Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, October 28, 2013

in praise of Twitter, once more

If you haven’t read Anne Trubek’s essay on what’s great about Twitter, you should:

Twitter has offered me an intellectual community I otherwise lack. It cuts the distance, both geographic and hierarchical. Not only can I talk with people in other places, but I can engage with people in different career stages as well. A sharp insight posted on Twitter is read, and RT'd (retweeted), with less regard for the tweeter's resume (or gender or race) than it might be if uttered at, say, a networking event. Social media is a hedge against the white-shoe, old-boys' networks of publishing. It is a democratizing force in the literary world. 
I credit Twitter with indirectly and directly allowing me to change careers from academic to freelance writer, to garner book contracts and to launch a new magazine. Plus, it has introduced to me colleagues with whom I practice what broadcast journalist Robert Krulwich calls "horizontal loyalty," or aiding others in similar career stages. Without social media, my ideas would have likely been smaller murmurs, my career more constricted and my colleagues fewer.

I have had similar experiences, and had them alongside Anne, who’s a long-time Twitter friend. (Well, you know, “long-time” as these things go.) For instance, I have spent the past few years exploring the various possibilities of the digital humanities, and almost everything I now know I learned, directly or indirectly, from people on Twitter. I could have learned much of this stuff without Twitter, but the task would have been a good deal harder and a lot less fun, and I wouldn't have gotten to know people that I delight in meeting face-to-face when the chance arises.


  • I can't buy the suggestion that Twitter is non-hierarchical. That's just not supportable, to me. Twitter is itself a hierarchy, a social hierarchy, and I'm willing to bet the vast majority of its users are keenly aware of where they lie on that hierarchy. In fact, that's one of the things I like about it the very least, the palpable sense that people are never not managing their perceived status on the network. People make fun of Klout, but they care very much about what Klout represents. And the currency that elevates your status is something that we already have in vast abundance: "cleverness." The endless stream of lame one-liners that shroud Twitter like a fog.

    Now anybody is free to disagree about the merits of that sort of thing. But Trubek is not letting me disagree with her! Look at the headline of that essay: you have no choice. There is no alternative. Submit. That's perfectly typical of the way that enthusiastic Twitterers talk all the time. And for someone like me-- someone who has no interest in developing that kind of a network, and who is perfectly content to socialize with people in my real life-- I can't tell you how incredibly creepy that kind of talk is.

  • Freddie, I don't think we should lean too hard on the title — it's almost certainly not Anne's (writers almost never get to choose titles). And as far as I can tell she doesn't say that Twitter is "non-hierarchical," which indeed would be an unsustainable claim; instead she says it's "democratizing," which is, as a comparative judgment — tending more towards the democratic than other social structures (e.g., traditional publishing) already in place — is at the least far more defensible.

    It seems to me that people who use Twitter for reputation inflation will, inevitably, use other social environments (on- and off-line) for reputation inflation, and people who seek out genuine conversation "IRL" will probably do the same on Twitter. So if you find the level of discourse there frustratingly performative, that's surely because you're following the wrong people?

    Also, I don't know what you mean when you say Trubek is "not letting you disagree with her" — surely that's just what you've done. (Though any personal essay, which is what this is, will make some claims that the serious reader can't disagree with: when she writes "Twitter has offered me an intellectual community I otherwise lack" we're not really in a position to say "No it hasn't.")

    One more thing: I have read about employers who won't hire someone who doesn't have a Facebook page that they can scan for red flags; is part of your concern that Twitter will likewise become effectively mandatory for your profession? Because that would be a legitimate concern indeed.

  • I'm working on something to say about Twitter on my blog because I have been a huge user of Twitter, and an unbelievably huge benefactor of its possibilities, yet around two weeks ago I quit "cold turkey" without much public explanation: http://franklinchen.com/blog/2013/10/12/taking-a-break-from-twitter/

    After all this time, I still have only an extremely minimal engagement with Twitter. I will probably get back on more, but for now, I'm observing changes in my life resulting from temporarily pulling back. And I will write, because I think my experiences are not unique and because I do seek balance.

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