Is today is a day for celebration, reflection or recrimination - or all three? I’m not sure. It’s the tenth anniversary of my first tweet.
My first humble contribution to the Twittersphere was sent at 1:43pm on February 13, 2009.
I was already an early adopter of YouTube. The new medium, allowing me to wax lyrical in less than 140 characters, seemed like both a unique opportunity to share ideas and a healthy exercise in economical writing. I’d been producing 30- and 60-second radio spots for years, so how hard could that be?
Here I am, 37,500 tweets later and I’ve learned a few things about Twitter and about social media generally.
1. Twitter doesn’t love me.
As far as I’m aware, I don’t suffer from paranoid delusions. I’m not a conspiracy theorists, placing myself at the centre of the conspiracy. However, I’m well aware that the primary purpose of Twitter, at least as other users’ see it, is not to make me feel loved or appreciated.
If when I open my account early in the morning I’m looking primarily for affirmation - I often am - I will be bitterly disappointed. I will find instead that, while I’ve been sleeping, the world has moved along quite well without me.
Twitter wasn’t built to make me feel unique, either. Just when I might think I’ve come up with the ideal missive - thoughtful, concise, perhaps even bordering on profound - I find that someone else has expressed a similar idea in better, more engaging words.
So, if I stay in the Twittersphere, I’m going to need to accept that the engineers behind Twitter were not intending to stroke my ego, or even add to my self-worth. I must have a better reason to be there.
2. Twitter won’t protect me - or my children.
This one seems obvious, I know. But I think you’ll find that more than a few people thought it might when they first signed on.
It probably seemed reasonable at the time. After all, how many large media platforms offered no censorship at all; no weeding out of potentially offensive language or clearly fabricated “news”?
There’s the rub, of course. Twitter isn’t a media outlet in any conventional sense. The same is true of other social media platforms.
According to their makers, they are merely blank screens onto which users’ can project whatever tickles their fancy, enrages their sense of justice or simply offends their ego.
There are very few filters. Even today, with well-documented links between mental illness and social media use, platform-creators cling to the defence once used by tobacco companies: “There’s no proven link”. They persist with this line even as the number of proven links grows steadily around them.
They ought to be treated more like drug companies who are, at the very least, required to issue health warnings to their customers.
3. Twitter isn’t value-neutral.
Because every social medium is meant to be a vast empty canvas, its architects will claim that it is value-neutral. It clearly is not. In fact, no human-designed communications platform will ever operate without reference to the values of its creators.
Some education professionals today like to talk about value-neutral education. It’s an impossible ideal. Whether curricula are designed by individuals or state-approved bodies, the body of truth we pass on to new generations is edited, it is coloured by the social and ethical priorities of the time.
Non-neutrality is also the order of the day when it comes to censoring online material. Those who publicly deny acts of censorship are the ones most likely to act in tyrannical ways. Censorship - though not necessarily the state variety - is implicit in all forms of centrally-curated information.
Twitter doesn’t censor? Of course, it does. It sets the limit on how many words you can use. It stipulates how long a video can be on its platform. It removes your account if you offend too many people - or are likely to.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The point is not that there is no censorship, but that there may not be enough.
The very exercise of legal constraint, in any area of life, is a form of censorship. We can do this, we can’t do that. Our freedoms are proscribed - hopefully, so that we can inhabit a civilised society.
In the online world, social media companies all too often fail to provide any reasonable standard of care and protection - particularly for the young. I’m talking about preventing reasoned debate simply because young adults minds might be offended by opposing ideas. That type of thinking is helping to turn parts of our universities into no-think zones.
I’m talking about younger teens and children who are not equipped to deal with some of the vile material to which they are inevitably exposed on social media. No doing something about this is a form of value-judgement in itself. There is not value-neutrality.
4. Twitter is not a marketing tool.
Well, not primarily. Twitter works best as a platform for the expression of ideas and experiences, with civility and respect. Evolving from SMS texting as it did, Twitter is about connecting with people. It took the text-messaging idea a step further, though, by enabling me to message more than the people I know.
What are designers behind Twitter didn’t set out to do was to provide a new form of billboard. On social media platforms generally, nothing turns people off more quickly than a constant stream of marketing messages. Buy this, you need that. Look at the sparkly commercial, take the click-bait and consume.
If you hope to do anything on Twitter, surely it should be this: add value to the lives of others. Yes, share your own world, but don’t make that the theme of your messaging. Share something that helps people make sense of their own world.
You don’t have to be saccharine, like a 60s TV sitcom, to do it. You can be provocative, without being offensive. But overall, it’s better to leave people wanting more than to have them tune you out altogether - or unfollow (terrible word!).
Here’s the thing. If you consistently add value to people’s lives, even in small ways, the chances are they will allow you a “marketing” message now and again. Even that, however, should add clear value, as distinct from moving a product for the sake of racking up a sale.
5. Twitter is a choice.
None of us, at the end of the day, need to be involved with social media. If we feel that we do, we may have a problem with Internet Addiction Disorder. (Yes, it is a disorder, recognised by none less than the American Psychiatric Association.)
As much as the owners of some social media groups would love to have you addicted to their product, hooking you on dopamine and other stimulants, the choice to engage is yours. Only yours.
When you find yourself struggling to resist the pull of the Twittersphere, it might be time to take time out. Go on a social media fast for a given period of time. Do that more than once if it helps.
Leave your phone at home when you’re going to the store. One of the reasons smartphone companies are so supportive of cashless trading is that they want your phone to be more indispensable to you than money.
That’s a very good reason to keep using cash as well as contactless payments and digital money. It’s healthy to give yourself options, to keep control.
It’s my tenth birthday on Twitter. Here’s what I know.
Twitter holds great potential for constructive dialogue and the concise presentation of ideas. It’s a handy, instantly available way of accessing news. It can be a source of helpful information on many things - though, this does not happen enough.
Too often, it is a platform for incivility and, many times, rage. Its anonymity encourages social disinhibition - people will say things, to strangers on social media, that they wouldn’t say face-to-face.
In short, Twitter, like most social media I’ve tried, reflects the best and the worst of humankind. For now, I’m going to keep using it, because I believe that changing the cultural conversation, even a little, demands that I first engage with it.
Hopefully, in time, we’ll all treat it as a healthy resource, rather than a vent for fury or an excuse to use poor language. And perhaps we’ll put pressure on social media owners, in general, to act responsibly - and governments to regulate when they don’t!
See you in the #Twittersphere….