The Mixed Bag Influence of Twitter

This is not a tirade against Twitter. Twitter is a thing. Like cars, guns, a printing press, the Internet or any other thing, it’s inanimate and, by definition, cannot be either good or bad. Only the use to which it is put can be good or bad. So, when you read “Twitter” in the following, read it as “the use of Twitter”.

On the positive side, Twitter is a good thing because it enables distribution of news, ideas, etc. to a wide audience. It enables learning from bright people in a way that probably would not be possible in any other way. In my role as an industry analyst, I find Twitter to be incredibly useful for discovering ideas, learning about news, and following smart people that would be more difficult to do in other ways, and to be able share news and other information with an audience that would be almost impossible to reach some through other media.

But there are three fundamentally negative aspects to Twitter that largely negate much of the positive that it brings:

  • Almost every problem is multi-dimensional. Whether it’s homelessness, Hong Kong, the national debt, armed conflict, data breaches or any other issue, it’s rarely one thing that can be identified as the cause. Instead, problems normally are the result of many causes, each of which contributes to the problem in varying degrees. However, when someone takes to Twitter to discuss a problem or convey information, they’re limited to a maximum of 280 characters and so can rarely discuss more than one thing. If we assume that the average word is just five characters plus the following space, that’s a maximum of about 47 words to discuss the issue – and very few issues can be discussed with any degree of depth in 47 words. The result is that discussion of important issues gets reduced to sound bites, not substantive discussion or analysis. That fits nicely with the decreasing length of the typical attention span, but it makes for poor decision making.
  • Like any form of electronic communication, the remote nature of correspondence on Twitter eliminates the consequences associated with rude behavior. Hurl an insult in-person and you run the risk of getting punched in the nose – do so on Twitter and there will rarely be a consequence other than receiving an insult in return. In short, the social consequences of rudeness all but disappear in the Twittersphere.
  • Finally, and perhaps most dangerous, is the strong tendency for decision makers to assume that the most vocal people on Twitter actually represent many more of the same mindset than they actually do. For example, in June 2018, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey ordered food from Chick-fil-A®. He was called out for doing so by a number of people on Twitter and apologized for his behavior. An article in USA Today cited three tweets as part of the backlash – these tweets had a combined 318 “likes” in the nearly 19 months since they were published. By contrast, I estimate that Chick-fil-A serves approximately 4,600 customers per minute. Those who “like” a tweet – or care about the issue in any way – rarely are even the tiniest fraction of those who could not care less about the issue or disagree with it.

The last point is the most dangerous aspect of Twitter because it has enabled the rapid expansion of bullying. Bullying requires a) a bully who thinks they can harm their victims (of which there is no shortage on social media platforms, including Twitter) and b) someone who considers themselves vulnerable to harm. Consequently, it’s easy for tweeters to seem like they’re representing more people than they really are. However, only 22 percent of Americans use Twitter and only 10 percent of its users account for 80 percent of tweets. Tweeters really don’t represent much of the population, but decision makers – including those who apologize for having lunch at the “wrong” place – seem to think they do, and so fall victim to bullying tactics on a regular basis.

In short, Twitter is a fantastic platform for sharing information and learning, but it has serious downsides that negate much, if not all, of its positives.