of winding myself up over it, I asked if she was serious. She replied that she was. That was when I got angry, snapped back that DADT was one of the most discriminatory policies in existence, and asked if she hated the gays.

It turned out that she had misunderstood the article and was under the impression that US President Barack Obama was going to bar gays from entering the military altogether. As someone to whom "reverse DADT" has always meant the abolition of DADT, I had no way of knowing that -- and my friend had no way of communicating her full thought process initially because there is not enough room in 140 characters to say all that. I assumed that she knew what "reverse DADT" meant in this context; she actually didn't, and assumed that "reverse" meant "change back to the way it was before (which was even worse than DADT)". We were in fact in full agreement (DADT, no matter how horrible, is still better than a blanket ban IMO), but we could have ended up in a pointless squabble over, well, nothing.

The context for all this exists outside the discussion: the long-standing debate about DADT, US President Barack Obama's pre-election history and the promises he made. I spoke from a position informed by both aspects; she spoke from a position informed by just the first half. To understand what a person is saying, you often have to also understand where they're coming from -- my prior knowledge of her as a person was not enough here, because I didn't know she had misunderstood the article.

People bring different experiences to Twitter just like they do everywhere else; it is all too easy to assume you know what a person means when you actually don't -- no matter how well you might think you know the person, if you're in "it's my turn to talk" mode, you are not listening, and I guarantee that you are not considering all factors. And people on Twitter are in a constant "it's my turn to talk" mode. It's not a good thing or a bad thing; it's just a thing, and it's what makes Twitter crap for communicating on a level beyond the superficial.

In yesterday's post, pokeystar remarked that Twitter is "a really loud party where no one is listening to each other" and I think that's an incredibly apt analogy: the key factor is that people are not really listening to each other on Twitter, because, as I explained above, Twitter at its core appeals to our selfish side. Users are on Twitter to be heard, not to listen -- those who are actually there to listen do not usually talk; they're the quiet people sitting on the couches, sipping their drinks and taking in the noise. When you're not actually there to listen, no matter how good a listener you are in "real life", no matter how considerate you are as a person, you're not going to be a good listener or very considerate on Twitter -- because Twitter, both in terms of its stated goals and its emergent culture, encourages us to do the opposite of listening.

People's reasons to use Twitter in conjunction with or over other platforms also matter.

I see Twitter as my own personal soapbox where when I speak, I am not inviting commentary by default. It's like a series of highly self-involved LJ posts with the comment feature turned off. I can announce that I had potatoes au gratin for breakfast or that I'm writing/reading/watching a movie; I can post a link to a local story with nothing but an emoticon to accompany it, or make an acid-tongued remark about it; I can ask my friends to help me decide if I should have beef or chicken, or I can ask a more general question about, say, wedding-gift etiquette. I can twitter my squee as I watch an episode of Bleach. Twitter is my space to say or ask what I like when I like, and whether people who follow me like it or not doesn't matter to me. Twitter asks me what I'm doing, and I answer. I frequently post bare-bones opinions to Twitter that I wouldn't post on LJ without significantly qualifying and explaining my thoughts to leave as little room as possible for misunderstanding -- on Twitter, I don't give a shit if I'm misunderstood, because I don't see Twitter as a suitable place for a meaningful exchange of ideas, and I do not feel that my or anyone else's twitterings are fodder for public scrutiny, at any point.

But not everyone uses Twitter in this way. Some people use it exclusively as a platform to build their business brand or online presence, to comment on social issues, to facilitate customer service, to meet people. Because there is no common usage denominator, you will naturally assume that other people are either a) using Twitter for the same reasons or b) aware of your personal policies for using it. Neither is in fact true (point a is just dumb -- law of averages wot? -- and point b effectively assumes people are psychic), but the assumption persists, because we have to make sense of our world somehow, and a vague "everyone's here for a different reason and we all have different agendas" is too uncertain to be useful: human beings hate uncertainty; it makes us anxious.

To compound the problem, people's perception of Twitter etiquette differs from person to person; some consider it to be just like other forums, and others don't. There is no solution for this aside from drawing up an official list of Twitter Dos and Don'ts, which, considering the diversity of the platform's userbase, would be patently ridiculous, because even general online etiquette is fluid and usually dependent on a venue users' shared history.

Twitter fails as a communication platform because the level of communication it lets you achieve is limited to the superficial and/or simple. 140 characters are enough to post a link with a brief comment, to say "have a great day", "rot in hell", "I love you", "I hate you", "nice hair!" or "nice love handles!" but it will never be enough to explain what you mean. And Twitter doesn't exist to let you explain; it exists to let you share information in a primarily one-sided, "I'm talking here" kind of way. There is a big difference between sharing a thought and explaining your reasoning; successful communication requires both. Twitter only lets you do one effectively.

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Tags: nablopomo2009, online culture

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