The Rise of Tweet-Threads and the Quality of Public Discourse

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In recent months I’ve seen an upsurge in tweet-threads among those I follow on Twitter. The increase has been obvious, within my (very) limited sphere. If your first thought is “Who cares?!” I applaud you. You’re likely living a happier life than those who do care.

My interest, though, is not Twitter itself but what these kinds of trends say about our ever-changing society, the way we communicate our opinions and views, the quality of our online connections, and the clarity of our public discourse about things that matter.

Granted, I’m connected with a lot of academic types who care about longer and more nuanced discussions. Still, I’d like to play amateur sociologist for a moment and share some ideas about what I see going on. Here are eight brief theses about why I’m seeing more robust intellectual activity on Twitter.

First, people are increasingly using Twitter not only to rant but to present more thorough views. Even if they’re simply ranting longer, an extended rant requires more thought and self-direction than simply pounding out an opinionated one-liner and mic-dropping it.

Second, in their better moments, people are recognizing that the most controversial topics in our world are serious, layered, and textured. In this atmosphere, only a fool throws his verbal weight around with hasty brevity. If Proverbs warns us about anything, it warns us about our words.

Third, people are weary of being misunderstood and judged by reactionary readers who are (rightly or wrongly) reading into the massive gaps left by a single tweet. Sometimes the cathartic release of dropping unformed opinions into one’s online world is chastened by the deserved kickback these opinion-bombs receive.

Fourth, people are tired of blustery, truncated, under-nuanced “discussions” characterized by an exchange of hasty verbal punches rather than deliberate and respectful reasoning. Tweets and responses are both so short that people tend to import piles of assumptions as they engage with each other. Further, most people get emotionally charged far too easily, so that Twitter discussions usually produce more heat than light.

Fifth, people are watching thoughtful users of social media who are beginning to make lengthy, sustained arguments through multi-part tweets. Seeing this done well is no tribute to Twitter or social media, but rather a tribute to the power and value of human reason, and an invitation to its increased application.

Sixth, considering all of the above, many people seem to be looking for more thoughtful channels of communication overall. They appreciate some of the connections social media affords them, but they’re also seeking to overcome its inherent limitations. Wise is the man who recognizes early the side effects of fun new toys.

Seventh, the recent change in the way Twitter users can respond to tweets (including one’s own) provides a cleaner look and (slightly) more room when constructing a longer running thread of thoughts. Aesthetics matter as we present our views, and this change, though small, seems to have opened some doors in people’s minds.

Eighth, the fact that Twitter only allows 140 characters per tweet can actually enhance online discussion in one particular way, when done well: When a user deploys each individual tweet as a separate step in his reasoning, the progression is easy to follow. Done in this format, a well-done tweet-thread advances with a syllogistic feel.

Many members of western society now hold some of our most energized, emotional, and controversial discussions within the impersonal and unadjudicated arena of social media. Thus I’m generally encouraged by the rise of multi-part tweet threads, though they seem out of place on a social media platform built on extreme brevity. I’m glad to see that some are recognizing that this mono-dimensional medium doesn’t fit the multi-dimensional messages we want to communicate to our friends and those whose spheres we touch. As with all forms of communication, I pray that we continue growing in the virtue and skill needed to wield these tools wisely.


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