This week I deleted the Twitter app from my phone. It probably won’t stick. I will find myself wanting to know what folks are saying or what is prompting the “arguments” that are taking place in the media and in grocery store checkout lines. Nevertheless, I have deemed this particular communication format to be an anger-accelerant and not healthy for our society.
This is not my usual way. As a media ecologist, I have a habit of examining all new communication platforms via plusses and minuses or winners and losers. I consider the concerns Socrates expressed about the invention of writing (no one will know anything if they just look it up), and remember that I still like books. I consider the observations of Marshall McLuhan who suggested that we focus on the medium instead of the message, and the analysis of Susanne Langer, who detailed propositional (emotional) vs. presentational (logical) forms, and think what they might make of today’s media environment. I review Neil Postman’s argument that television redefines public discourse in such a way that prioritizes amusement over analysis, and consider how that has been heightened when everyone interacts with that “entertainment” format. I have always taken cues from their observations, and tried to reflect deeply on how our shifts in communication environments may be changing us. I don’t just dismiss things.
As social media took over the world, I took just such an approach. As my children and I dove into Facebook, I did not just worry about the bullying that could occur there; I also looked at the connections that were maintained over distances and time that once were lost to geographic changes. The dangers of the algorithms are real, but there are some redeeming qualities. As I pondered Instagram, I observed that although it is well used by influencers hawking products, it is also a fun place for families to share updates on children, grandchildren, travel, etc. But as I observe what is happening with Twitter, well, I am out.
Here’s the thing, Twitter encourages all of us speak in headlines. For newspapers, radio, and television, headlines are meant to be a tease to get you to learn more. In all of those media, the art of the headline is to frame issues in the most heightened state of conflict or disagreement so that people will buy the paper or tune into your network (yes, they sell a product). Ostensibly, that follow-up step would lead to a greater understanding of an issue than reading the headlines revealed. This sometimes happened. As television and radio news moved into 24 news cycles (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), the agonistic tones intensified and, although the time allotted to the stories was significant, the snippets that most people heard were shout downs between commentators and guests, rather than a true exploration of the story. Twitter doesn’t even try to get to the full story. It is only the shout down.
Last week I realized that even people that I know and love are behaving badly on Twitter. They have embraced the format and tweet responses of outrage to everything that offends their sensibilities. In the process, their tweets are promoting petty and divisive approaches to all topics. Since I know these people to be smart and well read on the issues they tweet about, I must conclude that Twitter is the problem. It is all sensational headlines with no opportunity for dialogue.
Now some of you might be thinking that Twitter could lead us to the dialogue, but I don’t think so. It is not what it is designed to do. It is the perfect response and distraction medium, keeping us engaged in the next tweet, with no time left for research. Even those who do their research about an issue continue to communicate in this abridged and inflammatory way. There appears to be no real motivation to go into the details of a story in rational tones. No, this just won’t do.
In higher education, our job is to do the opposite of Twitter. We are tasked with helping students (and ourselves) see the full argument, not these truncated and fallacious syllogisms. We must learn to dig in and uncover as many assumptions as we can. Then we must examine the supporting and contradictory evidence before forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion. This is where true argument and debate live.
True argument (as opposed to shouting matches) is what we should be fostering at all levels of education, because if we don’t do it, there will be no opportunity to develop these skills in our citizens. There are just too many distractions outside of our halls. The world is facing serious questions about how to organize our efforts around climate, poverty, mental & physical health, economy, equity, etc., and answering those questions will require reflective, evidence-based thinking. This thinking cannot be achieved through Twitter.
So, I’ve deleted the app, for now. I may go back and figure out how to use it as a teaching tool, or even better encourage its use for poetry. But for now, I want to live in the opposite world where thinking still has a chance.