Communication tools ain’t what they used to be (image via El Bibliomata)
Despite Twitter’s outrageous success, we advocates (or addicts) of the medium often still find ourselves justifying it as a meaningful communications platform. It’s generally the same few myths about Twitter which get regurgitated, and since many folks fail to use Twitter to its full potential, it’s not hard to understand how by only taking a quick look at it, they reach the conclusions they do. What are those misconceptions then? Let’s start with Ralph Fiennes’ recent fulmination on the subject of Twitter.
Twitter Dumbs Down Our Language
No less an expert in online discourse than Mr. Fiennes recently sent ripples through the Twittersphere (a tedious descriptor, I agree) when he complained about Twitter dumbing down the English language. Such social platforms, he opined, are part of the problem that leaves drama school enrollees unable to cope with “the density of a Shakespeare text.”
Fiennes claimed that language “is being eroded,” due to “a world of truncated sentences, sound-bites and Twitter.” (His whole quote might fit within a tweet, actually). Not a middling education system. Not a predilection for thumbing a joystick over thumbing the classics. But Twitter.
Well, Voldemort, turns out you are wrong.
So says Mark Lieberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania anyway. Lieberman studied 100 tweets from a single newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and discovered that the mean word length in any of the paper’s tweets is 4.80 characters. The mean word length in the Shakespeare’s Hamlet? A piddling 3.99 characters. Seems the bard really needed to up his game.
Of course, the real difference in language between Shakespeare and Twitter is likely due to the fact that many of the words in Shakespeare’s verse no longer flourish within the parlance of our times. If Fiennes complained that specific words from Shakespeare’s time have fallen out of favor, then he’d have a better point. It’s quite possible, however, as Lieberman’s admittedly limited study indicates, that they’ve been supplanted, actually, by words of an even beefier breed. Shakespeare would likely approve of this practice, since he coined many words himself – like “buzzer,” “bump” and “besmirch” – in order to communicate and entertain in his signature style.
Lieberman goes on to point out that Twitter’s requirement that we keep it to 140 characters or less “ought to lead to higher information density, and therefore less per-word redundancy.” That rings true. In other words, Twitter isn’t dumber, it’s simply more efficient. More succinct.
Related then: When tweeters use shorthand like RT or BTW, it doesn’t mean they’re encouraging poor English, that they’re lazy – often, they’re just smartly dispensing with commonly used expressions, so they can use the balance of their tweet to communicate more important material.
There’s a difference between dumb and efficient – between simplistic and simple.
Also, just for fun, let’s consider how much of Shakespeare actually proves eminently tweetable:
- Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
- Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
- The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
- To be, or not to be, that is the question
- The course of true love never did run smooth
And there’s plenty more where those came from. Hell, you could even string multiple quotes into a single tweet.
Twitter Ruins Our Attention Spans
Another complaint about Twitter is that, like MTV and the three-minute pop song, it’s yet another product of modernity, which contributes to abbreviating our already withering attention spans. Now, if you’re following entities such as Ashton or Britney on Twitter, that may, indeed, be true, but it needn’t be the case. Twitter’s more sophisticated users may communicate in spurts of 140 characters, but they’re often linking to long-form content. So, just because I’m scanning dozens of tweets (which adds up to a lot of discretely presented content), doesn’t mean I’m not also jumping off Twitter to read the long-form content which I’ve discovered there. Indeed, that’s precisely what many people enjoy about Twitter: the serendipity of being presented with meaty, meaningful content you otherwise might never have been exposed to.
In fact, a cogent strategy for any organization’s Twitter feed would be to consider the (ultra) short-form content presented on Twitter (or Facebook for that matter) as a hook or promo for more detailed, long-form content. Are you a journalist writing a long-form piece on a human rights issue? Drive readers to your work who may have otherwise missed it by pulling a salient fact from your article to promote it. (The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has this down to a fine art.) Are you a financial services company with a slew of data-rich 30-page white papers languishing in an online repository? Turn that static repository into an active library by highlighting the papers on Twitter. You may even provide the catalyst for an online conversation around them in the process. Engage Twitter to promote your thought capital.
It works, too. Late last year, Lewis DVorkin took a look at two Forbes writers who also enjoy a healthy following on Twitter. Both of them drew more page views as a result of their followers in the social universe, but the writer known for his longer pieces continued to draw more and more page views, even as the number of posts he produced per month fell off dramatically.
Similarly, Poynter’s Nisha Chittal writes about long-form writers learning to balance their time with Twitter, some of them even reinventing journalism as they curate tweets during international upheavals. On the flip side, she also points to short-form tweets evolving into long-form products, the two obvious examples of this being Shit My Dad Says, which became a book and a television show and the fake Mayor Emanuel feed, which also became a book.
Twitter Is Full of Meaningless Content
A third criticism often leveled at Twitter then: We’re told it consists primarily of useless updates from extroverts intent on broadcasting their every mundane activity. The responsibility for overcoming this issue, however, falls squarely on the user and his or her curating abilities. Twitter’s ability to provide value depends upon whom you are following.
If you’re following celebrities like Kim or Kourtney or Khloe, then, sure, you’re subjecting yourself to updates ranging from the simply pedestrian to the awfully insipid. However, Twitter also allows you to follow the more provocative and engaging musings of celebs like, say, Ricky Gervais or Stephen Fry. But Twitter plays host to all sorts of intriguing minds:
- Artists like Ai Weiwei (in English, too) and Takashi Murakami
- Authors like Margaret Atwood and Chuck Palahniuk
- Journalists like Andy Carvin, Nicholas Kristof and Annie Lowrey
- Musicians like Joseph Arthur and Nico Muhly
- Philosophers like Alain de Botton and Peter Singer
- Scientists like Brian Cox, Joanne Manaster and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Of course, practically every news organization, corporation and nonprofit you can think of is on Twitter, too. And there are sites, like Muckrack, also, which tracks what thousands of journalists are covering on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
But if you’re really organized, you can create your own Twitter lists on any theme or category you like, So you can train your focus on archeology or Australian politics or content strategy or gay rights or Scandinavian electronic bands or financial services or Occupy Wall Street. The only limit is your imagination. So, perhaps the fiercest critics of Twitter are simply the least imaginative.
Is there no legitimate criticism of Twitter then? Sure, there is. It certainly could be used to create a remarkable echo chamber. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias. We’re tempted to pay attention to that information, which reinforces our existing political, cultural, and religious beliefs. And the ability to create and maintain lists of people who agree with us certainly could contribute to calcifying one’s understanding of the world. However, any social media venue nowadays lends us the opportunity to set up a remarkable flow of information which confirms our every belief, seldom challenging us to scrutinize our beliefs, to determine whether they’re worthy of holding on to. See not only Twitter, but also Facebook. And Google+. And YouTube. And Tumblr. And Pinterest. And any other social platform, which allows us to curate our interests, to create filter bubbles, and to ignore others who may hold a dissimilar opinion. In other words, practically all social platforms. But that’s not a problem unique to social media; it’s an information processing problem endemic to our species.
Like a knife or a net or a gun or a rock, Twitter is just a tool. How we use it is up to us.