Egotistical? Inadequate? Vacuous? Ah, you must be on Twitter

Ahh, The Times – they’re at it again, completely missing the point of social media: on this occasion, Twitter.

Now admittedly the print version of this nonsense appeared in Sunday’s Style section, so perhaps to expect deep thought and considered judgements would have been a bit optimistic, after all Twitter’s hardly Lady Gaga’s trademark big knickers, is it? As for the otherwise demonstrably intelligent bunch of Drs, de Bottons and Oliver Jameses the Times has corralled together to hypothesise glumly under the headline a LOad Of TWitTEr (The Times’ own haste and illiteracy implying typography), however, there can be no excuses: the point, gentlemen, is CONVERSATION; the clue’s in the name, SOCIAL media.

Not even once does the article mention, or even appear to consider that Twitter isn’t merely one-way communication. Instead, we get generalisations such as the following (incidentally, I’m not even on Twitter yet, but misthought generalisations like these are fast persuading me to be):


“‘We are the most narcissistic age ever… Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist.'” – Dr David Lewis

“‘I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘follower’ is someone who is young, and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life.'” – Oliver James

“‘Twittering stems from a lack of identity… Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.'” – Oliver James

The word ‘guess’ in that second quote, to me, suggests that perhaps James wasn’t entirely familiar with the territory, perhaps even hypothesising purely on something that had only just been explained to him by the article’s writer. On the other hand, let’s not be too fair to James, if there was any ignorance on his part he certainly doesn’t let it get in the way of making a strong sweeping claim, does he?


“‘[Twitter] is a giant baby monitor.'” – Alain de Botton

“‘The primary fantasy for most people is that we can be as connected as we were in the womb, a situation of total closeness.'” – Alain de Botton

“‘Children like to play ‘I have a secret to tell you’. It’s great fun, but what they say is often not very important.'” – Alain de Botton

Good grief, was there actually the hint of a positive benefit to Twittering there? That it might be fun? How ever did that make it into the article? (Probably because it’s still saying that the content of a tweet is essentially meaningless, but anyway).


“…this rolling news service of the ego.” – the article’s author’s description

“‘They don’t say, What do you think of Descartes’s second treatise?'” – Alain de Botton

You reckon, Alain? Just a few seconds of research into the feasibility of a website idea I had the other day proved to me otherwise (it wasn’t a question about Descartes I stumbled on, but close enough). Not only that, but how many philosophers have distilled their wisdom into aphorisms? Yep, plenty, and you’ll find plenty of their efforts on Twitter; not to mention more contemporary philosophical observations. As for when longer-form discussion would be more appropriate, that’s when you switch to e-mail, blogs, the telephone, face-to-face – but that doesn’t invalidate Twitter, it’s still an elegantly simple way to ask the important questions, to initiate and set up the discussion.

“‘It makes us look young. And that is a high-status position in this society.'” – Alain de Botton

So why are so many young people on it? (Oh yes, I forgot, because they’re all missing the womb).

“‘It doesn’t matter what people say in their tweets – it’s not the point'” – Alain de Botton

“‘Tweets are really just a series of symbols. The person writing it just wants to be in the forefront of your mind, nothing more.'” Dr David Lewis

Really? So the idea of sharing information doesn’t come into it anywhere, or altruism, or spreading/breaking news, or any of the reams of sociological and philosophical theory that’s been written down the years chronicling the evolutionary benefits of such behaviours, and how they figure in the building of civilisation? And again, what about two-way communication?

I don’t mean to make grand claims for Twitter here, by the way, or suggest that some Twitterers aren’t in it for the ego, or because of social isolation (and if it helps with that, so much the better), but come on, it’s not just about saying ‘I exist, look at me.’ I mean, look at how many tweets are actually questions, or recommendations, the news stories that have been broken on Twitter lately, the way it’s being used to warn people of where the Australian bush fire might be heading next, and so on – in fact, is it not a bit like Google, but more personal? And with greater likelihood that the links will be exactly what you need, that the news will be the news that interests you? Could it perhaps be the ultimate search engine, as well as a handy communication tool?

Hm, actually, those are fairly grand claims…

Dammit. Now I really have talked myself into joining – it just better not be too distracting.

See you on there soon!

UPDATE: Some further thoughts in the comments – in short, a more Twitter sympathetic journalist might have framed what de Botton had to say somewhat differently. (But only ‘might’. Either way, he doesn’t get off scot-free). 

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