I've never been particularly thrilled with Twitter, but I've been getting progressively less happy with it over time, and I think it's time to take a step back and re-evaluate whether it's really working for me.

Twitter as a Social Tool

I'm mainly interested in Twitter as a way to keep up with the goings-on in my friends' lives. In this case, it largely fills the role that LiveJournal, IRC, and AIM used to fill when I was in college; I would check in periodically to see what was happening, get caught up on discussion, and contribute my own responses as appropriate. For IRC and AIM, those might be one-off/casual bits of conversation; for LiveJournal, they would be more thought-out, detailed, (sometimes not-so-)nuanced discussions of whatever was on my mind at the time.

For both types of interaction, however, Twitter is worse than what it replaced.

For casual interactions, there's no sense of space or privacy like there is with an IRC channel or AIM conversation. That means there's much less shared context, and no opportunity for localized social norms to develop. A vague or otherwise intellectually-lazy statement intended for consumption only amongst friends might get picked up, re-interpreted, taken out of context, etc. Because Twitter is a public forum, one has to be thoughtful and precise in any statement, even something hidden in an @-reply.

Sure, you can sh!tpost, or retweet funny pictures of cats, but express an opinion on something, even in passing? You're opening the door for a more thoughtful, nuanced conversation, and those (literally) just don't fit on Twitter.

Why? The 140-character limit actively discourages any form of nuance. There's no space for prevarication, or qualifying/limiting statements, or further explanation of any kind. Yet those details can provide important context, clarifications, or factual support. They can take a black-and-white statement and turn it into one of those all-important shades of grey.

In my experience, trying to squeeze more deliberate discussion into the 140-character limit can be dangerous, in the sense that it's easy to miscommunicate and misinterpret. For example, Twitter has become something of a political hotbed lately; politics is already a fraught topic about which it's difficult to communicate, and the limit really doesn't help matters.

There are only three ways around the 140-character limit that I know of, all of which are horrible hacks: (1) write something in a text editor, take a screenshot, and post the screenshot; (2) write a really long chain of self-replies (and flood everyone's timeline); or (3) post on another site (like Dreamwidth ;) ) and link to it. There are also DMs, but the point here is to interact with a group of people.

In short: Twitter is designed around the public sound bite. Falling into a deeper conversation, even by accident, carries with it an increased risk of miscommunication compared to other platforms. I've gotten into trouble frequently enough that I now think very carefully before engaging, even with people I know well.

Twitter as a Broadcast Medium

Twitter works much better as a broadcast medium (or at least, a headline dissemination medium), but even there it falls short of what I'm looking for. Most of the "broadcast" type material (news, calls to action, and so forth) that ends up in my timeline is some combination of alarmist, poorly-sourced, or not especially relevant.

It's not hard to figure out why: The easiest way to interact with something on Twitter (short of scrolling past it) is to push the "Retweet" or "Like" button. "Like" is pretty harmless, but because "Retweet" is so easy, the gap between "I saw the thing," and "I retweeted the thing," is exceedingly small—small enough that there isn't much room for conscious thought.

Moreover, it's been my observation that people tend to engage more with things that provoke strong emotional reactions, especially negative reactions. My own posts are a good example of this; in the last week, I've retweeted more political anger than I've written in original content (including replies).

Combine the bias toward strong/negative content with the ease of retweeting, and it's little wonder my timeline is filled with things that make me angry (and may or may not be true).

So what now?

Twitter is failing pretty hard at what I want from it. But there's one criterion I haven't mentioned: all my friends are there. So, I'll probably keep using it for the foreseeable future, even though I'd really like to replace it with something better.

But I do think how I engage with the platform needs to change. I'm going to try out a few guidelines for myself, as follows:

  • No opinionated or political retweets. It's too easy to pass on things that are alarmist or don't reflect my actual thoughts on the subject at hand. Retweets are also a great way to spread unsubstantiated rumor. I may strengthen this to "no retweets at all", if it turns out that I'm still reflexively hitting the "Retweet" button too much.

  • Start or move most deeper conversations in/to another venue. That could be a DM, Telegram, Dreamwidth, or in person, but it can't be in a context with a 140-character limit. I have a hard enough time communicating without cutting down my responses to fit into a tweet, and spreading replies across a series of tweets is generally difficult to write and to read.

  • Move my news consumption entirely to RSS. I've been following political and high-profile figures from my public/semi-professional account for extra color on various news stories, with somewhat mixed results. I think it's more trouble than it's worth to try to parse meaning on complex topics from individual tweets.

  • Unfollow anyone that is primarily political, and find other venues to interact with them. It's fine if my friends want to be political on Twitter. But I know that I won't get a lot of value out of interacting with them in that venue, and chances are high that we'll end up in the communication quagmire discussed above.

Let's see how this goes over the next little bit.

— Des

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Des

August 2018

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