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Twitter is not that big a deal

More briefly, there's something else which annoys me about Michael Pascoe's piece which I think is emblematic of the annoying tendency of columnists to want to explain everything in the context of some big narrative. If you clicked that link, you will have seen that my opinion on the 'big narrative', at least as far as journalism goes, is pretty low.

The overarching narrative in this piece is that social media and our own short attention spans have ruined political leadership and decision-making. It leans pretty heavily on Thomas Friedman's op-ed which has been pretty comprehensively trashed in plenty of other places on the internet. So I don't have all that much to add, except that if you thought Pascoe's piece was largely a series of disjointed and meaningless quotes from somebody else's article, you were wrong - it's a series of quotes, from somebody else's disjointed and meaningless article.

Except this. Pascoe/Friedman think (thinks?) that we can pin 'popularism' on two causes, technological and generational. The generational change is close to impossible to prove at all ever, let alone at this point when we're right in the middle of it, so we'll call it a wash. I don't think it's very well argued (George Bush dodged the draft and cut taxes; we're in a generation obsessed with short-term gratification?), but whatever.

The technological thing annoys me though. I have Twitter. I'm probably not a typical Twitter user; my account is protected so it's not much good for sending my "quick short-term responses and judgements" to the world, and I mostly use it to scan news headlines. And I just don't think it's that big a deal.

I'm still broadly sceptical of the idea that last year's Middle East uprisings were enabled in any significant way by social media. I guess if I was in the middle of a revolution it might be a handy tool for communicating and organising, but probably not the be-all-and-end-all when mobile phones and the rest of the internet - and that big 'ole non-virtual square - exist. I don't have the professional knowledge, and maybe I'm wrong, but the overwhelming role of Twitter just doesn't seem that plausible.

Friedman claims that social media has ruined our political interactions. There are two ways this supposedly happens. First, he seems to think that broadening the base of popular discussion - whilst a good thing - leads to politicians incapable of leading. It's fine that the conversation is more two-way, but now politicians are incapable of doing anything other than what they're hearing from the scrum. I can't see the causal link. There's nothing in hearing more opinions which inherently causes politicians to lose the courage of their convictions and become unable to lead or propose new ideas. And the conversation has always been two-way, never as top-down as Friedman/Pascoe pretend, so if there's a dearth of leadership or brave policy ideas, that's a contingent problem with crops of leaders, not an inherent problem with social media.

Second, Twitter and Facebook promote instant and short-term responses and judgements. This is probably true in some ways. The 140 characters I tweet or put on Facebook straight after I hear a political announcement are likely to be less considered even than the blog post an hour later, let alone the news articles the next day or the longer-term policy debate. But it's only by head-in-the-sand stupidity that we could think this is somehow Twitter's fault. People always had first impressions and short-term, ill-considered judgements. Now we can see them. That doesn't constitute any radical change in the way people make their judgements or react to political events.

Seriously. Twitter is not that important.