The limits of Twitter: Facilitating misrepresentation of social issues

By Simon Brown / Columnist

If extraterrestrials ever approach the earth’s atmosphere, it’s not unthinkable that they would first encounter human civilization in the radio waves delivering internet data to satellites. 

If those extraterrestrials happened to arrive in our atmosphere this past week, they might make a few conclusions about humanity: We really like cats, we apparently really don’t like the new Miss America and we’re all puzzled by what foxes have to say—well, Ylvis is, at least. 

However, we know that apart from the cats, this list does not at all represent human society. Most people are either uninterested in or rather pleased with the new Miss America, despite the few racists who seem to get all the attention. And although 31 million people watched “The Fox” on YouTube, many did so only ironically. 

The reason for this disconnect is that tweets and videos don’t have the power to speak for themselves. Because of that, no matter how interconnected and accessible social media sites may be, they can never surpass established forms of written communication to address serious social problems. 

To get a sense for why this is, look no further than the Miss America controversy that trended on Twitter and dominated Facebook feeds last week. The otherwise innocuous event generated considerable attention when Nina Davuluri, representing New York, became the first Indian-American to win the title.  

Soon after the announcement, a Buzzfeed list surfaced enumerating the most ignorant and offensive Twitter responses to a south-Asian woman earning the award. The responses can be summarized as those upset about any “foreign-looking” winner and those furious that an “Arab terrorist” could be granted the title. 

This list, in turn, generated an overwhelming wave of public support for Davuluri in the Twitter-verse, as established news sources began including the racist responses as the primary item of interest from the competition. Soon, no tweet could congratulate the winner without reference to the ignorance of a relatively small but vocal population. 

There are a lot of aspects of this story that should unsettle any reader, besides the intolerable racism. 

First of all, why do the ignoramuses who made these posts deserve to dominate the discussion about this public display of diversity? Why must Davuluri accept her title among a sea of reporters asking her to respond to such racism before she can enjoy her victory?

The answer lies in the media of communication, and their communal currency — the “information-bite” — which spawned this mess.  

In this case, it began with tweets, whose characteristic limit on letters proves particularly conducive to powerful insights on the one hand, but unexplained stupidities on the other. Polonius in “Hamlet” may have been onto something when he told his son, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” but he never mentioned that it is the soul of idiocy, as well. 

These comments were then discovered and consolidated into a Buzzfeed list — the ideal format to provoke a climax of emotion, leading readers through well-ordered steps to a conclusion. This applies equally to the glee of reading “15 Cats Who Look Like Harry Potter Characters” and the outrage of reading tweets comparing an Indian-American woman to Osama bin Laden. 

After each item on the list, the reader’s emotions only intensify until he or she forgets that the list has been carefully crafted to elicit a passionate response.

I highly doubt that “12 Shocking Tweets that Embrace Diversity and Encourage Multiculturalism” would garner too many hits. 

Anyone sufficiently livid by the end of the Buzzfeed list — which is most anyone who has had the misfortune of reading it — would naturally make a tweet of one’s own, decrying this bigotry. 

Herein lies the difficulty with this genre of digital communication. Though the incredibly weighty dilemma of racial intolerance can be introduced by one thoughtless tweet, it cannot be responsibly addressed with the same device. Neither one tweet nor one Facebook post can grapple with the complexity of such a problem.

Any number of tweets can address scattered elements of the problem. You can say “It’s bad that people thought she was an Arab” or “people shouldn’t equate Arab-Americans with terrorists.” But these statements, correct though they are, miss the complexity of the interlocking misconceptions that allow such bigotry. 

Responding to simple assertions with simple assertions will never educate anyone out of ignorance and will never address the real social problems. Rather, it can only comment on and replicate them for all to see. 

Instead, it requires thoughtful analysis of the wider social conditions that allow such ignorance. Such thoughtful analysis will have to exceed 140 characters. It will force us, as educated citizens, to read — and write — articles, editorials and even books. 

By forsaking these media of communication, we as a society are letting the most ignorant among us define the terms of the discussion. If we only have 140 characters, we’ll spend all of them railing against the blatantly stupid. Where is there room left, then, for deeper analysis and questions such as, “Why do people still harbor such racial anger?” or, “Why do we still hold competitions to compare women based largely on their physical appearance?”

These considerations all require more sophistication than Twitter or Buzzfeed can afford. It will require a dedication to media that will allow deeper reflection. 

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, then you’re on the right track. 

Write Simon at [email protected].