Twitter Corroding The National Fabric

Acid-tongued Tweets are eating away at the fabric of our national conversation 140 characters at a time. Meanwhile, regrettably to my mind, "Twitter is emerging as a new and powerful political tool."

Michael Hickins, Contributor

October 12, 2009

5 Min Read

Acid-tongued Tweets are eating away at the fabric of our national conversation 140 characters at a time. Meanwhile, regrettably to my mind, "Twitter is emerging as a new and powerful political tool."A new study by Sysomos, which analyzes social media trends, just released a study of power users among the political and media classes.

The Sysomos study is intended to

see how politicians and other individuals (such as political analysts, media personalities, bloggers, etc.) and political news organizations use Twitter.

But the more interesting question is how we actually use Twitter as part of our national conversation -- conversation being, after all, the whole purpose of this social media thing.

Here's the classic view of the role of conversations using social media:

"dialogue," is the highest form of learning because it allows immediate response and clarification as questions are answered and messages are sent and received. Great conversations connect people on point of knowledge, values, and feeling.

Even marketing folks are trying this newfangled alternative to the hard sell:

You hear people talking about marketing, but social media is not about marketing, it's about the conversations. Not a place to push your products, but to learn more and connect with people.

Social media is supposed to connected us more immediately by removing barriers of distance and time.

But what's really happening? I ask because of my experience on this blog, my observations following hundreds of people on Twitter, and most recently, watching the reactions on Twitter to Chicago failing to win its Olympic bid and Barack Obama's unexpected Nobel Prize win a week later to the day.

Applause at Chicago's loss and jeers at Obama's win (and worse).

Is this what we've become? I never bought into "politics stops at the water's edge" because that seemed to preclude dissent for a wide range of critical issues. But at least it reflected a strong sense of national unity, and one to which Democrats and Republicans ascribed equally.

Now I have to ask myself how we've become so embittered that we're capable of cheering the loss of potential economic gain and civic prestige for a part of our body politic because of the symbolic and ephemeral victory it would have represented for a political rival.

By the way, I don't think one side is more civilized than the other. For every Dick Cheney cursing a Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor, apparently, there's a Democrat telling a Republican colleague where he can shove it.

But I do remember having a conversation with Carl Steidtmann, currently chief economist at Deloitte, during the early, pre-9/11 days of the Bush Administration, who essentially said, "the steel tariff is a terrible idea, but I hope I'm wrong."

"Don't you want to be proven right?" I asked him.

"You never want your president to fail, because that means the country fails," he said.

I never forgot that, and it's a sad and ominous fact that it no longer represents the mainstream of the national conversation. In fact, it can hardly be called a conversation; we're a country full of angry people screaming at each other. What happened?

Web 2.0 happened, and specifically, Twitter. Why do I blame Twitter?

Because here's the mechanism that makes Twitter successful:

amass as many followers as possible, many of whom also have many followers; craft a 140-character-long message that is as witty, tart, and concise as possible, either to laud or criticize a person or event; Tweet it to your followers and hope it's memorable enough for them to want to pass it along; and lather, rinse, repeat.

This is not a mechanism for conversation. Twitter isn't even intended to enable conversation; it's a digital megaphone endowed with amazing capabilities of amplitude magnification.

The 140-character limit has be praised for forcing concision, and criticized for encouraging the propagation of meaningless trivia. But both perspectives miss the crucial point, which is that it curtails civility; it rewards facility and piquancy of language over decency and depth of thought. It could be argued that concision shouldn't be a barrier to complexity, but the truth is that it is often used as a substitute for serious thought. If it sounds good, it must be true.

Each advance in electronic media has deprived us of one of the senses we use to communicate: phones deprived us of visual clues, email and chat deprived us of tone of voice, and now Twitter deprives us of even the ability to add nuance to the written word.

Twitter is good for a lot of things: broadcasting urgent news, cries for freedom, and complaints about product defects. It's not good for conversation; it's not meant for conversation.

I've got no doubt that the shouting will continue on Twitter unabated, and political leaders and members of the media will continue trying to pile on the followers, but for my part, I'm sick of it.

So here's a suggestion for reversing the deterioration in our national conversation: the definition of conversation I used above referred to "knowledge, values, and feeling." How about if we start by expressing respect for the "knowledge, values, and feelings" of our interlocutors.

That doesn't necessarily mean including "with all due respect" in every tweet, no more than prefacing a statement with "um" actually connotes thought ("um" at the start of a Tweet now means "you unbelievable idiot").

But it does mean assuming your interlocutor(s) are informed, share your basic values and actually have feelings.

Is expressing those ideas, or making them implicit in every Tweet, a challenge in a 140-character-constrained world? Yes it is.

But I bet we're up for it, and meeting that challenge would make us a better country. As the Sysomos study implies, Twitter is a growing phenomenon, and it's not going away any time soon. But because it takes us for it to exist at all, we can influence the direction it takes.

Our country is clearly at an inflection point, and our ability or failure to meet crises of the moment will go a long way to determining what kind of country we remain, or become. Let's not allow Twitter to turn us into a Balkanized state, inhabited by truculent Tweeters of vituperation and vilification.

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