Twitter, Popper, and me

Kevin Drum discusses the issue of Twitter addiction and the anxiety that some people have about trying to keep abreast of all the feeds and worrying about what they might be missing otherwise, and the withdrawal pains they suffer when for one reason or another they fail to keep up or try to quit.

I mentioned before that while I have a Twitter account, I have yet to send my first tweet. At the beginning I toyed with the idea of doing so but I am increasingly convinced that it is not a good idea, for me at least. It seems like the only time I hear about other people’s tweets is when it’s a clever one-liner or someone puts his or her foot in it trying to make a clever joke and failing badly or some other public relations disaster.

Since I can never think of funny jokes, the chances are that I am more likely to say something stupid. Since I also tend to be wordy (witness the multipart series on the Higgs and other topics), compressing my thoughts into 140 characters would be pure torture.

The main problem is that we are never as clear in expressing our ideas as we think we are. Any teacher knows this because however clearly we think we taught something, we will be shocked at how some students got quite the wrong impression. The best we can hope for in communication is that we arrive at an approximate understanding of each other, usually after several exchanges.

I am firmly convinced of the truth of the sentiment attributed to philosopher of science Karl Popper that it is impossible to speak in a such way that we will not be misunderstood. I think that is true at the best of times, when one has all the time and space in the world to carefully say things. The potential for misunderstanding is increased ten-fold or even hundred-fold when one says something using a medium that encourages speed and demands extreme brevity.

So while Twitter has the advantage of immediacy, for me that that does not compensate for its negatives.


  1. left0ver1under says

    Andy Rooney was right when he said, “Anything worth saying can be said in five minutes.” But that statement needs an addendum, that anything worth saying takes at least two minutes. A hundred and forty characters amounts to 28 words, two or barely three sentences (I refuse to use txtspk). How much can you really say in so limited a space?

    I’ve never understood the appeal of twitter. Other than quickly sharing information (e.g. time and date of a meeting), it sounds useless to me. I especially don’t like the fact that it’s all one-way; if I want that, I’ll read a book or watch television. On a blog, forum or a webpage there’s a way to give feedback and get a response.

  2. Aratina Cage says

    I learned on some news show that Twitter was modeled after radio chatter. Short bursts loaded with information and broadcast to everyone on that channel. The limitations it imposes make a lot more sense if you think about it that way.

    Contrary to the opinion that short messages are easily misunderstood, short messages back and forth over the air have proven themselves to be highly informative, exacting, and useful (think of police radio chatter–very little miscommunication). You don’t normally read an essay on the radio, of course; you wouldn’t want to hear that from someone else and it would be quite rude and possibly even violate the terms of use.

    I suppose the next step is to have scrambled Twitter groups where only members have the decryption key and everyone else sees garble.

  3. MNb says

    I find immediacy not an advantage at all. Heck, I don’t even take up the phone if I don’t feel like. For me the big advantage of internet is that I can read whatever and whenever I want plus react whenever I want. Sometimes I read something, disagree, can’t find the words, go shopping, think about it and when I come home I know what I want to say. So Twitter is utterly unattractive.
    Moreover I can’t imagine what substantial one can say in 140 signs. I don’t think you wordy at all, MS. For me it was a disaster when my favourite newspaper went back from 600 to 500 words for reactions. I do think the discussions became more superficial as a consequence. On the contrary, for me your series on the higgs-boson can’t be long enough.
    I also asked my son (18 years). He has used Twitter for two months and got enough of it.

  4. Jared A says

    It don’t even really use twitter, but there seems to be some major confusion about what twitter is used for, so allow me to clear it up a little.

    Twitter is not about decreeing to the world facts about yourself. As Aratina said above, it is primarily a communication tool. Specifically, it is for brief communications, often between similarly-interested strangers. It has uses that e-mail and discussion forums do not, which is what makes the brevity important.

    One special example of this that gets a lot of mileage is PR. Twitter allows public entities (celebrities, corporations, advocacy organizations, etc.) to disseminate minor information relevant to its mission as it occurs. This is like an informal press release/news feed. It creates a web presence outside the home site and allows for interactions with the public in tangible ways.

    From the perspective of the consumers, there is an advantage because they can interact with a company publicly in way that they cannot by contacting customer service. If you have problems with a service and ask for redress on twitter then the PR operative behind the account has a vested interest in addressing the concern in some way. Consumer advocacy groups have noted that when done properly this is a win/win situation. I personally have seen this used to good effect.

    The only exception to the two-way communication aspect that I know of is humor. In this case the character limit is not such a limitation. Most humor twitter feeds tend to be many short quips in a theme. Good ones tend to be very well parsed and beautifully written. The fact that these exist over long periods of time, occasionally producing content, allows the humor to build up.

    A good example is Nate Silver 2.0 which was a wonderful, yet short-lived feed from the election:
    “Go to the ocean. Cup your hands and drink its salty foam. This is your sample size. What lurks within its abyssal depths?”

    For the geeks among us there is the plotlines from the fictional 8th season of Star Trek, The Next Generation:

    And for the lovers of the absurd:

  5. jamessweet says

    I have a Twitter account that I (used to) primarily use to tweet new blog posts (before my blog went inactive). I am the same way with the verbosity, however, I should relate this anecdote: Once, in front of a bunch of friends, my wife said something about me talking too much, and I was really hurt and I gave the virtual-silent treatment the rest of the night, even though our friends were still there. At one point, I said something, can’t remember what, it was less than ten words, and everyone was impressed with my profundity. I had been biting my tongue for a really long time, wanting to say so many words, but in my bitterness I was like, “I’m going to boil this down to ten words so I don’t talk very much,” and I ended up impressing everyone. It was sorta surreal…

    …Ultimately, though, it’s too damn hard. 😀

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