The Infinite Tweeters Theory

The problem I have always had with understanding Twitter, certainly in a non-professional context, is summed up quite neatly by their tagline: “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” I have a friend in advertising (I feel this statement needs qualification for some reason… I’m sure she didn’t inhale?) who once extolled the utility of Twitter to me, since it allowed her to quickly and simply survey ‘trending’ topics and find out ‘what’s happening’ in various spheres. I can understand the use of Twitter for this friend, or for a journalist, or indeed anyone who wants to look at the cumulative total of twittering going on (I realise this is not necessarily accepted jargon ‘btw’, I use it advisedly for rhetorical effect) and draw what information they require from it (although this can take enough effort that we now need specialised Twitter search engines and other appendages). What has bothered me is why I should want to talk about ‘what’s happening’ in such a public forum in the first place. Are we transferring even more of our everyday interaction and conversation to online media just to make trend-analysts’ jobs easier? If indeed such positions exist…

Now, I concede that the advantages of such mass, networked communication for small businesses, organisations and, ultimately, academics are more obvious, where (self-)promotion and reaching a large audience is either intrinsically useful or counts towards such broad concepts as ‘impact’ and ‘outreach.’ Academics certainly can benefit too from the networked aspect of the platform, finding out ‘what’s happening’ and receiving input from other Twitter-users (companies can do this too, but it’s not always successful). In this sense, we’re merely replicating the kinds of off-line conversations that would be going on in professional circles anyway, but in a far wider and more open manner.

So far so good, but here’s where we come to the issues raised in Thing Three: as soon as you expand this network for sharing useful or interesting professional information, you have to address the problem of guaranteeing quality. Just because this article will have accumulated a large number of ‘shares’ in the last few days, does not make it the BBC’s most incisive journalism; similarly Samantha Brick seems to have been built especially in a Frankensteinesque lab at the Daily Mail as a website-hit-providing chimera of ridiculous opinions (note how I do not link to her site for this very reason). This is the same basic problem in academia and bibliometrics. Just because something is read or shared widely, does not guarantee quality of scholarship (or indeed that its being read ‘properly’). Not only that but, in opening up the network from which one gathers one’s news and information, it also becomes harder to be confident of the reliability of the individuals within that network. If you gave an infinite number of monkeys Twitter accounts, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare, or at least tweet something interesting, but I for one don’t have billions of years to wait for it. ‘Crowd-sourcing’ peer review may sound like an answer to what is increasingly a clunky and slow-moving process, but it also makes it harder to guarantee that ‘peer’ is the operative word and that sufficient rigour is being used.

Now this may all sound very elitist and conservative, but I don’t want to deter people; I simply aim to strike the right note of caution. While updating traditional means of circulating information and keeping up with one’s field is beneficial, one must remember that ‘conversations in corridors’ will still take place. Despite the rise of altmetrics and the increasingly advanced analysis of online data on articles and citations, no algorithms can replace or even imitate individual judgement, either one’s own or that of a trusted friend or colleague. Google, who have made a business out of such data manipulation and are constantly pushing the frontiers (maybe this is old news, but I recently discovered their attempt to make the entire corpus of published English analysable), are still unable to distinguish that, though I once cited ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ as a favourite book on Facebook, I am not interested in targeted adverts about hiking and hill-walking. This is a simplistic example I admit, since it is probably not worth Google’s while to distinguish here, but the point still stands that at some stage human discretion is required: be it in identifying the usefulness and quality of academic articles, or in sifting through the Twitter-verse, however well it is sorted and presented for you.

Now, I am aware I have written this before becoming a fully-fledged Tweeter myself, and hopefully I will have time to explore it a bit more and post any further thoughts, but I think that my somewhat broad-brush approach to the issues discussed above is mostly a reminder, before I do start creating more of an online identity, that this should always really be considered an adjunct to real life. It is all too easy to create a false (or at least inaccurate) impression online, especially for yourself, as many people find happening to their social network through Facebook. I’ve been tempted to do away with Facebook myself before now, having found it all too easy to absorb oneself in it over-enthusiastically at first; there are many advantages to such networking, and it is not necessary to forsake it entirely, but one must also be mindful of the drawbacks.

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One thought on “The Infinite Tweeters Theory

  1. I’m interested that you have your doubts about facebook – I find it far too constraining to use for professional reasons as it seems to think I want to present myself in the same way to everyone (and I don’t trust the privacy policy – it keeps changing!) I have to admit, i do prefer Twitter – the reason being that the format is open enough that I can adapt it to whatever I want to use it for, partly building a name for myself by making people aware of what I do (which doesn’t equate to quality, you’re right!) and partly for enhancing the kind of networking I do anyway ( a really big virtual corridor). Done well, it can really enhance conferences, allowing me to ‘meet’ many more people than I can possibly talk to over coffee.

    You’re right to be concerned about the ‘filter bubble’ – while this can happen in real life, it’s very easy to get trapped in what the web thinks you want to hear, whereas as academics, we want to be pushed outside our existing ideas, not have them confirmed back to us.

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