The Sunday Times caused a (calculated?) stir on Twitter yesterday when it published a article article suggested that users were narcissistic, insecure, lacking identity and peddling the mundane.
The journalist who wrote the piece, Andy Pemberton, wondered: “What kind of person shares information with the world the minute they get it? And just who are the “followers” willing to tune into this rolling news service of the ego?”
He then consulted various psychologists and philosophers, collecting a series of quotes assembed to patholologise Twitter use:
The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”
“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”
For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”
Is that why tweets are often so breathtakingly mundane? Recently, the rock star John Mayer posted a tweet that read: “Looking for my Mosely Tribes sunglasses.” Who wants to tell the world that?
Some of these musings may be enlightening, but only if you look at a very limited subset of Twitter users that journalism has fixated upon in the last few weeks: the celebrities.
On the web, the traditional distinction between broadcast and communications media is frequently blurred. With the partial exception of the handful of celebrity users with huge swarms of followers, Twitter is not about atomised individuals broadcasting their thoughts to an anonymous mass audience.
For the vast majority of users, Twitter, like previous semi-public online ‘chat’ applications, is more akin to a conversation in a pub, in which a wider group can overhear statements between a smaller sub-group.
With that context in mind, it is difficult to imagine Twitter users as insecure or lacking a strong identity. My experience is quite the contrary: Many of the Twitter users I’m familiar with recognise themselves as members of a pre-existing community of like-minded people – often a professional or peer group that they have previously interacted with in person or through other online platforms.
The narcissism claim, which was also leveled at bloggers in early attempts to explain their medium, also stems from this confusion of broadcasting and communications media. It’s not vanity publishing if it’s intended as a conversation among friends.
The same misunderstanding also explains why many tweets (like many blog posts) appear mundane to third party observers. Any communication aimed at a a very specific in-group will appear mundane and uninteresting to outsiders who aren’t interested in the subject matter.
Many of the people I follow on Twitter, for example, are fellow online journalists who I know either in person or through various other platforms. We use it to share information relevant to the group (“check out this link to a Google News blog post of SEO tips”), discuss complex ideas relevant to the group (“Micropayments will never work in online news publishing. Discuss.”), or seek out hidden but likely practical expertise in the group (“My database is borked. Can anybody help?”).
Where’s the narcissism? Where’s the lack of identity? The banality is obvious, though. Only a few specialists care about Google News SEO. Almost nobody cares about the structure of blog databases. But within my peer group, lots of people do.
Before seeking out psychologists and philosophers, the Sunday Times should have first consulted a professor of media studies to explain the interwebs.
I’ll even suggest a name. Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody includes a rather more enlightening discussion of Twitter, including the problems of apparent banality. Shirky also addresses the problem of fame, specifically how it forces famous people to adopt a broadcast style communication, even on otherwise conversational media platforms.