Getting there

Getting there

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Trouble With Twitter

I had resisted having a Twitter account for a very long time, dear friends. I didn't see the point, exactly, and it wasn't until I started a new writing project that I decided it was time to join the "Twitterverse". I knew the world of tweets would provide instant access to events and information that would assist me in the new project, and I knew it would be an advantage to be a part of that world. So, I took the leap and logged in.

There is no doubt that Twitter has incredible power and utility. There is a deep dark side to Twitter though. I learned this during two incidents I followed on Twitter for my other writing project. I realized that while Twitter is a wonderful tool it is also a tool that can be, and is, abused.

The first incident was the massive wildfire that attacked Slave Lake, Alberta. The immediacy of the reports was mesmerizing - photos of the devastation, and of the approaching fire. Tweets of fear and anxiety and confusion. And that was the problem, too - there was no way to determine the veracity of some of the Tweets. There were Tweets claiming that 75% of the town was gone, and the rest likely to burn, too. Reports flew fast and furious but of course in the heat of the moment some of the Tweets were based mostly on fear, not fact. Sifting through them was laborious and I finally realized that I needed to treat all of them as stream-of-consciousness thoughts fueled by stress, and not necessarily accurate. Still, though, Twitter allowed me an instant glimpse into that fire, almost as if I was in that town watching it burn, and that insight was an astonishing thing. Seeing regular people become on-the-spot journalists was fascinating, but again one had to be cautious.

The second incident was during an armed standoff in my city. A man barricaded himself inside a house with a gun, and refused to come out. Most of the Tweets about this incident seemed credible and came from neighbours who had been evacuated. One of the Tweets that troubled me, though, expressed the belief that the cause of the standoff was drugs - and this before anything of that nature had been reported by the police. It was even more worrisome as this Tweet came from someone who has a Twitter name indicating that they report "news" - and yet this was obviously pure speculation, and not news backed by evidence. I admit I openly challenged them on Twitter to provide proof, which of course they could not and did not. This again showed me a glimpse of the trouble with Twitter - but this was only the tiniest bit of the true trouble with Twitter, dear friends.

My greatest trouble with Twitter is that a story will appear there, capturing our attention for the briefest of periods, and then it disappears from our screens, and from our minds. The Slave Lake story was tweeted for a couple of days, and then the Twitterverse moved on to the next "trend". The armed standoff disappeared as soon as the gunman surrendered, and I suspect many people have no idea what happened to the gunman after that (charged and released for a psychiatric evaluation). That, dear friends, is the true trouble with Twitter. There is no way you can explore a story, or an issue, in depth in 140 characters. Twitter is great for that immediacy, that instant gratification - but to get to the real core of a story or issue one needs the room to explore it, and Twitter has no room for that. Twitter is designed for the 5-minute attention span, and not for the thoughtful introspection and dissection that lead us to true discoveries.

So, Twitter and I. We have an uncomfortable relationship at this point. I see the need for it, and the allure. I see the power it has, and I see how it can be used to topple governments, organize a movement, and spread the word. I also see how it can be used to spread propaganda, to proselytize, to preach, to campaign, and to lie. I see how it can lead us to expect all stories to last for as long as the Twitter trend does, without any need to explore them or see where they truly lead us. I see that it could diminish our attention span to the point where we stop seeing the need to look deeper and see further, and to only want our news and insights in 140 characters. As a writer, and as an introspective person, that troubles me deeply, dear friends. But perhaps that's where people like me enter the picture. Perhaps what Twitter needs is people like bloggers who take those 140 characters and turn them into something more, and who look deeper and further. And that, dear friends, is why I will still be found on Twitter, despite my concerns and reservations about the medium. Twitter and I, we've come to an understanding, I think.

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