Doubling the length of tweets won’t fix Twitter’s real problem

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
SEPTEMBER 27, 2017.   BRANDON AMBROSINO

Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware, who has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, BBC and The Economist.

Twitter announced Tuesday its new experiment with tweet length, which doubles character count from 140 to 280.

“Trying to cram your thoughts into a Tweet,” is a universal pain, reads the official blog post by Aliza Rosen and Ikuhiro Ihara. The company wants to give you more characters to express yourself, they say.

Of course, the company admits, the point of Twitter has always been brevity. “That is something we will never change,” they promise.

And how could they? That would require them changing us.

Twitter has irreversibly altered our sense of public discourse by convincing us that any argument worth having – religion/politics/racism – can be successfully advanced or bested in a 140-character feat of witty genius. Twitter can change its platform all it wants, but our minds have already evolved to accommodate its original brevity.

Part of our accommodation consisted in us confusing ideas with information. Theodore Roszak explains the difference in his classic The Cult of Information: While ideas are “integrating patterns meant to discover the meaning of things by way of … the slow growth of wisdom over a lifetime,” information is “any transmitted signal that could be metaphorically construed as a message.” That includes facts, judgments, polls, cliches, images, puns, GIFs, quotes, retweets (RTs), etc. Whereas ideas used to be valued only after careful adjudication, all information is immediately and equally valuable in an economy that profits on clicks and social media “engagement.”

This shift from ideas to information has rewired our brains, almost helping us along our evolutionary way to a new kind of human.

Years ago, Jon Ronson, the incredibly sharp author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, once contrasted our behaviour in public with our behaviour online. He argues that even though we’re all quite lovely to each other face to face, when we get behind our smartphones we act like drone strike operators. This wasn’t incorrect at the time (2015), but I wonder if Mr. Ronson thinks that line has since blurred.

Here’s a recent and terrifying example: Ri Yong-ho, North Korean foreign minister, shocked the world earlier this week when he said his country was choosing to interpret Donald Trump’s tweet as a real life “declaration of war.” While I think Mr. Ri is aware that his interpretation is twisting Mr. Trump’s intentions – which were probably just, you know, to score a bunch of RTs from his base – there are two important points we should consider.

First, Twitter itself is something of a war zone, and everyone of us using the platform, with or without at first knowing it, have all enlisted. We have a good deal of weapons and tactics at our disposal and. when our enemies advance on us, we’re able to rally our RT-troops with a strategically launched “Remember when you tweeted this three years ago” hand grenade.

Second, the clear line between social media and the real world is … not really clear. Haven’t we become walking tweets? Whether we’re typing on social media, protesting in public, or shouting down our professors, we have become conditioned to shout in slogans and buzzwords. We lie in wait for our interlocutor to use a word that we’ve decided is off-limits and then we shame him by lobbing at him some other word that most of our Internet connections hashtag approvingly.

When politicians or speakers come to a forum in our city, we show up with our mobs and tweet-scream at them until they exit the stage in exasperation.

In some ways, this kind of thought-reduction via Twitter provided the very conditions that enabled Donald Trump to win the election: There’s no President Trump without Twitter.

Every politician has their own slogans, but Mr. Trump took it to a new level, what with his memorable Lock her up!, Coal!, and the always ambiguous Make America Great Again. These were always intended to function as tweets: pithy, punchy soundbites intended to unite angry mobs. They were never intended as ideas. The proof of this is that not many of those tweet-screaming MAGA ever seem to stop and wonder if the very premise undergirding their slogan – that America isn’t as great as it could be – is much different than the one inspiring people to #TakeAKnee.

But tweets aren’t meant to be interrogated or analyzed. They aren’t meant to spur long, nuanced discussion – which is the kind of discussion our world desperately needs. They are meant to be retweeted, or quickly commented on either favourably (“This!”) or unfavourably (“NOPE”). They are meant to settle debate by circumventing debate and mocking anyone who feels that debate is actually necessary.

Twitter has affected human discourse in an irreversible way, and I imagine its new word count expansion is the company’s way of trying to remedy that.

Welp: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We are in a world where one tweet might launch us into WWIII. That warship has sailed, Jack.

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