Twitter Haters

Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge, doesn’t like Twitter. You might not think this is surprising; her subject and social media have different chronological perspectives, after all. But Mary has a successful blog.

She was reluctant at first but now describes herself as a blogging convert. Speaking at a conference on improving communication between academics and the public, she explained how blogging has been transformed in her mind from the most basic means of communication to a medium where she can link to research papers and discuss things in more depth than she would "even in The Times Literary Supplement."

Yet, when she spoke of twitter, she could hardly have been more empathetic that she would never use it. Hers is a crusade against 140 characters. I imagine she once felt similarly about blogging. Of course, Mary’s not alone. If you bother to ask people about there emotional responses to status, you’ll find an undercurrent of antipathy that verges on a rip tide, and it seems to be Twitter that draws the most ire. Even David Cameron has had recourse to unparliamentary language when asked his views on the service.

People's Perceptions

Why is it, then, that many of us become upset by the idea of Twitter? One friend whose recently started using it told me that he felt he'd lost some kind of battle when he gave into it. Why the fight?

The truth is that Twitter is just small talk.

That’s the point of it. If you don’t want to listen to someone’s blatherings, don’t follow them. It’s the same as avoiding boring colleagues. And if you don’t want to hear idle chatter at all, you can always retreat to the desert in the manner of a biblical hermit.

Phatic communication is the sacrament that bonds us, and Twitter’s 140-character limit is designed to enforce short messages and strengthen social bonds. From all the hostility to Twitter, you’d think that people usually speak in brilliant, lengthy soliloquies rather than the dull platitudes that make up the majority of everyday conversation.

Do people worry that they’ll sign up and then find they’ve embarrassed themselves by participating in a passing fad? Or perhaps is a misunderstanding about the nature of publishing text. Do we worry that because twitter is a public forum, there’s some kind of narcissism and arrogance associated with making your personal trivia available? Some might even see these qualities in the nerdy early adopters of Twitter and think that becoming a follower would say something about their own personalities.

Or is there a perceived lack of quality assurance? Does the anti-Twitter demographic think that social media users lack some kind of quality filter and will sign up to any craze like lambs to the attention-span slaughter? If so, I think people should be reassured that cynicism is alive and well on the web, and fits perfectly into Twitter’s character quota should it need to be expressed.

Social Conventions

These are the kinds of reasons people give for their Twitter antipathy, but I think they’re excuses. The real culprit is unease at conducting an important part of your social life online. Facebook is one thing – we’ve always mediated event invites in text form – but to carry out the most mundane social chit-chat on the web is a psychological leap.

Moreover, if you aren’t able to speak to a real friend on Twitter, the site can’t serve you as a small-talk shop because the whole point of it is to reinforce social bonds, not create them. If you don’t know anyone on it then it’s the written equivalent of hearing one end of a phone conversation, which might account for the anger that some people express.

It might not be under Twitter’s auspices, but I think the status update is here to stay. Today’s unbelievers are just waiting for the social connections that will welcome them to the short-messaging congregation.


Thanks To:

Practical Web design - September 2010 Issue 206 & Jimmy Tidey
As well as messing around with things like APIs and DBmedia, Jimmy (@jimmytidey) writes about the social and philosophical implications of the web at