Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
20 April 2014 00:30 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Twitter - fast food for ever-fattening egos

  • Jacques Rousseau
Most of us have heard the aphorism: “Know yourself”. Its meaning and implications have titivated minds both great and not-so-great for centuries. A Greek encyclopaedia from the 10th century explained it as "applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are" and that "know thyself" was a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude. Sounds a lot like the Twitterati.

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via media such as Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140-character limit, the attention economy and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory were they spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing its vote, changing banks or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were tweeted and re-tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short, but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people to whom I pay attention – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of tweets are in English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less. DM



  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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