On social media and complex issues (Tumblr transfer – written 05/07)

Prompted by musings on my Twitter feed from some about how 140 characters is not enough for reasoned, intelligent debate and explanation of complex issues I figured I’d reflect on how we use social media and whether or not it is beneficial to how we engage with complex issues and debates.

I’ve grown up into this social media age, I mean hell even I, young as I am, remember videotaping TV shows and being upset if we were out and it failed to record (and the wrath of my mother when I taped Scooby Doo over her episode of Casualty), and now I can watch iPlayer on my iPad with episodes of shows from weeks ago. Similarly I can remember going to our ageing, dinosaur, second hand PC and waiting 10 minutes for it to boot up, and another 10 for the dial up connection to decide to work, and now I just switch the wifi to ‘on’ and I’m connected. Social media is a platform where all can interact, and the many benefits of it have already been widely noted. The ability to get in touch with those miles away whose existence you did not know of before you saw them talking to someone you follow on Twitter, the keeping in touch with old friends through Facebook, the vast array of blogs and comments, all these are part of our living, breathing everyday life.

Twitter is fascinating because of its character restriction, it forces a distillation of thought in order to avoid misinterpretation or offence. Writing anything online is dangerous since the written word cannot convey the sense of the word, of irony or sarcasm, and the risk of misinterpretation is great. Those who use Twitter will know of people who do try to answer complex questions in single tweets, and often fail. And they will also know of those who tweet with abandon, not taking care over what they write or how they phrase it, and in the tension of misinterpretation often add fuel to the fire. Debate and controversy on Twitter is not hard to find, and the blurring of professional and personal lines which occurs of course causes issues, libellous and unwise tweets being equally easy to find and give examples of.

The instant nature of Twitter allows news to travel fast, a blessing in finding out what’s going on in the world around us, – so many people from so many countries use the platform to inform others of their situations, it comes in handy for taking part in or following conferences and discussions, saving us from having to watch hours of debate by summarising the key speeches and issues for us, immensely useful in busy modern life where we might wish to have the time to sit watching a debate in the House of Commons/Lords but simply cannot find the time, Twitter enables us to keep up and to gauge the instant reactions of thousands to what is said. The risk with this is of course taking the headlines and summaries at face value (see http://tmblr.co/ZFhAcxo54iPi) within the confines of 140 characters.

Personally I do not think that complex issues and problems will ever be able to be solved over Twitter and we probably shouldn’t attempt to do so. The value of Twitter lies in succinct posts, which may give more information and create opportunities for discussion and debate, but which must be handled with care, to ensure we minimise the risk of creating a firestorm of quick, thoughtless words which lead us nowhere. If Twitter posts get people energised and interested in an issue, and lead them to places they can learn more then that is its most brilliant role, engaging with a wide audience, encouraging them to take an interest in complex issues and perhaps offering them an easier, shortened way into those issues, not descending into debates which must require the shortening of long arguments and the omission of important concepts by the nature of the 140.

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