I’ve just passed my 10,000th follower on Twitter, and similar to when I went past 5,000 followers this feels like a good point to reflect on this open, ‘blog-and-tweet’ world evolving around me.
Many of the comments I made two years ago have stood the test of time: Twitter is still fundamentally a conversation, broadcast not just to your lunch queue but worldwide, and blogs remain lightweight, informal platforms for review and commentary. And as with any conversation you have to consider your audience first, and as with all public writing everyone still need and editor [sic].
So, happily, the basic principles hold true. But with this up tick, I want to reflect on whether these media/platforms are actually right for everyone, and the future of open discussion.
You don’t have to join Twitter
I get a lot out of Twitter, and part of that includes sharing interesting papers or blog posts I’ve spotted in my twitter stream or adding new ones to the mix. I find myself asking people if they are on Twitter so I can be sure to reference them when their work comes up. This sometimes elicits a somewhat sheepish response along the lines of, “I don’t do Twitter,” or “Twitter makes me feel uncomfortable,” or, in rare cases, a flash of rage against the world of informal and all-too-short critiques/discussions.
I try to be positive about my Twitter experience while acknowledging that Twitter is not for everyone, and recognising its pitfalls: it can be distracting, people are often tempted to over-share aspects of their lives, etc. Twitter is certainly not a requirement, and blogs are rather personal. While I am not alone in finding these media useful, I wouldn’t say that you are missing out on crucial information if you don’t jump in. Mainstream scientific interaction is still via published, peer-reviewed papers and giving talks at conferences and workshops, and that is where the really important stuff is to be found.
You don’t have to interact on Twitter
Many people use Twitter as a sort of personalised, text-based radio station: something you can tune into when you want, that gives you a personalised mix of news. I am pretty sure no one else has my mix of interests in worldwide science, UK, European and US politics, cricket and events in the North Tyne valley (in Northumberland). Twitter is useful just in this “consumption” mode.
Twitter is also inherently ephemeral – people shouldn’t expect you to be on it all the time (although it seems like some people are!), and no one can expect that a comment (when someone @’s you) will always elicit a response. People have lives, holidays, emergencies and so forth, and all of those things make it perfectly reasonable to ignore this global conversation.
But if you do start a conversation about a topic, I think it is reasonable for others to expect that you will respond and follow through on sensible comments. Some conversations spark a need for deeper discussion (i.e. “we’re going to need to meet up face to face for this one…”), and some might dwindle because you have to take your kids to a pirate party, sleep, etc. And that’s fine. The instant, global nature of Twitter makes it empowering in some ways, but it also needs to be tamed to fit into your life.
140 characters: plenty of room for misinterpretation
Twitter’s limitation of 140 characters can be challenging, and it’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret a tweet – in particular when it is intended to be funny, or when it involves a disagreement. Without body language, vocal nuance or the comfort of expository paragraphs, it is extremely easy to blunder on, not realising that the other person has taken offence, become confused or both.
So I stand by my rules of avoiding ‘jokes’ on Twitter (unless I’m very confident that the people in the conversation will get it), and avoiding disagreements, particularly the complex ones. Science is full of ambiguity and disagreement, which is part of what makes it exciting – but Twitter’s natural limitations turn those elements into confusion all to easily. It just is not the right medium for this kind of engagement (more on this below).
Post-publication peer review is cool
Open, recorded, textual criticism is complex
The global nature of these communications adds many layers of cultural complexity, as they are (in science) mainly carried out in the English language, which provides endless opportunities for misunderstandings and perceived callousness due to people’s different use of English. But it is perhaps the permanent, public, recorded nature of these critical conversations that raises the stakes highest. Onlookers can read motivations in the text that they wouldn’t interpret in the same spoken conversation. One cannot easily forget such a disagreement when it has been so public and lasting, in particular when it becomes personal.