Friday, 26 August 2011

Less tweeting, more talking (or blogging)

"Don't talk to her - she's a colonial feminist"
If something can't be said in 140 characters or less, why bother trying to say it in 140 characters or less?

I was reminded of this elementary point today by two faintly depressing spats on my Twitter timeline. Both of them illustrate the limits of Twitter, which I recognise is handy for many things - and I'm hardly Twitter-shy myself - but inadequate for developing an even remotely coherent argument.

The first spat concerned the Home Secretary Theresa May's ban on all marches across large swathes of London, an opportunistic response to the planned EDL and anti-racist marches in Tower Hamlets on 3 September. Some tweets are at the playground level, barely more sophisticated than 'Billy Bragg is a smelly poo' or 'The SWP are fatty stupidheads'.

But even the more intelligent interventions in the debates about the banning of racist marches and how to respond to the EDL are weak. This is no surprise - you can't articulate a reasoned critique in a tweet.

The other dispute is between two fine Egyptian revolutionaries Gigi Ibrahim and Hossam el-Hamalawy in the red corner and US-based commentator Mona Eltahawy in the blue corner (or blue and white corner, if slurs about her being a 'Zionist' are to be believed). Hossam called her a 'colonial feminist', which is like calling someone 'fatty stupidhead' after reading some Edward Said. It is name-calling as substitute for political argument. The marxist wing of the greatest revolution of our times can do much better than this.

What's even worse is that Twitter means lots of other people get drawn in too, even if just at the level of reading such silliness. The adversaries retweet supportive comments - or, more likely, tweets which disparage the other side. Polarisation rapidly shuts down any space for thoughtful debate; personality clashes obscure political issues.

My grandad used to say when I was a bairn, "if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". Or, to be more precise, if you want to say something not very nice then take the time to explain, substantiate and critique. And without the personalised mud-slinging. (That's not strictly what my grandad said - let's call it paraphrasing).

It's a reminder of why those who claim Twitter's 'microblogging' has made blogging redundant are missing the point. A blog post (and the same goes for a comments thread) is a chance to - in a phrase I associate with the late Chris Harman - think things through. Subtlety and balance, not to mention scope for offering evidence to support your assertions, are possible.

Talking is even better. There's no substitute for face-to-face meetings as a way of conducting political discussion. It is possible to pose questions, interpet tone and refine ideas. And if anyone denounces someone as a 'colonial feminist', the immediate laughter of derision operates as an instant reality check.  

It occasionally crosses my mind that Trotsky would have made an amazing blogger. On Twitter, I fear, it would have been different - and, with that level of distraction, there's no way he'd have finished 'A History of the Russian Revolution'! 



  1. Was this blog post born of a distracted streak? I love that you think Trotsky would have made a great blogger, but why did you stop short of thinking he'd make a good tweeter? Paul Mattick, an enemy of Trotsky on the far left, once said: "As exciting as it is to recall the days of proletarian actions in Germany – the mass meetings, demonstrations, strikes, street fights, the heated discussions, the hopes, fears, and disappointments, the bitterness of defeat and the pain of prison and death – yet no lessons but negative ones can now be drawn from all these undertakings." My contention is that if this were boiled down to 140 characters it would read like one of Laurie Penny's tweets during the student protests - and that's no bad thing.

  2. The problem is that the Mattick quote CAN'T be boiled down to 140 characters. It gains any force it has from the way it is expressed - the build up of description.

    Form and content can't be separated in considerations of any kind of writing. It's like saying "This poem is just as good if you break it up into several tweets." It almost certainly won't be - but even if it is it will be something different from the original poem. Form matters.

    Anyway, I'd say about 80% of the non-link tweets (i.e. those which don't include a link to something longer) which I value are because they are funny or amusing. Another 10% are breaking news or useful information. Very few tweets expressing opinions are of value.

    Why? Because you can be funny in 140 characters, you can break news in 140 characters, but you can only occasionally express an argument successfully in 140 characters!