The (Not So) Great Twitter Experiment

If you are under the age of 60 or so, you almost certainly are active on at least two or three social media platforms. And even if you’re over 60, or even 80, there’s a good chance that you have a profile on at least one such platform, or will in the near future. Social media has become as ubiquitous as reusable grocery bags — even if it isn’t necessarily as useful. And one of the social media platforms that “almost everyone” now uses is Twitter.

Even though I have a well-established status as a bit of a Luddite (it wasn’t too many years ago that my “computer” was a box of index cards) I also believe in Alexander Pope’s directive to “Be not the first by which the new is tried/ Nor yet the last to lay the old aside”. So it was inevitable that sooner or later (particularly since I have this blog to promote) I would give Twitter a go myself. I opened my account in February of 2019; and as of this writing, the results have been somewhat mixed; but overall, I have to say that I am less than overwhelmed.

Twitter’s shortcomings seem built into its very format. It was originally a platform that limited entries to 140 characters. That’s a constraint that encourages haiku conciseness rather than epic rambling; consequently, it’s pretty hard to develop a discussion in any depth (though not impossible — more about that below). Its best use is for posting pithy, punchline-like observations. And some people have done this quite well. There was even a book published called Twitter Wit, which offered a collection of some memorable gems like the following:

I attribute most of my good days to a couple of people with voodoo dolls cancelling each other out.

You know, most of the Harry Potter book plots would be over in 3 chapters if they had a decent search engine.

I’d love to see a fight between William Of Ockham and Rube Goldberg

Wit, n.: the delicate art of subtly steering a conversation in the direction of the hilarious pun you came up with three weeks ago

When people pick their ‘5 people living or dead to have dinner with’, don’t they worry they’ll be the most boring person at the meal?

Business slow at Heritage Foundation’s AynRandLand, where you build and operate your own damn ride, or there is no ride.

The condoms I use are so sensitive, they stick around to talk to the chick for an hour after I leave.

Today I’m 31. That’s like 80 in Facebook years.

Overheard: If you torture data long enough, you can get it to confess to anything.

I was talking about music, which is a series of sounds they put behind television advertisements in your country.

I get really uncomfortable when people ask embarrassing questions about sex. Like: ‘Is that it’?

I was really impressed by Bush’s farewell speech. He should have delivered that YEARS ago.

When your feelings are best described by a Jewel song, it’s probably time to hide the cutlery.

There is no ill that great sex can’t cure – except nymphomania. Then I guess you’re f*cked.

If most Twitter users made entries like these even part of the time, it would be a goldmine. But of course that’s not what happens. You have to plow through mountains of garbage to find nuggets like these. And a great deal of that garbage consists of juvenile insults, attacks, and rumor mongering. So naturally the platform is a nirvana to highly damaged individuals like the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. Nor did it help a great deal when Twitter expanded its parameters to allow entries twice as long — i.e., 280 characters. As someone observed, it did “double the complexity of official White House policy”, but even so it left much to be desired.

Mind you, it is quite possible to find some worthwhile material out there, and there are some Twitter users who are quite worth following. One of my favorites is Middle Age Riot (the Twitter handle of actor John Hartzell), who posts about current events in a manner that is concise, informed, observant, witty, and sometimes milk-squirting-out-the-nose hilarious.

Twitter also lends itself well to the limerick, and several users have explored that avenue rather nicely. One good example is Liberal Limericks (@Libericks), which offers a daily witty limerick pertaining to some current news story, and a link to that story.

Another approach to using the brevity of the Twitter format effectively is simply linking to stories and comments that do a good job of lampooning themselves, with little or no comment on them needed. One of the best is Bad History Takes — as well as the related Bad Medical Takes, Bad Legal Takes and Bad Covid Takes.

(Alas, I was such a Dilbert fan about 3 decades ago when it was actually funny, and before its creator went so deep off the deep end. And one of the sad awakenings of perusing Twitter is finding out what a deranged white nationalist he has become.)

Some users even manage to use Twitter effectively for fairly detailed discussions, in threads. An excellent example is Dr. Kevin Kruse (@KevinMKruse), history professor at Princeton University. His threads are quite informative, and in many cases soundly debunk some of the batty revisionist narratives put forth by right-wing propagandists (not that they’ll ever know the difference).

Another writer whose posts I enjoy is Jim Wright (@Stonekettle), a retired chief naval warrant officer who is quite knowledgeable about government and current affairs, very perceptive, and a pretty dang good writer (he also has a blog worth reading). And if you get tired of hearing about how the world is rapidly turning to shit, you could try Positive News Media Company (@PositveNewsMc) to catch up on stories that are bit more uplifting. And hey, I must admit that I sometimes check in on the Twitter feeds of Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner and a few other Star Trek alumni.

So all told, there are plenty of Twitter accounts worth following. And many of these users no doubt consider it well worth their time to make numerous Twitter posts and engagements on a daily basis. I, however, cannot say that I am among them. For me, being on Twitter simply hasn’t been worth the time and effort, so I intend to scale back my interactions there considerably.

During the few months I’ve been posting on Twitter, I have attracted only about 100 followers, a few of whom subsequently have dropped. Not very impressive at all. (Of course, I’ve done little to promote my Twitter musings; to me, that’s just throwing good “money” — or rather, time — after bad.) But more to the point, most of the comments I receive are from attackers who hurl the usual childish insults. If all else fails, someone will trot out the old tried and true “Your name is very appropriate, because you teach propaganda”, and you can hear the implied “nyuk nyuk nyuk” indicating that this person thinks this is very clever and original and 2000 people haven’t already said it before.

One of the most common uses of Twitter is what is often called “trolling”. I’ve done it myself — primarily against PragerU, which is one of the worst (and therefore most popular) propaganda outfits. But unlike many other trolls, my responses are fact-checking, with plenty of documentation.

Those who troll against me, on the other hand, almost always just make dumb attacks — perhaps looking to get their confrontation fix with a schoolyard verbal exchange — and I just block them. Which they no doubt consider a badge of honor — it’s very common for Twitter profiles to proudly mention some of the accounts that have blocked the user.

And trolling is something that has to be done judiciously; because while it may give some readers food for thought, and may even help dispel a myth or two, it also helps increase traffic for the Twitter account. Indeed, many Twitter users (including PragerU) make deliberately hateful or incendiary tweets just so people will react and make comments that will help drive up their stats.

You can get a good inkling of how shallow Twitter is at its core by just keeping your eye on the “Trending” column at the right of its page. It lists topics and hashtags and news stories that are currently enjoying their 15 minutes in the spotlight. And that, quite literally, is how often they often stay in trending mode. During that time, users scramble to crank out their own tweets incorporating said trends, to help boost their traffic. Sometimes a group of Twitter-ers will even create a trend artificially by circulating some hashtagged phrase that they hope will bring a lot of hits and a lot of attention to their cause.

In short, what Twitter really accomplishes most of all is: (a) create yet another arena for confrontation, as if we didn’t have enough of them already; (b) encourage the reduction of complex ideas and stories to simplistic soundbites, as if that didn’t happen enough already; and (c) fragment the public’s attention span even more than it already is. None of which is a particularly commendable goal or achievement.

2 comments

  1. I began using Twitter a few months ago and like it. I am usually long winded so its good practice to see if I can say as much as possible with the least number of characters. And of course, I’ve also been leaving threads with my comments when I feel there is just too much that needs to be said.

    It is amazing how much misinformation and animosity break out regularly. But still I like trying to be civil and answering others with as little anger as possible and attempting to rebut them with as little hostility as I can.

    I love your examples of some of the best tweets, like “If you torture data long enough you can get it to say anything you want.” That is especially true of the many global warming conspiracies as well as the 911 conspiracies and most tragically, the anti-vaxers who convince so many people whose children died after being inoculated that correlation equals causation. But when I try to tell them that Autism can begin in the womb and that’s its symptoms show up around the same age as they usually show up–with or without vaccinations–they only get angry. it seems better for them to accept any probable story and find an enemy to blame rather than accepting objective evidence. But the words “Objective evidence” are frequently maligned and tortured nowadays until they admit anything their torturers want them to admit.

    Since I now have a smart TV and a wi-fi router I’ve been watching some of the most informative and objectively presented documentaries available. “The Social Dilemma” was upsetting because former executives from the big tech companies insisted that someone skilled in computer tech can absolutely know every word you type and every website you visit. I don’t know if they really are interested in everything about me, but just the fact that they can, seems pretty damned upsetting.

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