Twitter isn’t what I thought it was

Just the other day I tried to have a conversation on Twitter. I spent time honing my points, my comments, down to the 140 characters – a discipline which ended up exposing to me more clearly exactly what it was I really wanted to say. And then there was no response.

Admittedly the person I’d been speaking to had responded two or three times. And, admittedly, I can see that my quick responses (written densely in order to limit the number of messages) might have felt a little crowding. Or at least I realise that now, now that I’ve realised that Twitter isn’t what I thought it was.

I always had this romantic idea that Twitter is, was or could be a space which could expose you to more information, more ideas and more discussion than you would find elsewhere. That by joining Twitter you’d enter an instantly accessible world of debate and trading of ideas.

After all, there are millions of people on Twitter every day, every minute. But though I now find many interesting articles through Twitter that I would probably have missed otherwise (my Instapaper account now a bigger guilty bulge than my unread bookshelf) I don’t feel I’ve gained that much.

What was the last debate you were in on Twitter? What was the last true conversation? This most recent attempt at a conversation for me started well but ended in the way that I’m sure all Twitter conversations end as they approach the really interesting parts. The other person just stopped responding.

I’m not a traditionalist and I certainly don’t believe that Twitter will destroy conversation or that anything can destroy anything without the choice and involvement of the people who use it. eBooks won’t destroy books, people not buying books will. People, like me, choosing not to buy books any more, for a hundred reasons.

But Twitter does mean that if you ask a difficult question of someone they can simply ignore it. But not, as in real life, by expressing to you that they are ignoring it. Instead simply by being able through technology to forget that your question ever existed.

Having been roughly trained as a journalist I’m able (though you might not believe it from this blog) to boil down what I’m saying quite well. But I understand that not everyone can do this, which is often the excuse on Twitter – that 140 characters is too small a space to express fully.

Of course, this blog is an example of how much space you can fill if you have the space to fill. But I could, if I tried, write this entire post in no less than two Tweets, both making separate arguments. But there would be no point, because I don’t believe people on Twitter want a conversation.

That’s okay. Lots of people don’t want The Ascent of Man and would prefer an afternoon of Eastenders. But I’m not talking about ‘most’ people. The person I tried to have a conversation with had written a blog post which had expressed a feeling which had been then RT all across my Home feed on Twitter. I read it and I wanted to respond.

I dislike comments below the line for exactly the reason that makes this blog post so long and people so uncomfortable debating on Twitter. Comments give you space to waffle and waffle (just like this) because there’s no requirement for an internal editor. You can just spill and then feel as if you’ve been part of a conversation. Which, of course, you absolutely have not.

A conversation is live, it happens. A debate requires you to be in there, in the moment, for you to express exactly as you live in that moment. Comments and blogs enable us to spool out our thoughts on and on and on without challenge or question mid-flow.

This is why Twitter should work as a conversation but doesn’t. We all want to be heard, and we all want to express a copper-bottomed, watertight opinion. But life isn’t like that. You can’t live looking for the absolute, the dot on the end, the finish line. The finish line is death, for Jebus’ sake.

Debate and conversation, for me, are less like hammer on rock and more like stream into ocean. More like a meeting of waves than a meeting of solid objects. If you have a conversation which does not follow you when you leave it then it was likely a rudimentary conversation.

How many Tweets do we actually read? How many can we afford to read when we’re all trying so hard to put it so right, to get our jokes just so, to put the phrase so capably and noticeably skillfully that we are RT’d by the big names.

I’m guilty of it, of not reading, just producing. Transmitting without receiving. Because sometimes receiving is so stressful I feel I can’t breathe, there are too many opinions to hear and think about, too many articles to read, too many zeigeists to move along with and chip in with and…

Twitter isn’t what I thought it was, but it can be. I’m obviously not following the right people. But it saddens me that there are a great deal of people with interesting thoughts who, when challenged, feel that Twitter’s immediacy restricts them instead of setting them free from the need to be right, to be thought out, to be sound.

From this moment, I will not follow someone on Twitter (barring those who are fundamentally interesting in their own right) if they do not engage and respond to conversation. That’s what I want from Twitter, that’s the person I am. Why am I trying to change other people when I can just construct what I want from what is there?

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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4 Responses to Twitter isn’t what I thought it was

  1. jessmittens says:

    Twitter is hard. To me it just seems like a place to plug your product. All I see is links to people’s blogs and books – but then, my blog automatically publishes my posts to twitter and I never really go on aside from that so I’m no better!
    I completely agree, people on twitter don’t want a conversation. I tweeted to someone who was asking a question and they never replied, they just favourited my reply. It’s strange. Oh well, one day maybe we’ll understand how to use it properly, or like how everyone else does.
    Also, I agree with being surprised at what you find on twitter, there was no cool opening up to new worlds / ideas / stuff / places, it was just endless links to people’s stuff.
    Not to mention people buy followers..

    Strange world, that twitter.

    • Twitter has become such a critical aspect of being anything or doing anything that can be sold or bought that it is skewed away from a use which requires time, thought and commitment.

      But in writing this post I realised that I have the responsibility for making Twitter whatever I want it to be. If I care enough (and I do) then I’ll keep writing and keep talking and eventually I’ll find people who will respond. Much like life.

      I use Twitter to auto-post my blogs, and I am keen to get attention because without attention you’re just shouting in a lift shaft.

      But perhaps the crucial test is whether I’m writing something *to get attention* or using Twitter to get attention for what I’m writing.

      • jessmittens says:

        I see what you mean, and I respect that. ‘Be the change you want to see’ only applied to twitter. I keep making awkward jokes on twitter during the occassional times I’m on there, I don’t know if people appreciate it but then maybe my humour will grow on them haha.
        You’re right about it being a critical aspect – one of my favourite columnist spoke about her bosses calling her into a meeting to assess her marketability based on her twitter profile – followers, retweets, favourites. I thought, I love this writer and her weekly column but I don’t follow her on twitter, so how can they base someone’s worth on a social networking page? Really only major celebrities have the huge follower list.

        Anyway, good luck with finding some pleasant, responsive twitter-ins, if I find you on there one day, I’ll be sure to respond!

      • Thanks for responding, too. : )

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