Is Twitter making us dumb and angry?

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.


4 responses to “Is Twitter making us dumb and angry?”

  1. You forget that twitter is many things. It is a discussion at the pub, but it is also a personal space, a support network, a place for announcements, a news site and much more.

    It is as you say though, and as you know I am guilty of ranting and of stirring up my followers with said rants. However, I disagree that it is impossible to back up arguments. Among the people who I follow I often see debates taking place and arguments made and developed. I agree that twitter is limiting, but what usually happens is that people take what they discuss on twitter and set it out in blog form so that the full argument is made and spread to others.

    1. Hi Steve,

      It is true that Twitter is many things, the problem is it’s not possible to discriminate with who sees what. I think Google got it right with Google+ and circles – if you want to rant you can rant with people who you would do round at the pub. On Twitter, everyone sees every update.

      I know what you mean about debates being on blogs – I think it’s great when that happens. Blogs (or something like them) are a much more appropriate forum for debate. And if Twitter debates spill over into blog form that’s a good thing.

      It’s not a perfect system whatever you do, but for my part at least I’m going to try not to rant on Twitter as much as I have done 🙂


  2. “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?!) ”

    Well I don’t use twitter, facebook or anything like those, just email and instant messaging sometimes. I don’t see how people not needing to use twitter suddenly qualifies them as having their “head buries under a rock”. It’s an exaggeration fuelled by ones personal bias and told in a way that implies there is sound scientific proof behind it. I’m not having a go at you PhillSacre.

    I agree twitter can be used in many ways, but one way is people publicly voicing their personal opinion which is basically fuelled by their pride and prejudices hoping people will read it and get angry and offended or support the argument and make similar opinions they wouldn’t have the “balls” to make publicly in peoples faces. One such example are the racist tweets towards soccer players Anton Ferdinand and Fabrice Muamba, the latter was caught and rightly prosecuted.

    1. I didn’t say that anyone who doesn’t use Twitter etc has their head buried under a rock. Or at least, if I did, I apologise – I meant that anyone who hasn’t _heard_ of these things has their heard buried under a rock.

      I think the problem with Twitter is it’s too easy to speak your mind without thinking, and unfortunately you’re broadcasting that to however many people, some of whom might retweet without thinking etc. It’s not good.

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