Every few years, it seems to be an unwritten rule that the newspapers have to have a scare about dumbing down, e.g. GCSE results now don’t mean as much as they used to back in the good old days. Now, whether they have a point or not I can’t say, but it does seem to me that a lot of it is alarmism: things aren’t really as bad as all that, the “good old days” were never that good, etc.
That said, I have been thinking a bit about Twitter recently, and how it affects communication. Twitter, if you’ve never got into the craze (and have had your head buried under a rock for the past few years – in which case, how are you even reading this?!) is a social media service where you can send messages to your ‘followers’, people who subscribe to your updates, as long as the messages are 140 characters or less.
In many respects this has been an absolute revolution – but, frankly, lots of people have written about it far more eloquently and intelligently than I ever could. What I’d like to look at is one aspect of Twitter usage which I’ve become more and more disturbed by over the past few months (and years – it’s been building for a long time).
In my opinion, the single biggest problem with the 140-character limit on messages is that it is pretty much impossible to back up your arguments. And so, people generally don’t bother. Twitter has become a breeding ground for snide, immoderate, unthoughtful comments which are rehashed again and again. In the people I follow, this tends to manifest itself especially in religion and politics.
For example: the coalition government announce that they are going to make some cuts. Instead of actually looking at the arguments, someone posts up “THE GOVERNMENT ARE CRAP! THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US ALL!!!” And, all of a sudden, it seems the whole of Twitter is talking about how terrible the government are, without actually engaging with anything that the government has actually said – only a distilled, watered-down, 140-character version of it.
Another example: over Easter, various atheists such as Mitch Benn post up something like “Happy zombie Jesus day!” Although I’m not offended by that being posted, I am disappointed: it seems to be a cheap shot with no substance. It’s not even funny. Was it really necessary to post?
The problem with all this is that in both of those examples, it wasn’t really necessary to provide argumentation. They’re both the kind of statements that seem to be borne out of frustration and anger, not designed to provoke honest discussion but instead to rally people who agree while simultaneously ostracising people who disagree.
Rather than having balanced, moderate discourse, Twitter has just become a place where people can vent their frustration to the world – like you used to do down the pub of an evening over a few drinks, but it’s on a much larger scale, so lots of other people can join in the anger and frustration. Basically Twitter can be turned into something of a ‘rant zone’, which I think is unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
You can’t have any kind of meaningful discussion or debate on Twitter (even multiple 140-character tweets are simply not enough), all you can do is take potshots at people’s views and watch the flaming begin. Welcome to 21st century communication.
Admittedly, flaming (sending very angry, thoughtless and mostly anonymous messages) has been a problem for as long as the internet has existed – but I think Twitter has made it more acceptable to ‘flame’. It’s just the culture to post up things which annoy and frustrate you, everyone seems to do it from time to time. (And yes, I realise the irony of me posting up being annoyed with Twitter on my blog, which gets posted to Twitter. But still.)
My feelings at the moment are that it’s important for all of us to be very careful how we use Twitter. Are we using it in a productive way, which gives people good information, helps the debate, and actually edifies people? I point the finger as much at myself here as I do anyone. I have been guilty plenty of times for using Twitter to vent.
The Bible, in James 3:5, says “…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” A great forest being set on fire by a small spark – that is exactly how I see Twitter potentially developing. We need to keep our electronic tongues in check for the sake of our friends and neighbours.