Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter. “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?” I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available. Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs.
Twitter is like a river. It’s a river of information flowing by. Some of the information is important. Some of it isn’t. Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage. It can be all of these things at the same time. Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in. They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony. Once in a great while I make a small splash. Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.
“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply. “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me. Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion. The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most). Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was. This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter. It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown. Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be. No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.
Twitter is useful for five things:
1. Meeting people. You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday. People meet their soulmates on Twitter. They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between. Twitter is great for combating isolation. Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there. Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf. This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.
2. Saying something. If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years. What do you want to say? What do you need to say? Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial. Especially if it is controversial. And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable. Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL [In Real Life] and on Twitter. A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank. You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge. So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going. Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing. And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.
I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter. First take the time to explore your values. What kind of person do you believe you are? What kind of person do you want to be?
3. Expressing rage. Some users really go in big for this option. If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source. Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage. I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted. Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm. Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long. This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet. Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness. Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.
4. Setting an example. One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules. No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that. I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter. First take the time to explore your values. What kind of person do you believe you are? What kind of person do you want to be? Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you. It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal. It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here. You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed. Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone? Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves? Delineate your personal threshold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly. Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know. What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict? What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?
5. Experimenting with your identity. You can claim any identity you want on Twitter. Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you. Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion. What do you really think? What do you really care about? It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions out loud. You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities. There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next. Many smart journalists have Twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine. Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is. A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”
So there’s five reasons for ya. Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything? Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting? Exactly. So go ahead and set up a Twitter account! Hell, set up two or three or six. Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen. Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not. Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy. On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you. But you are the one who chooses what you say back.