Musing on Twitter
Is Twitter of any practical use? What does it
'do' for you?
— Laurie Meadows (@Laurie_Meadows) December
I've been thinking about this...https://t.co/AR8Cv215Hb
What can twitter do for you?
Everyone acts in our own best interest, all the time, whether
conscious of it or not. No exception for Twitter.
Most of us use Twitter to engage with people who are like us
(culturally and intellectually), or who we want to like us
(digitally and emotionally). Wit, wisdom, outrage, information
- these are the currency of twitter. We try to be
engaging. If we can't be engaging, we can be either supportive or
provocative. We feel good when we get a response, a comment, a like,
a follow. The more responses and retweets, the higher the reward.
The reward feedback loop reinforces a good feeling; and that good
feeling is provided 'by' twitter. So we press the button again, and
again and again...
But twitter potentially has more value to us than reinforcing
our sense of positive self-worth, or feeling a valued member of a
The best use for Twitter?
Twitter is a tool that can be used for many purposes.
The 'best' use for Twitter varies according to your motive. My
motive is to find and share information about my areas of interest.
At the moment, primarily food plants; and avocado in particular. I
will expand my argument later, but before dismissing other uses for
Twitter, I'll list a few I have thought of - I am sure you will
think of others. (Of course, no one of these 'uses' excludes any of
Exposure to new areas of study and new information
The 'branchiness' of Twitter rising from the re-tweets of people you
follow exposes you to new ideas, activities you never knew about,
recent scientific findings, and information you could never think
about because it was not in your mental framework or experience. It
broadens your outlooks. And as Kevin Folta points out, it helps
people to pull out of the trap of self re-inforcing uncritical
Uncensored political soapbox
President Trump can talk directly to his supporters - evading the
'gatekeeping' and spin of mainstream media. Uninterpreted, unedited,
immediate, any subject, any time. He says it, he owns it.
Record of the policy of public agencies and political actors
People record cellphone clips of publicly made remarks by
politicians or Government agencies. Denials by these figures can be
instantly rebutted by re-tweeting the original tweet. Even when a
tweet is later deleted, saved screenshots or similar can be tweeted,
keeping the facts in the public domain.
Uncontrolled distributed political organiser
The 'yellow jackets' organise 'spontaneously' via Twitter. Of
course, 'special interests' on either side can try to direct and
manipulate the mass feeling - also via Twitter. An important element
of such 'organisation' is that embedded video tweets of current or
previous demonstrations can give people a preview, a sense of what
it is all about, what type of people are involved, whether it is
safe (in the sense of controlled policing and absence of hijacking
by small groups with a different agenda).
One of the most useful features of Twitter is that tweets on the
same event are posted by different people from different angles -
literally and figuratively. Video clips claiming to illustrate
unprovoked police violence (or vice versa) might be 'given the lie'
by a different video clip showing a violent provocation by
protesters immediately before the police response. Further context
is given by people who were at the event. tweeting their (again
literal and figurative) viewpoint.
Uncensored world news
'Politically sensitive' world events are regularly flavored with
Western Government propaganda by omission, distortion, or
withholding important context. Politically, nothing wrong with that
(so it has ever been) other than breach of public trust. Twitter
blows apart the 'grip' on news. Reporters on the ground are people
with cellphones. Of course, people 'on the ground' have been used
for propaganda. The 'White helmet' deceit is the case study. But
lies made with tweets are exposed with tweets - tweets from those
also on the ground have contained the evidentory light exposing
these dirty actors for who they really are (Al nusra = Al Qaeda 'affiliate' = Al Qaeda franchisee).
There are, of course, a large number of over-excited, hyperbolas,
ill informed, prejudiced, devious, or just plain silly Twitter
accounts acclaiming their brand of 'truth'. So what? They can easily
be swept aside.
A string of tweets and responses by famous people linked by thin
commentary is the news. It is now common to have tweets and
responses embedded in a news story. And as Twitter is designed for a
quick response, screenshots of deleted 'ill advised' tweets become
even more 'newsworthy'.
Promote yourself publicly
Google indexes very few tweets - only about 5% or so in a 2016
survey. The criteria the Google algorithm used to select 'indexable'
tweets are obscure, but likely include links to major institutions.
Even so, you (or your business) may be able to 'mold' your public
persona to your benefit. How that works is up you, of course, but
some people place images of their products, logos, or books they
have written in their header photo on their Twitter page.
Scientists promote their current results, or new fields of endeavour
via Twitter. I notice that the intense competition between science
graduates leads to what are appeals for employment. On the other
hand, various science departments look for graduates to fill
project-based short duration positions. It's a Darwinian struggle -
only the fit survive.
Fast public safety warnings
Forest fire in California, school shootings, tsunamis, earthquakes.
Twitter excels. Maps, updates, subscriptions to civil defense.
Community news and opinion
This is probably the most popular use - sharing news and opinions in
the array of intersecting and overlapping communities we belong to -
political, philosophical, local, sporting, hobby, environmental,
financial, and so on. We are a social animal, and casual
communication is analogous to chimpanzees grooming each other. It
cements bonds, releases oxytocin. Twitter has a casual feel, it can
seem intimate, private, but really, each tweet is in fact a
'publication'. And the retweet facility is like a tiny exponentially
self-multiplying 'newsflash' being pushed into hundreds or even
thousands of cellphones.
Influencing discussion on public issues
Twitter makes it possible to connect to an audience who are
discussing a particular issue. But not all participants in the
conversation are equal. Some people have a very large number of
followers, and these followers are likely to hold somewhat similar
views. As a result, such influential people can dominate one side of
a discussion. A differing point of view in replies to these dominant
opinion 'shapers' introduces new ideas and supporting facts to a
wide audience. This allows on-line discussions to broaden and become
of more value to all participants. Such instant access to engaged
audiences was impossible before twitter ('BT').
Twitter as a database of societal information
This heading is worthy of a book. About 200 billion tweets are sent
every year. The more you look through the Twitter store of glorious,
vain, or mundain social snapshots, the more nuggets of value become
visible. A scholars dream.
But I want to talk about a small subset of the information embedded
in the ever-expanding Twitterverse, the subset containing useful
information, primarily as photographs.
A feature of a tweet is that it is a response to an 'exciting' or
interesting phenomenon. It is usually immediate. It is fast. There
is a low 'action sequence' barrier to physically sending it. You
don't need to own a website. You don't need to know how to configure
dedicated file upload software. You don't need a computer. Just a
cellphone, on you all the time, everywhere. You don't even need to
know how to type (or spell). Tweets can be sent by voice. Photos and
videos sent direct from the camera. Every second,
6,000 tweets fire across the internet, around the globe. Instantly.
Some photos are important as photos of immediate record. World
events, yes, but also in science. A new plant is discovered.
Instantly tweeted. An exciting paleoanthropological specimen.
Context. Links to new scientific papers. Interviews with science
communicators. Minutia from disparate fields that might trigger new
insights. But these info-bytes are so small, how can they be of any
importance? Individually, they may not be. In total, and with the
aid of 'thread aggregating' software they have value.
Hashtags aren't especially useful for technical fact based
information, as more the technical or science based vocabulary
easily selects tweets of potential interest when used in a word
Twitter as a store of photographic images mimics Google images. Some
tweeted images appear in a Google image search, but only a few.
Twitter can be seen as trickling in valuable photos to the Google
cache, thus expanding Google-searchable information. But the the
vast swath of images on the yellow jackets social phenomenon will
not be in Google. Nor will the public commentary and opinion of
participants or observers be recorded, expect through the filter of
mainstream (biased) media. Therefore, Twitters vast searchable cache
of social phenomena is both practically unique (in size and popular
participation) and irreplaceable.
Deliberate expansion of the database
Participants in Twitter can choose to deliberately expand the
Twitter cache of 'higher value' information. This attracts a
community of interest, comments and contributions of value, which in
turn makes specific information sub-streams run 95 carat information
'gold'. The more obscure the topic, the more high value the search
results. A search for Musa basjoo on twitter (https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&q=musa%20basjoo&src=typd)
retrieves a vast trove of practical experience with this plant,
mainly in Europe. Clearly, experiences are shared, Disagreements are
aired. 'Firsts' are recorded. Failures, too. Both are emotional
responses, highly Twitter-triggering.
The more high value tweets that are sent out, the better the
I have thought about the idea of deliberately placing information in
the Twitter cache, and have very recently come to the view that if
tweets are confined to images and comments that are likely to record
something of use to human knowledge, then it is socially useful to
make that contribution, if you can. For me, that is mainly
observations about plants in my climatic zone.
It is relatively low cost for me to do this - but impose a cost on
my followers. But my tweets, to the extent they carry information,
have only benefits for those searching the Twitter database for
Signal to noise
In the end, the Twitter user has to try to 'massage' their Twitter
feed to maximise signal and minimise noise.
Twitter, after all, is a claim on time.
Weigh any one 'tweeters' average 'tweet value' (in your
understanding of 'value') against volume of tweets. Factor in a low
frequency of ultra-high value tweets amongst a large number of low,
if that is applicable/possible.
Consider a 'light hearted/social' twitter account for the
miscellanea of life, and a separate purposeful ('serious') account.
What is Twitters 'place' in the digitally imprinted 'infoption'
hierarchy (book, web page, blog, email)?
Twitter is at the very bottom of the infopt hierarchy. But it still
has some importance, mainly due to immediacy.
All digital media is impermanent. A large electro-magnetic
pulse could wipe much of the digital record forever. Only printed
pages can be permanent. I have a book whose 250th birthday is this
year. Will todays digital books still exist in 250 years time?
Today, the barriers to publishing your digital book are low; but the
barriers to printed books remain high. Digital writing in theory
will exist 'forever' due to the huge information storage capacity of
businesses such as Google, but, electromagnetic impulses aside, the
weakness is faith in Google continuing 'forever'. The biase of
algorithms against plummeting page views as websites and blogs go
silent with the disability, death, destitution, or disinterest of
the owner means that even if a digital information page exists, it
may be practically irretrievable.
Twitter, of course, may disappear. Nothing lasts forever.
Twitter can be seen as a pastiche of impressions that cannot last
without analysis and embodiment in published works. If a publication
has enduring merit, it will enter the printed record of the history
of our lives.
In time, most printed records will go out of print, be remaindered,
and then only found at second hand bookshops. If a printed record is
enduring, it may be referred to or quoted by scholars in learned
articles and books - published either on line, or in print form. And
a quote tweeted to their followers...
A page from 'The Fruit Gardener', twittified,
250 years after publication in 1768