By Jason Menard
The more time you spend on Twitter, the more you realize that it’s nothing more than a glorified schoolyard – in both the best and worst sense of that term!
The value you get out if it is directly related to the choices you make: will you play Follow the Leader or be King of the Castle; are you going to isolate yourself, follow the whims of the so-called cool crowd; or invite everyone to play along?
Unfortunately, no matter how you choose to approach the Twitter schoolyard, other childish antics abound that can undermine the experience. From bullying to sticking one’s fingers in your ears, there are behaviours that compromise its value – and limit one’s opportunity to learn and grow.
There’s no right or wrong way to use Twitter. But my experience has been that you not only get out of it what you put into it; you get out of it exactly what you’re looking for.
For the most part, Twitter is a self-controlled broadcast medium. You choose the accounts that you follow so, as a result, you’re filtering the information you’ll receive. So you have to make a choice: do you want to virtually hang out with people just like you, or are you going to embrace a broader list of perspectives and opinions?
Then, if you choose to engage with this self-defined Twitter community, are you looking for a pat on the back or are you looking to have your opinions challenged? How are you going to react to differing opinions? Are you going to listen respectfully, ask questions, and possibly make reasoned counter-arguments? Or are you going to shout them down, then stick your fingers in your ears and make “na na” sounds when the response comes?
Again, there is no right or wrong way to use Twitter (well, that’s not entirely true, but I’ll get to that in a second). All I can say is how I use it – and think it should be used – because I firmly believe in its potential to be an incredibly enriching and educational tool.
I follow a respectable number of people from all walks of life. I follow people locally and avoid those mass broadcasters who have little relevance to my life (e.g. Ashton Kutcher and Guy Kawasaki. Nothing against them… I just don’t care what the former has to say and I got very tired very quickly of the latter inundating my Twitter feed. I do follow Alyssa Milano and am waiting patiently for her follow-back!)
On a business side, I follow certain people and organizations whose opinions I respect and advice I value; on the personal side, I cast a much larger net.
I’m also firm in my belief that you shouldn’t simply follow people who agree with you. I want to benefit from other opinions. While I hold my own political and societal views, it doesn’t mean I can’t learn from others’. Gleaning from others’ knowledge and perspective only strengthens my convictions and opinions.
There are people on Twitter whom I respect in real life. But when I see that they’re only following a handful of largely like-minded people, it concerns me greatly. Despite the ease of access it information on-line, it’s still very easy to get tunnel vision.
After all, no one side has a monopoly on what’s right. No one group can claim to know what’s best for everyone. An idea’s merit knows no political affiliation or social perspective. And the only way to come to the best decision is by listening to all sides of the debate – not just rely on being reinforced by those who are predisposed to agree with you.
When I express an opinion, I do so to the best of my abilities using all the information I have on hand. I write what I believe is right. However, I have no problem with someone criticizing my work and offering up counter arguments. It gives me a chance to defend my position. And if I turn out to be wrong, this type of debate gives me a chance to refine and reinforce my beliefs.
Personally, I’d rather be right because my opinion stands up to criticism and bears the burden of proof. I don’t want to be right because my opinion is parroted by those who share my ideology. But that’s just me. (And it’s also why I will never join a political party – I can’t blindly accept any one group’s ideas as gospel while outright ignoring any other’s party’s ideas simply because of where they came from.)
How that criticism is presented is just as important. Earlier I alluded to a “right” way to use Twitter, and here it is: respectfully.
Although I referred to Twitter as a playground, name-calling and shouting down differing opinions should never be acceptable. Nor should the “I know you are but what am I” style of obstinate posting.
And for all the accusations the left-side of Twitter will lobby at Conservatives for their message control, media blackouts, and generally weaselly information manipulation tactics, I’ve often found that those who define themselves as socially liberal are the least open to respecting differing opinions.
Why? Passion. These are people who are passionate about their causes: human rights, environment, poverty, anti-various-isms… (and this is not to say that those on the right don’t care about these issues) And that passion seems to cloud their judgment.
It’s as if they believe it’s so easy to see what the right answer is that there should be no debate. What’s right is right; what’s wrong is wrong, and because of those absolutes, there is no room to entertain opposing views.
But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that’s not the case. There are no absolutes. There are shades of grey in everything: political, economic, and cultural tones that fill in the background of the picture. And it’s only through listening to each other and trying to understand their position that we can appreciate a story or a decision in its totality.
Passion does not trump respect. And if your argument is sound, it will stand up to scrutiny. Shouting someone down doesn’t make you right; it makes you a bully.
Finally, there’s a matter of perspective. Our Twitter community may seem full, vibrant, and potentially world-changing. But it’s only one schoolyard — one playground amongst thousands of others, all of which have their own perspectives, priorities, and beliefs. And it’s one playground amongst a world of other structures.
It’s easy to fall into the trap thinking you’re the big man or woman on campus. Our Twitter communities are our personal fiefdoms and one can feel like they rule the roost. But how far does that influence actually extend? The coolest kid in school has no influence on the facility across town – and certainly even less amongst the businesses in the community at large.
That influence amongst a limited number of followers is a great start. But it’s only a start. True community engagement means taking it beyond the Internet and influencing Jill and Joe Average.London’s Twitter community is rich and vibrant – but it’s only a segment of a segment of a segment of the overall city’s makeup. It’s important to remember that and not overestimate your influence and become complacent in your beliefs.
That’s why I appreciate differing viewpoints in my Twitter community. The act of discussing and debating (respectfully) strengthens my position; diversity of opinion allows me to grow, learn, and be exposed to new experiences; and the awareness of the limited impact these on-line communities have in the grand scheme of things makes me understand how important it is to not view social networking as the be-all-and-end-all of opinion and that every so-called consensus or movement needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
But that’s just me. And I may be all alone in the corner of my playground while all the cool kids are off doing something else. To me, though, the most important thing is that no matter which playground game we choose to play, playground behaviour can’t be the norm.
The Twitter community offers too much potential for growth, understanding, and sharing to have it ruined by schoolyard taunting, bullying, and obstinance. After all, just because you’re playing a game doesn’t mean you can’t grow up.