Columns

Tennis ’14.5: Tweet less, write more

By
Opinions Editor

Before we begin, let’s see if I can argue my point in 140 characters or less:

Twitter lets people feel like they’re shaping dialogue and influencing thought without necessitating meaningful reflection, thorough research or —

Nope, couldn’t do it. I was going to say “or constructing a powerful argument.” But I couldn’t even fit the thesis of my column in a Twitter box. Of course, I could have communicated this thought in fewer than 140 characters by using shorthand or by eliminating punctuation and a conjunction or two. But The Herald opinions section isn’t AIM or a text message — and, to be honest, my smartphone expects better grammar than a tweet.

My frustration with Twitter is not about the linguistic style it promotes. There’s real efficiency in arguing an idea concisely. But developing a strong argument requires research, time and focus — and more than approximately one sentence. It requires proving a thesis point by point, acknowledging and addressing counterarguments, until you’ve won readers over to your way of thinking. Or at least challenged their way of thinking and provoked further consideration. The commentary section of newspapers is a prime example of how writers build their cases, incorporating the above elements into columns that challenge readers and stimulate dialogue.

Social media certainly streamlines the sharing of ideas. Twitter in particular is evolving into a platform for discourse on controversial topics. This summer’s escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led to a proliferation of associated hashtags, like #GenocideinGaza and #IsraelUnderFire, as well as the use of Twitter for propoganda efforts and for debates ranging from mild discussions to full-on flame wars.

Yet making substantial claims requires more than holding up a finger to hush friends while you bang out fewer than 140 characters on your virtual mouthpiece.

Tweets ask little from their authors and can be composed within seconds. Often, users are mid-conversation when they suddenly pull out their smartphones to tap off some impulsive thought — a thought they may or may not share with the people actually sitting in front of them. Forget how disrespectful this action is for a moment. We are all guilty of sacrificing real-life interactions for virtual discussions. Focus instead on the impulsive, even careless, nature of the tweet.

Eighty percent of active Twitter users tweet from a mobile device. Mobile communication tends to be immediate, lacking reflection or careful consultation of sources. Compulsive, impulsive Twitter users need not investigate their points nearly as thoroughly as when tasked with longer, deeper examinations of a topic.

This absence of research is even true of prominent, trusted figures: While their writing may be extremely well-researched, they may still be guilty of tweeting without the most cursory fact check. That’s a serious problem when a tweet is interpreted as a fact, simply because it was presented as such or came from a powerful source. Commentary on Twitter is often biased, even prejudiced. Opinions columns are certainly biased, but they necessitate careful citation and are subjected to multiple stages of editing to prevent misinformation and bad judgment.

It’s true that Twitter can be utilized to develop arguments, such as when a series of tweets forms a comprehensive narrative about a topic. Shaun King, a writer, activist and community organizer who speaks out on issues of race and was a prominent Twitter voice on #Ferguson, frequently composes strong arguments this way. But this sort of argumentation is ultimately disjointed and hard to follow. It will be interrupted by other tweets in a feed, and it requires constant monitoring from the reader. And it still lacks the input and review of an editor.

The essential problem with Twitter is the false sense of accomplishment it provides. Talented writers and thought leaders seem to prefer the convenience and ease of Twitter to the time, effort and energy (read: research and argument construction) it takes to compose an 800-word article. Twitter lets people feel accomplished from quick and simple communication of ideas, which may ultimately obstruct them from investigating and expanding on these ideas. They exposed their thought to the Twittersphere. They’re done.

It’s easy to tweet something and feel like you’ve reached people, especially when the tweet is met with a flurry of re-tweets and favoriting. But it’s much more difficult — and more effective and credible — to build an argument, paragraph by paragraph, with supporting evidence.

Similarly, tweeting in support of social justice efforts should not be confused with actually taking action to solve problems. We hear a lot of people say a lot of things, but few of them take the time to work for a cause in a meaningful way.

Finally, tweeting is often preaching to the choir. Indeed, researchers at the University of Southern California concluded in a recent study that “Twitter is primarily used for spreading information to like-minded people.” In this way, it often fails to challenge or provoke in the same manner as full-length commentary. Indeed, on Twitter, you can easily delete responses and find validation in thoughtless re-tweets, and you’re likely to get a lot of validation when your followers are “like-minded.” David Lewis, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, says that Twitter allows people to affirm the validity of their beliefs — even their very existence. I tweet, therefore I am.

Twitter is useful for many things, but it should not be treated as a substitute for traditional commentary. Perhaps it may support journalistic efforts, but it certainly should not replace them. It’s difficult to make substantial claims through a re-tweet or a 40-word mini-rant, mostly because doing so lets you off the hook from deeply investigating a subject.

Twitter also allows users to involve themselves in many  — often unrelated — debates simultaneously, thereby preventing them from taking the time to fully participate in any. Writers should incorporate Twitter into an immediate,  relevant and in-depth discourse by using it to spark ideas that lead to closer examination in a comprehensive, well-researched format. Twitter is most useful as an advertising instrument. Certainly employ it to promote your viewpoint — but first form that viewpoint through meaningful reflection, thorough research and a powerful argument.

 

Maggie Tennis ’14.5 uses Twitter, but she prefers for you to respond to her thoughts by submitting guest columns to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

  • ’15

    Couldn’t agree more. Think of all the great books and great articles sacrificed to instant gratification. But maybe we shouldn’t worry. Urban Outfitters is bound to publish an anthology of greatest tweets at some point…you’re welcomed, UO.