Twitter: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The other day I turned on Twitter and was confronted with this tweet:

That morning I ended up spending only a few minutes on Twitter before turning it off to do something else.

I wrote in a previous blog post about things in the world that were bothering me. I find those topics get magnified on Twitter, as most of the people I follow are also concerned about them. These include—but are by no means limited to—Trump as president, outrageous gaps in gender diversity and equality, political changes at the EPA, weather disasters like Harvey and now Irma, the deportation of so-called ‘dreamers,’ the pardoning of a white supremacist sheriff, the Canlit community beaking off about ‘cultural appropriation’ (which they obviously had no clue about), the failure of Justin Trudeau’s government to make any substantial changes in the lives of Canadian First Nations people…I could go on, but you get the gist.

So why am I still on Twitter? Good question.

I joined Twitter in July 2011, after reading an article in AGU’s EOS (back when I used to get paper copies of it) about scientists benefiting from Twitter.

In the six years since then, I’ve been an ardent Twitter champion.

My tweeting has evolved from being mainly about science and scientific opportunities, to include gender equality issues, science communication, editing and books, and local weather/hazards (usually flooding and wildfire).

These days I’m no longer a scientist looking to connect with other scientists, share my research papers, or search for students. Instead, I share blog posts, articles, and book reviews. I connect more through science communication than through science itself. And I’ve covered enough wildfire and water stuff to be considered an ‘expert,’ something my scientific training in post-wildfire and post-pine beetle water resources has been a big help with.

But Twitter has changed a lot in those six years as well.

Maybe it’s just me, but these days it seems that more people are tweeting ‘threads’—up to 20 or more tweets linked together, usually providing some info on a particular topic or ranting about something. I can understand experts in given fields providing several tweets worth of valuable information, and I’ve learned a lot from these tweet threads. But I find that non-experts are also doing this. I’m not sure why—maybe by pretending to be an expert you get more followers? Either way, it’s a form of grandstanding that I abhor.

I also find that people are overly quick to react on Twitter. They see a headline and form an instant opinion, rather than taking time to read the article, and maybe a few others, to get a better perspective on the situation. And once one person gets outraged, all their followers follow suit, and you get an outrage party—sometimes about something that’s really just a tempest in a teacup.

So what do I really get out of Twitter?

Well it’s definitely not about being popular, though I know some people feel that way about social media. For me it’s about the people I have regular conversations with even though I’ve never met them. For someone who doesn’t get out a lot, these conversations are helpful. I also get to share my work with people who are interested in it—though I might not have quite the right audience, as some of my blog posts barely get any reads! I also keep track of things like Canadian wildfires and floods, as lots of people share info on this stuff on social media. And I follow enough editors and writers that I learn new words, new word usage, and hear about different books I want to read. And when I’m writing articles, I often refer back to links I discovered via Twitter.

However (you knew there was a ‘but’ in there somewhere).

I’m not sure the benefits of Twitter outweigh the drawbacks. I’ve been lucky to have only rare contact with Twitter trolls. I’m more troubled by being inundated with negative news given the current state of world politics. There are so many terrible things happening just in the USA—so many assaults on basic rights and freedoms. Here in Canada the wildfire situation in BC is pretty scary, while our federal Liberal government isn’t delivering on even half of the promises they made to get elected.

I feel like I can’t turn away from the dumpster fire that is current events, but I need to turn away to preserve my sanity.

One of my problems may be that I’m not a savvy Twitter user and never have been. I don’t follow specific hashtags or lists of people. Instead I drink directly from the firehose of raw information. Which means I get tweets about hurricanes, DACA, Site C dam, gender disparity, women in STEM, science communication, etc.—all in one long stream. When I think about becoming smarter about using Twitter, I think “but I might miss something!” In reality, chances are I’m missing things anyway because I get too much stuff in my feed.

I also worry that I’m caught in a Twitter echo chamber that keeps me from hearing/learning about things outside of that bubble.

Case in point: I was writing a Q&A with a Canadian researcher for Nature Careers, and the editor asked me not to use the word ‘biodiversity.’ I was surprised, as she said she didn’t want chemists or physicists to read the article and not know what biodiversity meant. Then I saw this tweet:

I realized I must be woefully out of touch as a science writer, to just assume that people would know what biodiversity meant.

Then I thought—what else am I missing as a science writer by dipping into this massive echo chamber every day (I have over 5,000 followers, and I follow almost 2,000 people)? Would I be better off getting a newspaper subscription, and just opening Twitter once a day to see what’s going on in areas I’m interested in?

Would my writing improve? Would I have more examples of writing for other audiences? Would I make more time to read up on ways to improve my science writing? Or would I no longer run across some of the more obscure things I see in my Twitter feed, the things that make it interesting? Is there a way to better curate my feed to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed and squashed by current events, while still getting those odd little nuggets?

I think this is my next task, which started with an earlier post on examining your inner life.

  1. I need to determine what I want to get out of Twitter, and set it up so that it does what I want instead of holding me hostage.
  2. I need to spend less time on Twitter. I’ve just started doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way 12-week program (as part of a huge group on Facebook—one of the benefits of social media!), and I’m finding that making time for regular writing is a good way to spend less time on social media and more time doing things you enjoy (writing, cycling, walking, etc.).
  3. I’m also considering getting a newspaper subscription. I think it’s smart to read real journalism (not just my 10 free articles per month). Any suggestions on the best news outlet to subscribe to?

I think three tasks is enough for now. But I’m interested in how you all manage your Twitter time—leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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12 thoughts on “Twitter: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Sarah, my experiences on Twitter are very similar to yours. In the early years, it was a rich networking forum – I ‘met’ many people of similar interests (and in some cases but not all, ended up meeting them IRL). The flood of political argument and the echo chamber of negative news has turned me off in recent years. I now try to manage things by regularly scaling back who I follow, by not checking Twitter as often, and taking some complete breaks. As individuals who must take care of our own health, there is no reason we need to be monitoring an online feed daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. Still, as you note, this in itself takes a concious effort. Cheers.

    • Thanks for the note Lorne. I completely agree – Twitter has changed, which requires us to change how we use it. But defining that change is critical – and requires some thought.

  2. Years ago, I learned a trick from @derekbruff to avoid getting blown down by the firehose of information on Twitter: use a tool that supports lists (like TweetDeck and Hootsuite) and then create a short, private list of people who’s every tweet you feel you need to read. Read that list diligently and completely. Be deliberate about adding diverse voices and removing voices that don’t contribute (that’s why the list is private.)

    With this strategy, I continue to believe Twitter is my most valuable professional development tool. There is no way I’d be where I am today, with the broader range of knowledge I bring to my job, without Twitter.

    There’s more detail in this post: http://www.peternewbury.org/2013/01/drink-without-drowning-from-the-twitter-river/

    Peter

    • Thanks for the tip, Peter. I use Tweetdeck but have never got around to following specific lists of people because I can’t decide who absolutely has to be on that list. Something to sort out in the next little while!

      • Beauty of a private list is you can add and remove people without any repercussions. Someone tweet something interesting and valuable? Add them to the “first” list for now and see if they deserve to stay there. Someone on your “first” list tweet something obnoxious that makes you angry? Remove them from the list – you don’ got time for that sh&t. Your time, your growth, your list.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    As someone who quit Twitter six months ago (see my post:
    http://coyot.es/elephanthills/2017/03/21/why-quit-twitter/), I can say at least two things now, with some assurance. First, I now read much more of what people I used to follow on Twitter write, than I did when I imagined that I would catch a tweeted link, click that link, and then read. This includes blog posts, online journals and magazines, and more: it was easy to set up a dedicated feed to a feed reader and not miss a single post (including on your blog). Twitter seems like a way to connect with these people, but it is not, in my opinion; only an arbitrary and tiny fraction of posts actually surfaces in your feed or is likely to be seen. If you want to know what people have to say, read them where they choose to publish, and not via Twitter or go by the pitiful 140-character fragments that Twitter allows them to cast out into cyberspace. Second, I’ve not missed Twitter at all after leaving and instead feel much freed of clutter, the ‘dumpster fire’, and the ‘echo chamber’ as you put it. It is not that disengaging on Twitter removes you from connecting with current events; on the contrary, it may be possible to connect with those events in more depth and in a more meaningful way through other sources and better and reliable media outlets. Just thought I would share these thoughts. Thanks for an interesting post. Cheers, Shankar

    • HI Shankar – thanks for your note. Unfortunately it was marked as spam because of the link you included. I used to have a whole list of blogs I followed in feedly, but it got so hard to keep up. Again, some pruning is required. Also I tend to have conversations with people on Twitter, rather than just looking at and sharing links, so that’s a part of it that I’m not sure I want to let go. I’ll head over and read your post to see your thoughts on leaving Twitter.

  4. “I need to determine what I want to get out of Twitter….” I love this advice and look forward to pursuing it as well. So often I find myself simply going into or along with a social media outlet rather than taking the time to thoughtfully consider it as a tool which needs to be used in the correct way for me. Thanks for the helpful advice.

    • It’s weird when you think about it, how we use all sorts of technology without thinking about it. As soon as I wrote this sentence I thought “this is how we gain power over technology, instead of it ruling us. We decide how we want to use it and what we want it to do.” Glad it resonated with you, too!

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