Twitter: Towards New, Fluid Rules of Engagement

“Duty Calls”, by Randall Munroe (XKCD)

It’s a conversation, not a lecture“, was the title I had given to this post of mine when I submitted it to the Guardian Higher Education Network back in September 2011. It seems like quite a long time ago now. (I must clarify I’ve always been wary of using the verb “revolutionise” lightly, especially when it comes to social media).

I still believe in the need to ensure that Twitter remains a public, potentially more democratic online space where the playing field is up to a certain extent levelled. Engagement and reciprocity are defining built-in features of the Twitter platform; the @ sign indicating location and response, invocation, evocation, address, acknowledgement and recognition.

Nevertheless, I believe it remains important to clarify what I meant by “a conversation.” I did not mean necessarily, always and at all times, a real-time, chat room-style, synchronic exchange of written messages.

Though I am an enthusiastic believer in the benefits of social media, and Twitter in particular, to foster and strengthen individual and collective scholarly interconnections (2010), I am also very much aware that Twitter, like other Internet-mediated forms of communication, presupposes a particular kind of individual setting, and this setting is defined by a series of variants (what we could call a “real life context”) that are not always visible to those we are interacting with online.

Immediate interaction is one structural element that defines Twitter as a medium and as a tool, but this does not mean that this same capability will erase the external demands that define our circumstances as human individuals working behind a computer or mobile device in real-time and place. Indeed, Twitter challenges in its very structure previous assumptions of hierarchical, vertical communication, and does facilitate and encourage interactions (@ replies, mentions, direct messages) between strangers that defy notions of proximity, intimacy, closeness and even politeness. Twitter deletes the concept of “cold-calling”, but it also demands of its users the common sense to recognise that because the network is all about creating interactions, the focus or driver of activity should not be the individual but the network itself.

This awareness of the immediacy and easiness of interactivity between strangers in a public platform should (ideally) demand acute inter-subjective sensitivity from its users: it might be a good time and place for you to engage in a long and complex dialogue (with the always-already embedded possibility of it getting naturally derailed as others are de facto invited to join in), but it is highly likely it will not be the right time and place for your interlocutor to engage with you.

The 140-character limit of tweets encourages direct, generalizing, simplistic statements that will often get on the nerves of many of those reading (needless to say not all tweets are always simplistic etc., but once again one person’s ‘THIS’ is someone else’s ‘FAIL’). This broadcasting of fragmentary glimpses into often very particular points of view can be interpreted/received as the imposition of a truth that other people don’t believe in, and this type of broadcasting often begs for its immediate interrogation or interpellations. It is very easy, very tempting to get trapped into vicious cycles of misunderstandings. (And yes, sometimes, wonderful coincidences can happen and fruitful, fun, valuable, insightful interactions can take place, especially, in my opinion, if they are brief!).

At the same time, 140 characters will never be enough, no matter how good we are at synthesising our arguments, to add proper nuance and context to arguments fragmented by world-limits and constant ‘interruptions’. In oral communication between two people sharing the same temporal and spatial context it can be hard to agree and to solve misunderstandings. It is easy to see how hard to agree and to avoid misunderstandings can be in written discussions bwtween various people tweeting disjointed elocutions both asynchronically and synchronically from different parts of the world in different time zones and going through often completely disparate situations.

So engaging in a “conversation” on Twitter does not have to mean “real-time chat”. It means being aware that there are others out there who are very different to me and who are going through very different circumstances. Many (especially famous academic Twitterers with lots of followers) tend to simply ignore all @ replies and mentions. Not engaging at all seems to be their solution to avoiding any problems, like headphone-wearing, mobile-reading commuters in a morning rush hour packed train. (I keep seeing similarities between public transportation in big cities and Twitter; I often think of the latter as becoming more a form of public transportation of content than of communication, but that argument is for another post).

I believe there is got to be an alternative to this. We need to develop new, fluid rules of engagement on Twitter, in which we can recognise each other, often directly, often indirectly, respectfully, even when we disagree. These rules need not and in my opinion should not be even written: they should be fluid and abstract; for many of us it’s just about adaptable common sense, but this kind of internationally/interculturally/interlinguistic/interdisciplinary/multitimezone common sense seems to be really scarce in practice, to be honest. Maybe sometimes it’s all about redefining our individual, subjective horizons of expectations. There can be engagement, recognition and reciprocity in forms that I/you do not necessarily recognise as such at first. I love Martin Weller’s notion of ‘shifted reciprocity’ to refer to the reciprocal, but not identical, engagement between different individuals online (The Digital Scholar, 2011).

Shifted reciprocity. This is the kind of conversation I talk about. Redefining the rules of engagement does not mean resorting to ignoring each other (not engaging at all), and engagement is not about expecting any given interlocutors to be always available to spend all waking hours engaged in disjointed exchanges that are very often likely not to take us anywhere. Those kinds of real-time conversations are better carried out elsewhere, to the conference, the workshop, the seminar, the chat room… or the pub.

PS. I’m aware your circumstances might be different and you might disagree or have a completely different experience of the situation I describe above.