The normality of conversation on Twitter

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, recently said that it may be unhealthy to spend too much time using the service. He has a point, albeit a trivial one: it may also be unhealthy to spend too much time in the bath or up a tree. Too much is too much, and by and large we can judge this for ourselves.

But his comments were ammunition for Professor Susan Greenfield, who believes Facebook and video games, among other things, are damaging our brains. So she appeared on Channel 4 News to offer condescending assumptions about people’s use of Twitter. Fortunately, her arguments were well challenged by science journalist Mark Henderson.

Many scientists and viewers responding to the interview seemed exasperated (or grimly amused) by Prof. Greenfield’s habit of using commercial news media to sound societal alarm bells instead of publishing peer-reviewed studies to support her sweeping claims. It has become a running argument.

I’d like to draw your attention to one response in particular, from someone I follow on Twitter. Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the UCL Speech Communication Laboratory, was unsurprised to find that Greenfield is missing some essential facts about human communication. Her riposte, “A little more conversation”, is a sane and solid defence of how normal it is to spend time on Twitter:

much of what goes on, on Twitter, is people using a slightly different medium to do what they’ll do any way they can, which is to converse, to talk to others. For humans, conversation is an end in itself.

Conversation, she writes, is “like a dance, only instead of dancing in synchrony, we take turns.” By outlining and illustrating some of the principles of conversation, Prof. Scott also makes helpful reference to the similarities and differences between electronic and face-to-face forms of it:

if you free people from the demands of having to organize all the stuff in face-to-face conversations that is concerned with the turn-taking negotiations, then conversations can really flourish. People can leap from one conversation to the next, and back and forth, when the time line is fast and busy, as it is for many people on Twitter (or chat rooms etc.).

You can read the rest here; it’s well worth two minutes of your time.

Another reason we can hold several simultaneous chats online is that although they happen in real time, if slightly delayed, they remain available to us as tweets, comments, etc. This is significant because our parallel processing power is limited, speech is ephemeral, and we quickly forget exactly what someone has said in spoken exchanges.

I love chatting on Twitter for more reasons than I could say. Most have to do with the people I chat with, who are a constant source of insight, fun, help, and goodness. Some have become friends or acquaintances offline. I need hardly mention Twitter’s other uses, for example as an aid to journalism, education, and activism.

Of course it can be addicting, but so can many everyday activities; what matters is the degree to which they’re healthy or unhealthy, and this depends more on how they’re used than on the activities themselves.

What do you think?

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14 Responses to The normality of conversation on Twitter

  1. I missed the interview Stan, but you speak (blog) wise words here. Greenfield has a track record of histrionic claims about social media and technology, including this one about text messaging http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2009/09/texting-is-retarding-our-teens.html

    I’ve found Twitter to be a really rich source of knowledge. Yes, when working at a PC it’s tempting to have it running and become distracted by tweets when you should be writing, reading or marking, but the radio, packets of crisps, bars of chocolate, cups of tea, cat stroking sessions and people walking by the window are all as distracting and we’re big enough and old enough to…oh hang on, there’s a squirrel.

  2. Siobhán says:

    That’s a great article, Stan. People really enjoy making a case for the exceptional status of all new forms of communication, don’t they? They like arguing that our ability to explore meaning in collaboration with others is in terminal decline.

    Of course, the skills we use in conversation on Twitter come from the same sets we employ when we communicate in other places. In some ways we need to attend even more carefully to the words we choose in our 140-character utterances because we can’t rely on the social cues that tone, facial expression and physical context provide for face-to-face interaction.

    We probably have a heightened awareness of turn-taking on Twitter, and the fact that we know our conversation is being overheard by other people operates as a filter when we’re making choices about what to say and how to say it. We know that we have to be able to justify tweets in real time, and again when we read back over what we’ve said. We also know we’re taking the risk of having our words served cold to us at a later date.

    On Twitter we find ways to take advantage of, or compensate for, the form’s brevity. Constrained forms of writing like the sonnet, haiku, or the much-romanticised telegram, have generally been celebrated because they offer heightened ways of communicating. Greenfield doesn’t strike somebody who appreciates the value of either short utterances or silence.

  3. Siobhán says:

    ‘strike me as’ that should say. My editorial assistant (aged 3) distracted me there!

  4. Ach Twitter is just another means by which people communicate. What is the harm in that? Personally I use it mainly as a news aggregator and it is rather limited given the number of characters per tweet but it has its place,

    I give thanks for the rise of email, instant messaging, newsgroups, social media, chat rooms, twitter and blogging. They have all expanded my world in many ways.

  5. Yeah, I don’t use telephones either. I’ve heard the sort of conversations people have on them and they’re not the sort of conversations I want. Clearly phones rot your brain and prevent you discussing Kant’s categorical imperative.

  6. Jonathon says:

    I love Twitter, and I’m glad I finally got on it last summer. It’s a great way to share interesting things and interact with interesting people. It’s also helped me find the motivation to blog more regularly, so I’m skeptical of any claims that Twitter is rotting people’s brains. The medium itself is not the problem, I think.

  7. substuff says:

    I get so much out of Twitter in terms of geeky language stuff, research, information, assistance – okay, and the odd inanity or dirty joke. My conversations on there are quite different from most face-to-face conversations I have, but that’s because few of my face-to-face friends think chatting about spelling is a fun thing to do. Weirdos. Twitter’s bloody great.

    @Dan Clayton – Squirrels? Clearly too much time spent up a tree!

  8. Stan says:

    Dan: I remember that; thanks for the link to your post on it. Text messaging is a popular target for people warning of cognitive and social ruin, but it’s well down my list of threats to civilisation. As for Twitter, I avoid it when I’m busy because it can be quite involving. It’s a while since I took a month or two off, though, which is telling enough! By any chance, is this the squirrel you saw?

    Siobhán: Yes, they do. Douglas Adams had a good word on it too. And this is exactly right: ‘On Twitter we find ways to take advantage of, or compensate for, the form’s brevity.’ It’s very conducive to short-form expression. Haiku, links, one-liners and repartee flourish on Twitter. Conversation there has its own rhythms and constraints and etiquette, but it’s more similar to conversation offline than social media–shy people might suppose.

    Jams: Well said. It’s very good for news aggregation; I use a list for news feeds, which is good for breaking stories, and there’s never a shortage of journalism and politics in general discussion. To your second paragraph: Hear, hear!

    Patrick: The dismissive line she’s taking is unfortunate. It also seems a bit unscientific. Joining Twitter would make for a good experiment – she could discuss her ideas with the community, and try to resist using TwitLonger.

    Jonathon: I’m glad you got on it too. Interesting that it spurred you on to blog more: I hear the opposite more often.

    Cathy: Twitter is great for geeky language stuff all right – and for the other things you mentioned. It’s an excellent hangout for editors and wordsmiths on a tea break or in chatting mode. Laughing at your squirrel joke, by the way. :D

  9. Pamela says:

    I don’t know the source, but a friend forwarded this quote about Twitter: Mark Twain would have been great at it, but he probably would have never gotten around to writing Huck Finn.

    Food for thought!

  10. Sean Jeating says:

    :) … And here’s a ‘sane and solid defence of how normal it is to spend no time on Twitter: Many other, better things to do.
    When millions of people are trying to tame their loquaciousness it’s still loquaciousness, isn’t it?
    On second thought: Ten billion flies eating shit can’t be wrong.

    How could I survive with two ringtones?

  11. Stan says:

    Pamela: I know what you mean: Twitter’s a perilous place for procrastinators! Somehow I think Twain would have been disciplined about his use of it, though.

    Sean: Certainly there are good reasons not to bother with Twitter. But for people who, for example, work at a computer, it’s handy for research or a quick chat. Or they might have mobile devices and be online as they go about their day, and it’s just another way of connecting with the world.

  12. [...] Dictionary blog, Stan Carey culled a hotchpotch of reduplication, and on his own blog, posted about the normality of conversation in Twitter. Jan Freeman unraveled a mind-buggering mystery; Arnold Zwicky was on the grammra (not grammar) [...]

  13. johnwcowan says:

    A former boss of mine said, when discussing the merits of new technology at an old company: “There used to be people here who wouldn’t use the telephone. They don’t work here any more.

  14. Stan says:

    John: Some industries in particular have taken to Twitter. For example, political journalists flock to it because it’s an indispensable source of gossip and breaking stories. But it can be difficult to control use; Sky News recently introduced guidelines for its employees, which may have been a factor in a couple of subsequent high-profile defections.

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