What does it mean to take Twitter seriously?

What does it mean to take Twitter seriously as a form of intellectual production? This is the question I’ve been asking myself a lot in the last few weeks, as I start what I hope will be an extensive break from a platform I’ve been using daily for years. My immediate motivation for this is that I’ve just stepped down from running a large social media presence which involved me scheduling 50+ updates every day. However it reflects a growing ambivalence I have felt about Twitter, with the platform inspiring and frustrating me in equal measure. I want a break from it because I feel the need to better understand the habits which I have formed around it, enabling me to use it in a more mindful way. It’s since occurred to me that what I’m really seeking is to take it seriously, using it as a form of intellectual production while avoiding the mindless distraction it can so easily give rise to.

There are some who will find the question oxymoronic: how could a platform which restricts communication to 280 characters be anything other than ephemeral? There’s an obvious determinism underlying this, assuming that the channels we use unavoidably constraint what is communicated through them. However pointing out that people can use Twitter in ways which are far from ephemeral tells us little about how we can do this.

There’s a unique satisfaction to be found in condensing a complex thought into 280 characters or less, achieving a radical brevity without sacrificing meaning. In an important sense this stands in the tradition of the aphorism, as a form of writing with a long and distinguished history. But it intensifies and accelerates it, leaving it as an everyday accomplishment available to many rather than a lofty form of expression restricted to the learned few. The pleasure to be found in this is one we should take seriously as a form of intellectual production, even if it exists alongside outputs of more dubious intellectual merits. It requires cognitive skill and rhetorical care, with the results exhibiting an elegance that ought to be recognised. If we accept that parsimony is a virtue in long form writing then why do we struggle to take it seriously in this truncated and demanding form? In part I think it is because we fail to define what it means for a tweet to be serious in its intellectual intent.

The Slow Scholarship Manifesto describes carefully constructed tweest as ‘sleets’: “very carefully crafted sentences, that pack so much into them they can almost be read as a poem, or haiku on their own”. However this framing fetishises speed, equating slowness with carefulness as if the two inevitably go together, whereas anyone who has ever struggled with procrastination knows this is not the case. What matters is care rather than speed. While hastiness can undoubtedly preclude this, rapidity can also be enriching by allowing us to go from what C Wright Mills once called ‘the feel of an idea’ to the expression of it in a matter of seconds. This is at the heart of what it feels like to take Twitter seriously: condensing thoughts with care and skill, throwing them out into the world rather than letting them dissipate as so many do. It involves taking what Mills elsewhere called ‘fringe thoughts’ seriously, with Twitter providing an ever present occasion for micro-actions of intellectual creativity but one which unfortunately can give rise to its opposite, leading to habitual engagement to kill time rather than what I’m talking about here.

There are other uses of Twitter which I have not touched on here. It can be a remarkable mechanism for circulating events, finding collaborators and sharing news. But there a deeper reality underlying these contingent uses, opening up a form of intellectual production which is as challenging as it is novel. This is what fascinates me about Twitter and it’s why I want to use it, even if I need a break from it to unlearn some of the other habits which it so easily gives rise to.

I’ll be back on Twitter when I feel better equipped to take it seriously as a form of intellectual production, as this has always been what has drawn me to the platform.

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About Mark