The “downward synthesis” of Twitter

The disadvantages of online conversations are well-known and can largely be reduced to the fallout that attends on a lack of physical presence — no reliable way to convey tone, an over-aggressiveness that physical presence would automatically allay, a tendency to overreact in a setting where false impressions can only be dispelled after the one with false impressions has already written a great deal based on and invested a great deal of emotional energy in said impressions, etc., etc. Yet the (potential) advantages are manifold as well: the ability to respond at greater length than is possible in live conversation, the possibility for time-lags wherein one can actually think, etc.

What is less discussed in assessments of the relative merits of online conversation are the very real disadvantages of in-person conversation, to wit: the necessity of communicating in relatively short bursts, the lack of clarity that attends impromptu formulations of ideas, the influence of physical presence in causing everyone to try to avoid sharp disagreement and maintain an artificial comity that keeps conversations from advancing, etc., etc. And there’s also the fact that in order to benefit from these conversations, you have to be physically present at a given time and place. In-person conversations are, in short, no utopia! They can be good, but they can also be a waste of time — or at the very least, they can be dissatisfying, as social pressures of various kinds keep people from getting to the heart of the issue.

One of the most amazing innovations to occur in recent years is the microblogging platform Twitter, which quickly became a way for academics to exchange ideas. What is so remarkable about this technology is the way that it rigorously combines the worst features of both online and in-person communication without any of their benefits — and adds new deficits of its own. In terms of the deficits of online discourse, the 140-character limitation is well-known and obviously militates against clear expression and adequate conveyance of tone; the necessity to waste characters with “@” references to one’s conversation partners only exacerbates this effect. As a result, many conversations devolve into clarification, apology, etc., much more quickly than blog comment threads — something I previously thought to be impossible.

On the side of in-person conversations, Twitter conversations are nearly impossible to follow unless one is “there” (i.e., checking Twitter very frequently) while the conversation is going on — but the innovation Twitter adds here is that even if you are “there,” you can’t “see” or “hear” everyone involved in a given conversation unless you follow them (or are permitted to see the feeds of people who have private accounts). It’s like going to the pub and trying to converse with people who are also conversing with ghosts. And if you’re reconstructing the conversation after the fact, you wind up reading it in reverse, meaning that you are likely to hit the recriminations and apologies before you get to the substance they were attempting (apparently unsuccessfully) to discuss. This is not very promising in terms of motivation to pursue the issue further.

In short, it seems to me that Twitter is rigorously the worst possible venue to attempt to have a conversation of any but the most rudimentary and logistical kind. This is understandable, given that the service was designed as an easy way to send mass text messages — for instance, about your location or plans for the evening. That it has been forced into other uses is unfortunate; that it is ill-suited for these uses is unsurprising. In a perfect world, academics would be using it to coordinate pub meet-ups at conferences, not to discuss how much OOO sucks or whatever else.

That being said, I am an avid user of Twitter for two purposes:

  1. General procrastination — which, if we’re going to be honest, is a necessary component of academic work of all kinds
  2. Isolated witticisms — essentially, I use it as an outlet for half-formed ideas that I attempt to present in a clever or striking way, to avoid the temptation to clutter the blog with posts on topics that “aren’t ready for prime time”

[Note: This post grew out of a conversation I had, in person, with Ryan Krahn.]

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15 Responses to “The “downward synthesis” of Twitter”

  1. Amish Lovelock Says:

    In general, yes. But, in Japanese, for example, you get to write a hell of a lot more than English. You can then number tweets and express things a lot more substantial.

  2. ben Says:

    You can number tweets in English, too, as Aaron Bady demonstrates, somewhat incomprehensibly, regularly.

  3. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    “no reliable way to convey tone, an over-aggressiveness that physical presence would automatically allay, a tendency to overreact in a setting where false impressions can only be dispelled after the one with false impressions has already written a great deal based on and invested a great deal of emotional energy in said impressions, etc., etc.”

    They are called emoticons. I just dont know how to do them on Twitter.

  4. ben Says:

    Emoticons were invented in pure text media. How can you not know how to do them? ;)

  5. Guido Nius Says:

    Your emoticon misses her nose.

  6. Aaron Bady Says:

    I disagree a bit, though your formulation is useful in helping me think about how. I think twitter actually does something different than either in person or online conversation, both of which it helps enable and is pretty useless without; twitter is never an end-point, or an end in and of itself, in how I use it; instead, it facilitates a kind of access and contact — precisely *because* of how it is designed — that initiates better conversations later and puts you in dialog with people you otherwise wouldn’t; I’m writing this comment because I’ve known you on the internet for years, and wouldn’t if I didn’t. But I’ve had brief — yet real interactions — with hundreds of people on twitter with whom I would likely never have had any contact at all, otherwise. Precisely because you *can’t* say anything at great length, you can say it to many more people, or something.

    Anyway, I guess I view it as all one big experiment to see what it can become, and I’m not sure the results are even close to being in, yet, mainly because I don’t think *we’re* quite yet sure how we want to organize human practice around it. The technological constraints/shape of the medium are one thing, but there are also the ways human beings are developing new practices to make use of it in new ways, and that process — it seems to me — is still working itself out.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My greater skepticism here might stem from my approach to the internet in general — I tend to view it as a vehicle for my work and ideas more than for social networking (hence I don’t have a Facebook account and don’t engage in much dialogue on Twitter).

  8. Aaron Bady Says:

    It is what you use it for.

    Ben, I didn’t notice that I was already part of this discussion when I joined it! But I actually don’t number my sequential tweets, though I tend to limit my diatribes to three and try to post them in fast succession so they appear together. But yeah. Not ideal.

  9. ben Says:

    Yeah, I know you don’t number them— sometimes I wish you would, though, so I’d at least know how far back I’ll have to go to put the later ones in context (the horrible “new twitter” design makes accessing another person’s timeline a sufficient PITA that I don’t do it very often).

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yeah, doesn’t it seem like they redesigned so that everything required like fifteen clicks? And it takes forever to load — yet another “downward synthesis.”

  11. zunguzungu Says:

    Ben, that’s interesting; I’ll try doing that now and see how it works. Fwiw, I kind of like new twitter; the thing where it tells you what people are responding to is sometimes useful.

    But in general, twitter still feels to me like a brilliant idea, yet built in a garage. All theoretical concept, with little practical refinement.

  12. Bryan Says:

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  13. ben Says:

    Fwiw, I kind of like new twitter; the thing where it tells you what people are responding to is sometimes useful.

    It’s definitely useful, though I think I’d describe it with “sometimes works” rather than “is sometimes useful”. (It’s always been useful, to me, when it’s worked.)

    Regarding its garagey feel, I thought this post by Tim Lee was interesting in general (as well as on the kind of dick move Twitter pulled recently in particular). It’s too bad that they’ve got the service, as well as the protocol, though I suppose the centralization has helped get things off the ground.

  14. Charles Says:

    I think it all depends on the communicator. De Boton, O’Brien, and others, who are good with epigrams and one-liners, do quite well within the constraints of Twitter. The Egypt revolutionaries use it to advantage. Long-winded theoretical remarks won’t find it amenable, that’s true. A Hamann or aphoristic Nietszsche might find it handy.

  15. Beloved Spear Says:

    Twitter reduces human interaction to something of little more than the chemical exchange between neurons. We’re just passing along a signal that’s moving through our area of the net. Given where evolution is taking homo sapiens sapiens, this is to be expected.


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