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Yesterday I looked at a graph showing the number of users for the main social media, and was slightly hurt to see Twitter languishing towards the end of the pack. (Updated figures put Facebook above 2 billion). I enjoy Twitter, since it alerts me to what is being published and debated in my field. It is a modern version of an exchange of letters between scholars, also read by a circle of their individual followers, as was the habit in former times before commercial publishers found a profitable role as middlemen, getting authors to write for nothing and then charging all readers. In my view, tweets are good for science. They place us all in the conference audience, seeing the slides of the most important new findings.
I value Twitter’s brevity and ease of replying, the chain of commentary and the links to supportive texts. I have gained some satisfaction from gathering followers, although I am well aware that my numbers are low compared to other psychologists. My followers are more refined, I tell myself, and I am sure you will agree. The main attraction for me is that Twitter serves as a way of attracting readers to my blog, the soft fruit which carries the pips. Twitter is a micro-blog, the haiku of commentary.
As an act of solidarity, I made a token investment in the stock, which promptly lost half its value. I am a good person to follow if you want to identify a stock worth shorting. If I ever buy a stock again, for a small consultancy fee I can let you know my latest error, so that you know what to avoid. Please be warned that what follows could be seen as a desperate attempt to boost the stock.
The graph shows that I have an uphill struggle, almost as pointless as arguing that intelligence is an important human characteristic worth studying. I regret not having bought stock in any of the other platforms which have drawn more users. My error was to invest in the medium I used, rather than predicting what medium most people would use. I am a light user of Facebook, mostly to keep up with far-flung family and friends, and I also reference my blog posts there, without much hope of getting new readers. I watch things on Youtube but never post on it. I probably ought to give some brief comments, but have not done so (apart from a UCL one on the Chilean miners many years ago). I see it as a picture house, where I watch short movies, but it is hardly a conversation. I use WhatsApp for international conversations, but those are one to one. There is nothing like Twitter for having a conversation which can be heard by others attending the same conference.
Why is Twitter not sweeping the board? Many commercial reasons, no doubt, but my theory is that the word limit, and the consequent need for precis, serves as an intellectual barrier for many people. It is forcibly pithy, which strains comment to its essence. You have to think about what to say, and sloppiness in expression gets you in trouble. Your followers are generally your supporters, but you share squabbling rights in this marketplace of chatter with those of very different opinions. Talk about contrary imaginations! There are people out there with different views, based on different assumptions, seeking different aims, and they are mostly wrong, wrong, wrong. It is an act of kindness to point out their errors to them, and lead them to the path of righteousness. Curiously, they are so mired in error that they in turn attempt to bring you to their own mistaken version of salvation.
All this should make for avid debate and a flourishing business, but it does not feel like that. To me Twitter seems like a very large common room, in which one assumes that coffee and biscuits are always free. Yes, I know that my perception is based on a select bunch of followers, but selection is the essence of sociability: one seeks out like minds. There are different intellectual tribes, and they need not always talk to each other, though they do at the edges of the Twitter hubbub.
How difficult is tweeting? The Flesch Reading Ease formula can be summarized as: use short words in short sentences. Got that? However, anything readable is designed to be less taxing, and more amenable to the general public. On that basis, Twitter should be the most popular social medium. Not so. Pictorial Instagram is twice as big.
Is the reason for this lack of popularity that grammatical structures have to be pruned, and pruned again, sometimes reversing sentence order to punch the message home? Every time I tweet a sentence in my blog I notice how flabby it is. It carries the circumlocutions of friendly chatter, when what I need is the immediacy of a traffic warning. There is a strain on vocabulary as well as grammar. The correct word captures meaning succinctly and reduces ambiguity. Perhaps this is too difficult, too measured for casual chatter.
Looking at various comprehension tests gives an indication that summarising arguments is difficult, so perhaps Twitter falls down because there is so much to explain.
I think that Twitter may always be a minority platform. I don’t mind that at all. The only thing which would alarm me is if they switch it off. Not sure what I would do then. Pictures are not always worth a thousand words. As Orwell observed, the best phrase in the English language is only 6 words long, with five of the words requiring two letters, and one word three letters. Picture that.