Why are people so nervous of the status update? [Published in .net mag]

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor of Classics, doesn’t like Twitter. You might think that isn’t a surprise – the two things are from different chronological perspectives, but then she does have a successful, if initially reluctant, blog. Only duress from her publicist (or whatever equivalent Cambridge professors have) made her start publishing on the web. Now she describes herself as a convert, and blogging has been transformed in her mind from the basest means of communication to a medium where she can link to research papers and discuss in more depth than she would “even in the Times Literary Supplement”.

I gathered this from her presentation at a conference on improving communication between academia and the public. When she spoke of Twitter she could hardly be more emphatic that she will never use it – hers is a crusade against the tyranny of 140 characters. I imagine she once felt similarly of blogging.

There are few things in the world more over-journalised than Twitter, but no matter what I do I can’t pare the following down to less than 700 words – so please accept my apologies and forgive my verbosity, or perhaps blame Professor Beard for provoking me.

If you bother to ask people about their emotional response to status updates you’ll find an undercurrent of antipathy that verges on a rip-tide, and it seems to be Twitter that draws most ire. Even David Cameron has recourse to unparliamentary language when asked his views on the site.

Why is it then that people become upset at the idea of Twitter? One friend who has recently started using the site told me that he felt he’d lost some kind of battle when he gave in to it – why the fight?

The truth is that it’s just small talk. That’s the point of it. If you don’t want to listen to someone’s blatherings then don’t follow them, just as you avoid boring colleagues. If you don’t want to hear any small talk at all then you can always retreat to the desert in the manner of a biblical hermit. Phatic communion is the sacrament that bonds us, and Twitter’s 140 character limit is designed to enforce short messages strengthening social bonds. From all the hostility to Twitter you think that people only spoke in brilliant, lengthy soliloquies, rather than the boring platitudes that are the majority of everyone’s conversation.

Do people worry that they’ll sign up and then discover that they’ve embarrassed themselves by participating in some passing fad?

Or perhaps it’s a misunderstanding about the nature of publishing text. Do we worry that because Twitter is a public medium there is some kind of narcissism and arrogance associated with making your personal trivia available to the world? Some might even see these same qualities in the kind of nerdy early adopters of Twitter and think that being Twitee (I don’t know what the term is, one thing I won’t indulge in with Twitter is it’s artificial portmanteau language) says something rather unpleasant about your personality.

Or is it a perceived lack of quality assurance? Do the anti-Twitter demographic think that users lack some kind of quality filter and will sign up to any craze like lambs to the attention span slaughter? If so, I think people should be reassured that cynicism is alive and well you the web – and it fits perfectly well into your allotted 140 characters should you need to express it.

These are the kinds of things people say when they explain their antipathy. But I think they are excuses, the real culprit is unease at conducting an important part of your social life online. Facebook is one thing – we’ve always mediated event invites textually, but to carry out the most mundane social chit-chat on the web is a psychological leap.

Moreover, if you aren’t able to speak to a real world friend on Twitter then it can’t serve you as a small-talk-shop, because the point is primarily to reinforce social bonds, not create them. If you don’t know anyone on the site then it’s the written equivalent of hearing one end of a phone conversation on the bus – which perhaps accounts for the anger that some people express at the medium.

It might not be under Twitter’s auspices, but I think the status update is here to stay. Today’s unbelievers are just waiting for the social connections to welcome them to the short-messaging congregation.

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