Twitter and the democratization of discourse
When I joined Twitter in 2011, the first tweet I saw was a retweet by my friend Colin: A “Jersey Shore” cast member simply posted, “Just pooped.” This occurred during the period when Twitter was lauded by many as a democratizing force, a platform through which anyone from anywhere could be heard around the world. I thought, “Sounds right so far.”
Of course, many more poop jokes and an angry tweeter-in-chief later, the website tends not to garner the same praise it once did. Just this semester, I’ve had more than one professor complain about the Twitter-fication of our language. Our generation, they say, is worse than any before at forming thoughtful, nuanced ideas—and it’s all thanks to Twitter, with its anarchical grammar and its character limit from hell. Due to the site’s informality and restriction on verbosity, many of these traditionalistic observers infer that its users degrade the level of discourse in our society.
This of course ignores the fact that, instead of just complaining about politics or defending the Boston Red Sox’s (barely objectionable) actions to whoever’s in the room with us, we can disseminate these opinions to hundreds of followers. So, we spread our ideas more easily to more of our community, and this breeds a greater volume of ideas that coalesce as “the public discourse.” And while quantity is not quality, the average tweeters of the world have been exposed to more ideas than any of their historical counterparts could ever imagine. All but the staunchest pessimist should agree that this expands people’s worldviews and, by extension, enhances the discourse in which they can now more readily engage.
In this sense, what has often turned out to be a forum for incoherent ranting and bathroom humor is still a somewhat democratic force; it expands the reach of everyone’s ideas.
As good as this sounds in the abstract, it’s even better when you consider the very tangible benefits from the exponential connections that Twitter allows. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, for instance, tweets alerted the world to everything from individuals stranded in homes to organizations’ relief efforts.
As a source of information more generally, Twitter’s breadth also makes it conducive to aggregating news. We know that today’s social media are as much news outlet as discussion forum. Even if you’ve gone on Twitter hoping for a good laugh or a hot take on the New England Patriots’ chances this season (spoiler alert: they’re good), you could very well find yourself refreshing your timeline to see breaking news, just seconds after it happens. And the prevalence of the retweet means that comments follow posts much more easily than on Facebook, which keeps the person posting honest and helps centralize discussion.
Don’t let your puritanical English language upbringing or the fact that the site helped give the presidency to an egomaniacal, white nationalist demagogue sour your view: Seriously, Twitter is great.