Whatever Twitter was supposed to be originally, as a communication medium it suffers from one basic problem: there is only so much you can convey in 160 characters. Especially when you burn 20 of those precious characters for a URL, another ten with an “@username,” and maybe another five with various hashtags. That leaves maybe 125 characters for any Tweeter to use.
And what good is 125 characters? It’s fantastic for basic advertising of the “Look what I just wrote up – give it a read and comment at my site if you are so inclined” variety. It works as an immediate version of the Facebook Wall where you can post cool links that you think your friends and/or co-workers might like. And it’s fantastic for repeating sound bites that enable close-minded thinking.
What Twitter is not good at, however, is serving as a medium for detailed, in-depth discussions about any topic that has nuance. Which, when you really think about it, is pretty much every interesting discussion worth having.
Imagine for a moment the following situation. You need to have a discussion among your co-workers about a topic that has some technical complexity. It could be an aspect of industrial climate disruption, avionics design, new product development, teaching methods – whatever. You can’t meet face-to-face because you and your co-workers aren’t all co-located, but you have the following communications methods available to you: Twitter, email, conference call, and video conferencing. What do you choose? I bet it wasn’t Twitter.
Email is better than Twitter for this kind of discussion because you’re not limited by length and you can include files that help explain things. But email is a notoriously poor communication medium, one that is plagued by users who simply haven’t been trained in how to express nuance in text. And when trained communicators can still mess up via email, you know that untrained users are all but doomed. It’s remarkably easy to offend someone inadvertently via email, for example, and sometimes things get so twisted up in email that emails can be misunderstood and taken all out of context (e.g. the Climategate mess).
A conference call is generally better than email because you can judge a lot from vocal inflections. Confusion is quickly identified and can often be corrected immediately. And when files have been distributed by email before the conference call (or are available via web conferencing tools), a tremendous amount of progress can be made in a very short period of time. Videoconferencing should theoretically be even better since you have even more non-verbal cues to help determine the level of understanding in a group. But in my own experience few businesses use video conferencing because the cost of entry is high and the improvements over conference calls are not so great.
Communicating complex topics requires a communication medium that permits complexity, not one that is designed to drive complexity out of communicating.
Years ago I was working at a summer job when I was forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh on a shared radio. About a half hour into my listening to my first ever show I realized just what Limbaugh’s shtick was – he took complicated ideas, oversimplified them until they fit whatever ideological box he was working with that day, and then he spoon fed them in sound bites to his listeners in a way that freed his listeners from the need to think. Listening to Limbaugh’s show one could be secure in the knowledge that yes, the world really was simple and that everything that wasn’t right was unambiguously wrong.
Twitter is the Rush Limbaugh of communications media. Twitter forces us to think in tiny, oversimplified, sound bite-sized boxes where reality’s glorious rainbows and shades of gray have been dumbed down to mere black and white.
Categories: Internet/Telecom/Social Media