On the Good Things About Twitter

2019-11-05 ~1000 words

Over the past few years, I have heard many people repeatedly note the downsides of Twitter, particularly its impact on our society. I don’t agree with all of those criticisms, but some are legitimate and most deserve a serious discussion. This isn’t that discussion, though.

Instead, I’d like to spend some time on the many merits of Twitter, so lost in our current debate.

Good Writing

Or: If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter tweet

I have heard people say that a character limit forces brevity at the expense of thoughtful writing, but almost any good writing teacher would tell you that brief writing is thoughtful writing. Concise expression of ideas is a wonderful thing, particularly from a reader’s perspective – if it took you a page to express your thoughts on a topic, almost no one would read them anyway.

It often takes time to capture the nuance of an idea, or the humor of a witticism, in 280 characters. That time spent reflecting on a thought often makes the final product sharper and more impactful, though. Frankly I thought Twitter was much better in the days of the 140-character limit.

Making News Accessible

Breadth, Depth, and Expense

Unfortunately we don’t have metrics on how many people read tweets, nor on how many people read newspaper articles. But I think there are good reasons to believe that Twitter is actually making us more informed citizens, not less. Consider that in five minutes, I could read perhaps 100 tweets from my feed. While only a handful of those would be “news” in a strict sense, it would take me the same amount of time to read a single article online. In the days of physical newspapers, it would take that long just to go pick up the paper from the front porch. With Twitter, 120 seconds in line at the grocery store can become useful.

The metrics that we do have are ambiguous, but don’t particularly suggest that Twitter is responsible for decreased readership. Take the New York Times: In 2009, the Times was down to just 928,000 weekday subscribers to the physical newspaper. This year, online subscriptions were up to 4.7 million. Meanwhile, the @nytimes Twitter account has 44 million followers as of this writing. Sure, most followers read just a small fraction of that account’s tweets, and maybe some don’t read any but have just never gotten around to unfollowing. But something similar is likely true for digital subscribers, and there are just one tenth as many. And it’s important to note that these groups of people are different – the people paying to read the Times online are much more likely to find a way to read the news somehow, while Twitter is probably catering to more casual consumers who might not follow current events at all if it weren’t so easy.

I’m happy to concede that Twitter has changed the way we read news, and some of those effects are negative. But it’s easy to overlook how much easier Twitter has made it to be at least somewhat educated about the world around you.

Communities of Interest

Finding like-minded nerds

In this regard, Twitter has much in common with its fellow financially-challenged social network Reddit. Both are text-first mediums that tend to foster communities of users who share real-life interests, allowing those communities to “like” or “upvote” good content and thereby help even more people find it. On Facebook you friend real-life acquaintances; on Twitter you follow people who have interesting things to say about topics you care about. I have personally gotten more out of Twitter as I’ve followed fewer of my actual friends. And I find new people to follow largely by seeing their tweets in my feed, retweeted by someone else.

This leads to a topic-centric network that is fully unlike what you can have in the real world. NBA Twitter is widely regarded as one of the best things about being a basketball fan – the cream has truly risen to the top, and some previously anonymous basketball writers have gained followers and prestige through their excellent Twitter content over the years.

Much is made of bubbles and their troubling effects on our political discourse. However, there’s a reason we gravitate toward bubbles – conversation with like-minded people is fun! I don’t have many friends who want to talk about Linux configuration or good ways to set up my vimrc file, but on Twitter and Reddit there are literally hundreds of people that want to do just that. Being able to find those people helps me refine skills that otherwise might stagnate, and to form a community I couldn’t have otherwise.

Another effect of the nature of Twitter and Reddit is that they encourage jokes that simply wouldn’t be tried in the real world. Pseudo-anonymity and tight-knit groups of people formed based on interests mean a wealth of inside jokes, at a level of inside-ness that would be hard to achieve even with one’s closest friends. In many communities, the quality of writing and wit is astonishingly high. Because this isn’t a one-on-one conversation, where it’s socially necessary to make sure your partner is following along, users are free to make references that only 1 in 10 other readers will understand – but the payoff of such jokes certainly feels more than 10x as good as a run-of-the-mill reference. Where else could I find jokes tying together 80s NBA players and famous economists? Computer science concepts and Elizabeth Warren’s policy proposals?

Far From Perfect

I’m not going to die on the Twitter hill – popular opinion may have shifted too far against my favorite network. But if we do kill Twitter, I hope we look back fondly on some aspects of it.