Twitter and the death of real communication

In PSCI-COM, an email-based discussion forum for science communication specialists, a question was asked recently about the use of Twitter by science communicators.

The original questioner was looking to compile a list of key people who make use of the micro-blogging facility which is apparently all the rage on the Interwebs. With a single provocative paragraph I then managed to turn the discussion toward the value of Twitter in general terms. A majority of the contributors to that discussion are active if not avid Twitterers (or whatever they’re called), and disagree with my sceptical stance. But the PSCI-COM debate is strong, which makes a pleasant change from the usual anodyne crap which floods my email inbox from that quarter.

I raised the issue of Twitter’s value as a communications tool, as the subject came up for me in a recent job interview. When asked for my opinion of social networking and micro-blogging, I declared that I regard Twitter as a black hole for time, with a negligible signal-to-noise ratio. Twitter is in my humble opinion of use for little more than following the minutiae of Stephen Fry’s fascinating life, and professing undying love for Professor Sir Brian Cox (PBUH).

That said, when pressed by the interview panel I readily acknowledged that the Twitter fad is current, and thus to a certain extent unavoidable. At least it is unavoidable for those working in a corporate communications environment. I do not currently work in such an environment, and am therefore at liberty to raise a two-digit salute to the Twittersphere.

I didn’t get the job for which I was interviewed, and whether this is due to my unfashionably negative view of Twitter is open to question. In the interview I made it clear that my current non-engagement with the Twittersphere fits with my current circumstances, and that I would use Twitter if required to do so in my work. But I questioned whether it is an efficient use of limited resources in science public outreach to rely on niche social networking media which cater to a fairly narrow and often gadget-addled demographic.

Maybe I should write and market a software application that will scrape a database of one’s substantive online writing, and from this compile and publish periodic tweets to be read by web-trawling robots which rehash the tweets on other twitterers’ channels. Machine shall speak unto machine. I have this recurring nightmare of the Interwebs disappearing up its own backside. An inverse techno-singularity, if you like.

One side issue that came up in the PSCI-COM discussion is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. To my mind RSS is the best available and most efficient means of aggregating online news and blog comment. A high-profile example of RSS is the Google Reader feed that I use to follow my favourite blogs, without having to visit each and every website in turn.

Like the individual who in the PSCI-COM discussion raised the issue of RSS, I have better things to do with my time than follow a multitude of web forums, email lists, blogs and wibbling Twitter channels. Occasionally, I like to switch off the wretched computer, and my mobile phone doth not beep under any circumstances whatsoever. I even refuse to do SMS, and would happily describe myself as a Reform Luddite.

I would rather set things up in my online life so that information is fed to me in a form that can be digested or discarded as and when I see fit. Twitter aggregators could I suppose fit into that, but there is still the signal-to-noise question. Twitter is undoubtedly a communications tool, but it’s a pathetically weak one.

Personally, I see Twitter as at best a waste of time and effort, and at worst a form of online onanism. Twitter is a fad, and like any such fancy some users – science journalists included – will manage to extract at least a little real value from it. While it lasts. Good for them, but for myself I couldn’t give a monkey’s fart about Twitter, and object to engagement with Twitter being regarded as normative behaviour.