The trouble with Twitter

by Dirk Knemeyer

This week, embattled R&B artist Chris Brown closed his Twitter account after a profanity-laced tirade. This makes Brown just the latest public figure to have an embarrassing meltdown and then abashedly terminate their account on the social networking giant.

At the same time, just last week a university student interviewed me to discuss trends in the relationship between social networking and how people behave. Her concern and focus was on the trend of drunk or high college students using texting and Twitter to lash out against boyfriends, ex’es, teachers and other people who have done them wrong. As I told her, this sort of behaviour has been happening since long before modern communication technology existed. The difference is, shouting “I hate Ellen!” from the balcony of your fraternity house is ephemeral and easily forgotten or denied, while texting or Tweeting it becomes an immediate artifact and only strengthens Ellen’s ability to point you out as the jerk you “really are”. One can only guess how many social networking accounts have been closed in the aftermath of a substance-induced tantrum.

All of which gets at a critical issue with this kind of communication technology: the relative permanence inherent in the systems serve as a weakness just as much as a strength. Lord knows, if I was Tweeting when I was 13, or even 23, I would be pretty embarrassed by a lot of that stuff now. I might imagine I would have closed my account two, maybe three, times over the years owing to feeling foolish and having set myself up for humiliation because of the sort of stuff I was writing. That is the double-edged sword of these transparently public systems that “remember” every little thing.

For people who did not grow up with these technologies, we are going to see a fair amount of them simply abandon them altogether. The risk and exposure are just much too high. And, really, what is the benefit? Some of the feeds and information are interesting and even valuable but much of it is a morass. To customize lists and groups and the other detail work necessary to increase the signal-to-noise ratio might be OK for a geek like me, but the Chris Brown’s of the world surely aren’t going to want to do that. It is easier to just forget it. Why take the risk and put yourself out there when the downside is public humiliation if and when you cannot control your emotions?

Now, for people who DO grow up with these services, a different set of behaviours are going to emerge. Unlike all of us oldsters flopping around and trying these things out in scattered and organic ways, younger people will be exposed to these technologies with a clear understanding of their use and utility. They will integrate them into their lives in an appropriate, managed and high value way. While I am confident in saying that the “Twitter” brand won’t even exist in 10 years, the notion of direct, one-to-many networked communication across your various friends, family and colleagues certainly will in one form or another. For those of us to whom such things are not native, there will be successes, failures, and epic Chris Brown-style flameouts in various proportion. For those to whom these technologies are all that they know, they will prove a naturally integrated part of how they live their lives. Gone will be the days of drunk texting and the revenge Tweet, to be replaced by some method for social organization, communication and expression that has not elucidated yet. Until then, there will be many embarrassing, humiliating, OMG-delete-my-account-as-quickly-as-possible moments.

Topics: Analysis, Blog, twitter