Why (Unfortunately) Twitter Matters

In a logical world, social media shouldn’t matter the way it does. In a logical world, everyone would have access to the same information. We all might judge it differently but at least we’d all be starting from the same place: a reality based on what we all agree we know.

I canceled my Facebook account a few years ago. I do not trust Mark Zuckerberg with my private information. I regret he has what he already has of it. I suspect Zuckerberg is compromised to a degree by the Russian money he took in to help keep Facebook afloat early on. I suspect Russia — and organized crime — have more sway than we know.

Facebook and its sister platform Instagram are designed like a neighborhood — in that one has to be “invited into it” in order to contribute to it. One can’t just walk in on someone else’s page; you have to be invited; you have to be friends. Twitter is structurally different. It’s almost exactly like a town square where everybody enters carrying a soap box. There are famous people — verified people — already standing on their soap boxes yapping away. In Twitter, one can follow anyone (until or unless they block you) and either listen to them quietly (having all their tweets in your feed) or answer back. If you answer back smartly, the person on the soap box might even follow you — and get all your tweets in their feed.

That’s the goal, of course — to attract as many followers so that every time you get up on your soap box to spew, you spew to thousands, tens of thousands… millions. One can dream, can’t one?

That town square structure — or think of it like Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park — is what makes Twitter truly dynamic. One can go there and simply “orate”. If one has zero followers, one is orating to oneself. But once you begin to build followers, once you begin to build that community — where you’re part of others’ communities while they’re part of yours — there’s a feeling of collective togetherness that I never experienced on FB. Yes, sure, there’s an echo chamber quality and one almost always preaches to the choir. And Twitter is toxic as hell — because some of the people in the town square are toxic.

All true. But the Twitter experience is unique and uniquely addictive. One can walk up to any other person on Twitter and tap them on the shoulder. They might not respond. They probably won’t. But then, they might.

Ask any Twitter user what their proudest moments have been on Twitter and, betcha, it will involve having a tweet liked by someone they respect and follow or, better yet, having that person re-tweet them. Or — best of all — getting followed back by that person they respect and follow. While FB made catching up with your high school homies easier (and boy, was that fun for about ten minutes), it doesn’t satisfy beyond that. At least, it didn’t for me.

Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, said that his three guiding principles — which, he says, the company shares, are “simplicity, constraint and craftsmanship”. You can’t argue with Twitter’s simplicity. Christ, the only way to stress anything is via capitalization (shouting) or by using *s or “s. The saving grace is that photo or video attachments don’t count against your 280 character limit. That brings us to craftsmanship. Back when the limit was 140 characters, one really had to get an idea buttoned down tightly before tweeting. Tweets back then were way more cryptic.

But the limitation forced people to use craftsmanship. The 280 limit made tweeting easier. One didn’t have to rely on so many tweet threads to convey a simple point. Still — there’s something really satisfying about a great tweet. If we go back to the 140 character limit, it asks a question — what can you say completely in that amount of space?

You can tell a joke in 140 characters.

You can have a set up and a punch line — or a slightly complicated set up and a punch line or even a slightly complicated set up — with one more small, key detail — then a punch line. That’s it. 280 characters lets you add more details. Sometimes too many details. Though 280 characters still isn’t the endless page that FB gives you, people still tend to ramble.

Twitter’s town hall structure is exactly why news goes to Twitter to break. Tweets are news. While only 22% of Americans say they use Twitter, a good chunk of that 22% are the people who make news in one way or another. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter as his principle means of communication as president pretty much changed the game — and made having a Twitter account more or less imperative. That’s if you care to know what’s going on in the world.

On the one hand, it’s madness. On the other hand, it’s just efficient. Back in the good old days, news would break by means of a complex process of those making the news describing it for the news media who would then disseminate the light via newspapers & broadcast media to the plebeians out here in the dark. Back in the day, one would have to read a newspaper or catch the news when it was being broadcast in order to stay informed. Now, one only need open Twitter and scroll through your feed for a few moments (provided you’ve got a good, well-chosen feed representing both your Twitter community & the news/information voices you want to hear from) in order to feel informed.

What Twitter’s structure allows one to do — if one’s of a mind — is to create a network of voices you can trust. These days, one can’t simply “watch the news” to get informed. Our news media simply isn’t up to the task of covering Donald Trump. They’ve failed us terribly. To find the truth in anything one must triangulate it. One must approach it from three directions simultaneously. As chaotic as Twitter seems, one can do that. One can build a community of trustworthy voices.

One can build a community.

To his credit, Jack Dorsey invented a thing that never existed before — a virtual town square. And as crazy as it drives many of us, we can’t quit Twitter.

There’s greatness there. There’s putrescence. There’s beauty and compassion and there’s extreme cruelty, too.

There’s Donald Trump.

Twitter’s problem is it thinks it needs Donald Trump. It doesn’t. Hey — I’ve lost Twitter accounts. If I’m honest with myself, I went too far. That’s if I ask myself if I always used “constraint” — that other feature Jack Dorsey believes is part of Twitter. I once posted a movie image of a vampire being staked & said the GOP deserved to be staked like a vampire. That account? Gone.

I also told someone I hoped that they died in prison. That account? Gone.

For the past few days, Donald Trump — the POTUS — has been lying about vote-by-mail, he’s been smearing people — causing them or their families considerable heartache, he’s been lying in ways that are demonstrably bad for the public and its health. Constraint? Not a drop.

But Donald Trump’s Twitter account lives.

Having a virtual meeting place where one doesn’t have to be “friends” first before engaging with each other — where one can go and sample what others are thinking (perhaps even heckling respectfully or shouting encouragement) — works on multiple levels. That’s why Twitter works.

Twitter can never be a “respectful” place. But it can be a safer place if management would simply apply its rules equally.

Perhaps what’s needed is political leadership that will help Twitter rather than take advantage of it.

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