The normality of conversation on Twitter

February 27, 2012

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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