How Twitter made me smarter
The website everyone loves to hate has an upside
Image via Brain Twitter Conference.
It’s been said that the English middle-class is the only class which loathes itself, and I think Twitter occupies a similar position within the structure of social media - the only self-loathing platform. Elon Musk’s purchase of it has gone down badly, on Twitter. The prevailing sentiment seems to be, Twitter is terrible, we hate it, it’s ruining everything - and now Musk is going to spoil it. The few people who welcome his takeover also hate Twitter, except they believe he is going to fix it - but if he fixed it, would anyone want to be there anymore? Twitter’s very raison d’etre is to outrage people in a way that somehow makes them want to return to the scene of the offence. Clubhouse, an audio-based social app, was designed to offer discussion without the toxicity; if it’s struggling to grow that’s partly because it delivers on its promise.
Since everyone loves to rehearse the negatives of Twitter ad infinitum I am going to focus on what I like about it. (If you don’t use Twitter you’ll still find this interesting, because it’s really about writing and thinking). I have used it a lot over the last 15 years and owe much to it. It helped me get a journalism career off the ground, it’s been a vital source of information, insight, and laughter, and it’s made me new friends. It’s also been a massive waste of time. On the whole, though, I’d say it’s been a net plus.
Is it a net plus for society? Um, that’s tricky. It’s obviously been bad for our discourse and politics in ways I’ve written about, and that get written about a lot (though if you read last week’s Ruffian you’ll know that I don’t think it’s been as apocalyptically terrible for everything as some are making out). But I also believe it’s making a lot of people smarter than they were. This is counter-intuitive, since we all know Twitter usage is scientifically proven to make people stupid. OK, not literally, but as Larry Summers almost said, log on and look around: there are idiots, and what’s more not all of them were idiots before they started tweeting. But perhaps the idiocy, which is very visible, overshadows an increase, not necessarily commensurate, in its opposite. I offer myself as a data point.
I am pretty sure I’m a better writer (and therefore thinker) because of Twitter, for a few reasons. First, because I read a lot more good journalism and writing of many kinds than I did before I joined. For all that social media is meant to create filter bubbles, Twitter has created a more diverse and varied reading diet for me than the one I had before. Second, it offers rigorous training in one of the fundamental skills of good writing: economy. Maximum expression; minimum words. Fitting everything you want to say into a box that allows for 280 characters is a bracing challenge, if you take it seriously (in the good old days of 140 it was even harder; kids today etc). I like a good thread, but even in a thread, each box should contain a single thought, like a paragraph of prose except short.
Short doesn’t mean dumb. People who believe a thought can’t be interesting or complex unless it’s wordy are the kind of people who prefer Pink Floyd to Chic. Shorter can mean an increased density of meaning and affect rather than less of either; the best tweets are like a smash of flavour. In fact when I fill the box to its limit I feel that I’ve failed. If I’m in a discussion or, God forbid, a debate with someone on Twitter, I aim to make my points using fewer words and fewer tweets than my interlocutor, without sacrificing clarity or nuance. It’s a discipline that trains your mind to seek the essential points, the pith and marrow. I love working out which words to cut or how to condense an argument, and the more I practice this, the better, or less worse, I get.
That brings me to another benefit: an increased sensitivity to tone, or style. Twitter has made me think harder about, not just what I want to say, but how I want to say it. It has its own stylistic world - fast, loose, irreverent - which makes specific demands of the tweeter. I don’t think everyone needs to adopt the memes and linguistic tics that spread virally across the platform. But one of the errors I see people make on Twitter is employing the same prose style they use in their professional lives: lawyers will write in fastidiously punctuated sentences with Latinate words, academics in difficult-to-parse paragraphs that just happen to be strung through boxes. There’s too little accommodation with the form. Above all, Twitter brutally exposes and amplifies any hint of pomposity. If you’re making an argument on Twitter it’s very easy to sound sententious and ponderous. This is a trap it lays for you, and avoiding it requires creativity (or just not playing - as I’ve written, if your job depends on an aura of authority, you should stay away. Twitter is a gravitas-destroying machine).
Not all writing should be like tweeting, of course, but I think it has made all my other writing tauter, lighter and more tonally varied. Not that I succeed in avoiding pomposity, on or off the platform, but in this and other ways, failing is the point; Twitter allows you to make lots of low-stakes failures of communication, which you can then learn from.
It’s also made me a more original thinker (I stress, again, that this is a relative claim), despite or rather because of its tendency to induce imitative thought. This is the final and probably most important reason Twitter has been good for my thinking. A book I read when I was younger that made an enduring impression on me is Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché. This passage in particular:
To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.
A manifesto for thinking and writing, right there! Amis put me on high alert for cliché, not just in the sense of “time is a great healer” (clichés like that have their functions, and sometimes a lack of freshness is a virtue; a note of condolence is not the place for originality) but in the sense of unthinkingly received opinions, mindlessly adopted ideas, borrowed sentiments. Clichés of the mind. Once you are on alert for these clichés you see and hear them everywhere - in conversation, in journalism, in novels. You develop a mild allergic reaction to opinions which, regardless of whether you sympathise with them or not, have clearly been taken off the discourse shelf without so much as a once-over.
Clichés in this sense are not expressions of thought but imitations of it. They are memes, in the original, Dawkins sense: an idea or behaviour which infects your brain while tricking you into believing you authored it. I get captured by these simulacra myself - it’s very hard not to. But the battle against cliché is what makes writing, by which I mean thinking, difficult and worthwhile.
Hang on, what’s this got to do with Twitter? Well, if cliché is the enemy of good writing and good thinking, Twitter is the greatest source of information on enemy manoeuvres yet invented. It shows you what the buggers are up to and where they are, every day and every minute. Click on any hot take tweet and read the replies. Nearly all of them say the same thing. Or you might get two groups of violently opposed responses, with all the members within each group making the same points. In fact, express even a mild opinion about anything - the weather, golf, Elvis Costello - and you will get lots of similar responses, or groups of similar responses. Over time, Twitter helps you recognise the patterns that opinion falls into on any given topic.
My point here isn’t duh look at all the dumb sheeple. It’s that Twitter provides these instant maps of received opinion (among tweeters, at least) and that’s really useful for working out what you think. On any given topic you can tell where the various countries of opinion are, big and small, the straits and the islands, and that can help you work out where you want to locate yourself. I find it’s usually somewhere else than my first response suggests. Your first opinion is likely to be a cliché, since the quickest, cognitively cheapest way to get a thought is to grab it from the discount store of conventional wisdom. But you don’t know it’s a cliché until you check. I don’t mean to imply that a smart thought is one that is totally different from all the other thoughts. In fact, if nobody else is saying what you’re thinking, there might be a good reason for that.
Or there might not. Either way, Twitter raises the bar for your thinking. If someone with lots of followers tweets a take or a joke and you come up with an instant, hilarious or devastating riposte, check the replies before tweeting it. More often than not you’ll find that twenty other people have had the same brilliant idea. So now you have to think a bit harder and see if you can come up with a better one, or at least a different one.1 Sometimes, even after reflecting, you might agree with what everyone else saying. That’s OK. Now you can find a way to express that familiar opinion differently - to make it reverberate afresh.
Twitter exposes us to cliché so that we can avoid it, or improve upon it. This principle even applies at the level of identity or persona. I try to be myself on Twitter but actually it’s very hard to do that. Even smart and thoughtful opinion-formers tend to imitate or play to their audience rather than reacting to events in a truly thoughtful way. That includes me. Often I can sense myself becoming one of those stock characters with which you become very familiar if you spend enough time on the website: the Grumpy Reactionary, the Reasonable Centrist, the Man of Rationality, the Edgy Contrarian. A walking (tweeting) cliché. I admire what Julia Galef calls “high entropy thinkers”: people of whom it’s hard to predict what their position is going to be on any one particular issue, just from knowing their positions on other issues. Coherent but unpredictable voices are rare on Twitter (I would cite Agnes Callard as a delightful example) and frankly in life. I don’t count myself as one but I’m grateful to Twitter for making me more aware of how hard it is to “think for yourself”.
Early in this century, in a forgotten age before social media, the writer Kevin Drum said something I think about a lot: that the internet is making smart people smarter and dumb people dumber. Now, quite obviously, Twitter can make smart people dumber too. But the point is that the internet and social media increase variance. Is Twitter creating more intelligence or more stupidity? Both. And which side of that graph you fall on is really up to you.
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And please check out CONFLICTED, my book on how to have productive arguments, even on Twitter.
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Who is going to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2024?
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