TwitLash

I’m noticing that the general backlash against twitter and other social tools has had a boost recently, presumably in response to the positive vibe coming from those celebs who’ve found it useful: @stephenfry, @wossy, @schofe et al.

Just joining some dots…

Dr Aric Sigman writes in the Biologist (though I’ve not seen the full article I now see that there’s an eye-squintingly, difficult to read online, pdf available) that online social networking is bad for your health. I agree, if what you mean is simply sitting in your bedroom hunched over a screen, having fantasy relationships with people you’re never likely to meet. I’ve written to Dr Sigman inviting him to come along to the Tuttle Club and see what were doing to complement online social networking with face-to-face goodness and so that we can elaborate on the empirical evidence since I was writing about it in November 2007.

The Sunday Times rambles on with pop-psychology about how twitter is narcissistic and a sign of inadequacy, quoting Oliver James: “Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity” (James’s attitude to taking personal responsiblity for one’s own mental health is summed up in the title of his book “They Fuck You Up” (my emphasis)) and a whole bunch of other “experts” who tell us what it means about us without knowing us or actually using the medium that we’re using – very scientific.

The Daily Telegraph lays into the appointment of of the “Twittercrat” – the Director of Digital Engagement – focusing on how much this poor soul might be paid (my reading of the ad was that the salary would be in the range £80k – £160k but that’s much less scary than “up to £160k”) and how that is disgraceful in the context of a recession – given that the successful applicant will no doubt only spend her days, sitting hunched over a computer twittering about her intimate life details and displaying her lack of identity. Occasionally she might be poking the Prime Minister (oooer missus!)

Briefly, when I’ve stopped muttering “Oh Good Grief!”, my perceptions in all of this are:

  • An unconscious (or is it?) bias on the part of established media because something vital, exciting and productive is happening in a space that they formerly occupied exclusively – ie the public conversation space.
  • Contempt prior to investigation by the scientists quoted.
  • A misunderstanding of the value of social networking based on a misunderstanding of how a knowledge economy works and what *work* is, looks like, contains or excludes.
  • A similar misunderstanding of the creation of value in such an economy, and how “digital engagement” for government might lead to faster economic recovery.
  • A distortion of the nature of the public conversation space and an assumption that we are talking to them.
  • A shallow understanding of “following”, which leads to the assumption that if I have 2,000 followers on twitter, I must want 2,000 people to listen to everything I say. I blog and twitter for myself, my own development and to contribute to the community, where I can – I don’t believe that that is narcissistic or ego-driven – except on the odd occasion when it is! :D

Interestingly, a freelance journalist, Zoe Blackler, was commissioned to write about twitter by The Times and came to The Tuttle Club last October. They then sent a photographer along later for pictures (he spent the whole morning with us soaking up the conversation as well as taking loads of pics) I haven’t seen anything in print about it, have you?

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16 thoughts on “TwitLash”

  1. Can’t see much wrong with twitter really. Ok, you get people like Stephen Fry saying he’s stuck in a lift (so what!) or Rob Brydon posting from a train in Norfolk, but twitter is just satisfying one need that’s been around for a long time: for people to know what their favourite celebs are upto. For years we’ve had to wait a week to read someone’s column in the Sun, NoW, etc to find out what they’re upto. Now we can get it the same day as it happens. The only problem is “will the real Wossy/JamesMay etc please stand up.”

    How many people have looked for Jade Goody on twitter recently? To me, twitter’s just a micro-Facebook, where if you want to say something that at least one person will read, you can, or if you want to read what Phil Jupitus has for breakfast, you don’t need to see a photo of it. My wife says I’m a Facebook snob because I won’t post stuff on there, I’ll only use twitter. Well, it’s because I don’t want the clutter that FB brings.

    I’m getting off the point. Whatever some people think of twitter, FB, and social bogging being socially divisive, bad for your health, etc., they’re only being driven by people’s need for quick information, their need to communicate quickly across the world with friends and relatives, and to get a regular celebrity fix. We’ve got to get our kids switched on to stuff like this at an early age, so they become comfortable with it, but we’ve also got to use it alongside real conversation in the real world. I wrote something in my blog a while ago called “A is for Amazon” which covers some of the twitter issues (written before I’d even used twitter). Have a look here:

    http://is.gd/kExn

    And if there’s one twitter you must follow (apart from mine!), it’s
    http://twitter.com/aweatherby – it shows someone really sharing their life with the outside world….pure genius, pure Truman Show!

  2. I’d say perceptipon point 1 is the key to it. The traditional media (indeed many traditional institutions) have an inbuilt compulsion to not understand social media – because to do so would involve a recognition of their own impending obsolesence.

    As a result – it/they seek solace in applying their rules (often dressed-up as ‘professional standards’) onto the social media space, drawing comfort from the enivitable “does not compute” message which comes back. They cannot, of course, accept that it is their profession / rules which have to adapt to social media, not the other way around. As Clay Shirky has pointed out – professions are designed to suppress competition from rival alternatives but have the fatal flaw of assuming that such competition must look like them or else it does qualify as ‘real’ competition. (Hence “nonsense of YouTube”, “narcicism of blogosphere”, and now “silliness of Twitter”).

    Therefore every ‘social media thingy’ which gets to a certain critical mass must enivitably generate a traditional media backlash. Its just part of its right of passage – go off into the forest adolescent twitter, face the traditional media backlash and return a man.

    PS very much hope to make it to Tuttle this week.

  3. Paul’s right, it is just noise…

    …but not being one to pass up an opportunity. Perhaps we should send some sort of joint commuique from the Manchester, Oxford, Cardiff, Birmingham and London Social Media Cafes out to the offending national newspapers.

    We could explain what we do, invite them to come see us (as you have already done) and offer up some case studies.

    With a bit of nationwide support there is then a choice to either write a more accurate article _or_ alienate an entire emerging sector. It would be interesting to see which they choose. :)

  4. I saw that Sunday Times article too. The Oliver James line that you’ve quoted above struck me as particularly ludicrous. I’ve still not got it entirely clear in my own mind whether Twitter (or, indeed, a blog) is a tool like a pen or a medium like a newspaper, but whichever is the case I don’t think it really matters.

    If all Twitter users conform to a particular psychological profile, then all novelists are just the same as graffiti taggers and all newspapers are merely fanzines with a bigger budget. Wouldn’t it be nice if these commentators made an effort to seek out examples of Twitter usage that confounded their obvious prejudices?

  5. I’m sure there is something in your first point, that the traditional media have previously dominated the public sphere, and that social media is a destabilising influence because it extends that public sphere.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m doing lots of research on the mid-seventeenth century at the moment, but it’s focused my thoughts on an earlier example of when the ability to participate in the public sphere was suddenly expanded – in the 1640s, when the civil war and the collapse of censorship brought a huge expansion in the amount of cheap printed pamphlets. For a penny or two nearly anyone could buy a pamphlet giving a hugely diverse range of views about politics, religion and pretty much anything else. A huge range of people started participating as authors of cheap pamphlets too. Successive governments in the seventeenth century spent a huge amount of time trying to put the lid back on the box, and confine the public sphere to where it had existed previously – via royal proclamations and edicts, within the court, and within parliament. I’m not trying to draw out the parallels too far, but it’s interesting that the media created in that moment (the first regularly printed newspaper covering domestic news dates to 1641) are now themselves threatened by new participatory media.

    *random historical digression over*

  6. Quote: “. . .online social networking is bad for your health. I agree, if what you mean is simply sitting in your bedroom hunched over a screen, having fantasy relationships with people you’re never likely to meet.”

    Oh dear, that’s me found out then. I can’t imagine which of my fantasy friends really are interested in hearing about cheese making, milking a cow with a severed tit, cooking, or life on a tiny island the size of Jersey, but not a Channel isle. But then does it really matter?

  7. Oh hello.

    thanks for all the comments.

    @paulbradshaw – yes I agree, but it’s pretty annoying noise *and* what jo says…

    @mistrust – lots of the coverage has focused on celebrity usage – but most celebrities are using it in a different way from the rest of us. Finding out what Stephen Fry is up to comes pretty far down on my list of what twitter’s for. And smc_mcr is here: http://socialmediacafemanchester.pbwiki.com/

    @richardstacy – yup, though this brings me back to agreeing more with @paulbradshaw that it’s noise and should be ignored.

    @joannageary lets see if my writing juices are up to it in the morning – I like a challenge :) I’m expecting The Times to get much better at this stuff shortly though…

    @Hg quite right – the diversity of usage and characteristics is always completely missed – let’s find a simple box to put all of these weird people in.

    @Nick thank you, a similar point has been made before – not a digression and never random

    @podchef I always think of you when I write about online relationships and the fact that you are endlessly interested in talking about cheese, cows’ tits and life on your lovely isle is what makes you unquenchably fascinating to us.

  8. Yeah man. What did happen to the Times stuff? People have got it all confused and twisted in general. My favourite quote (overheard via someone else) was “Twitter is just like IRC meets the whole world” – but if you say that to the wrong person, they’ll think you said “arsey”.

    What I *love dearly* about Twitter is that you can have multiple accounts. So, on my personal account, I stick to the Dunbar concept – our brain size limits the amount of meaningful social interactions we can maintain – and my other account is totally open and more public. I very much like the ability to move from public/semi-public/private (Direct Messaging) on the one platform. None of the press seem to have noticed this subtle gradation – DMs are like a grabbing a quiet chat in a snug, in a sometimes noisy club.

    I have in the past been known to soapbox – recent example being the war on Gaza – but I kept most of my counter-zionist propaganda in the protected account, where I knew I wouldn’t attract the unwelcome attentions of the Israeli consulate. They did follow my public account. Thank Twitter for the “block” function.

    Complaining about Twitter is like complaining about the telephone. It, or something very like it, is here to stay. Huzzah! More incredibly cheap, useful customisable, user-friendly popular communication tools for the masses, please barman.

  9. People are always wary of what they don’t understand. It comes of no surprise to me that people are taking chunks out of Twitter and other social media… The funny thing is that within a couple of years I bet they will all be using it!!

  10. I’m not a huge fan of Oliver James but I think you do him an injustice.

    They Fuck You Up [your mum and dad], as I’m sure you know, is a Larkin poem and the book title refers to the formative effects of our parents [or *primary care givers*] on each of us. Can’t really argue with that. In fact, I think Oliver James goes overboard in saying we must take responsibility for everything and fix everything ourselves.

    As for twitter being narcissistic, well of course it is. So is shaving and dressing. The correct response is that there is nothing wrong with narcissism. Without it, society would collapse.

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