Twitter is ONLY the medium (response to Aldo’s post)

Posted on January 31, 2012 by


If I did not know Aldo, I would completely skip his text “The Medium is Twitter” as another – justified – warning about techno-hype. The more media pushes techno-hype, the more it triggers techno-pessimism (or realism?).

The dialogue between techno-optimists and techno-pessimists dates back, at least in written history, to a dialogue between Theuth, the Egyptian god of intentions, who tries to “sell” the invention of writing to king Thamus (Plato’s Phaedrus). King Thamus was not easily persuaded because of his concern that writing might weaken humanity’s memory. It did.[1] How many of us can recall by heart more than one page of the text as people did in Plato’s tiem with, for example,  “The Iliad and The Odyssey”. But, writing has also opened new possibilities, and human creativity flourishes till this very day. Why should Twitter should be different from previous tools?

I expected from Aldo a more nuanced argument, along the lines of some of his previous blogs that provide real insight beyond cognitive “binary” views (Kwetching theyouth).

From the conference rooms....

From the conference rooms....

Let me recount my personal experience as a way of addressing Aldo’s argument against Twitter and webinars. Twitter has helped me to participate more effectively in conferences. I listen to the presenter, and try to tweet his/her message succinctly. The speaker’s words must pass through the tough filter of relevance before being transmitted to my audience. Sometimes, unfortunately not that rarely, I cannot tweet anything, except the advice that the presenter should change speechwriters. Tweet-reports have helped me to remember what was discussed at the meetings. For me, with my weak memory, it is an achievement that I can now recall the discussions from all the latest meetings I tweeted from (previously I could not do so). In brief, Tweeter has provided me with memory-hooks and a new way of memorising. The mind is indeed plastic!

The main problem with Aldo’s blog is that it attempts to compare things that cannot be compared.

How can you compare 10.000 tweets to 10.000 hours spent becoming an expert? Well, a social media expert, who sends 10.000 tweets has probably become an expert in social media. I am not sure Aldo was referring to them.

If he refers – most likely – to junk tweets, he has a point. There are “tweets” and “tweets”. As with any form of communication, you can get everything from the info that I just left my home (who cares?) to real masterpiece tweets. Twitter is expression through compression. A great tweet definitely takes more than an hour to compile: not in the act of writing 144 characters, but definitely in the mental processing of the idea (maybe while having a shower). Good tweets are an illustration of the famous quote: “I did not have a time to write a short letter”.[2]

The weakest point in Aldo’s blog is that he thinks ‘webinar’, while criticising ‘Twitter’. I know that Aldo is annoyed with the small text windows, which he found in the webinar space.  While the interface should be improved (bigger text box), Aldo does not see the forest for the trees.

The webinar is an extremely powerful tool, but it cannot be compared to the Chinese Party University (including the morning gymnastics) or the Oxford University or Wilton Park, or…. These places are great contemplation and conversation sites, usually located in lovely buildings and nice natural surroundings. People can discuss issues in a calm and discussion-inducing environment. Can we compare this to a webinar?

Not in any aspect (positive or negative). An in situ seminar is more expensive. It removes people from their work and family. It allows for limited groups of people. In situ learning is an excellent way for creating a cadre of future Chinese or British leaders, where you need to conveys values and approaches (even more than knowledge and skills).

Let us take the position of our webinarians, sitting in their offices and homes worldwide (including small island states), following the news, trying to make some sense of it. They cannot go easily to Beijing or Oxford or a similar place. But they need to have insights and to learn more about pressing issues such as the future of the Euro, the future of the Internet, the role of China in the modern world. The webinar addresses very well this cognitive and practical need.

Another personal example…. Before Richard Werly’s webinar on Libya, I was missing two pieces in my mental jigsaw puzzle on Libya (at least that I was aware of). The first was about the vast territory of southern Libya and the Sahara. What is going on there? It is one of frontiers that – like the Atlantic between Europe and America, and the stretch of steppes and Gobi  between Asia and Europe – has always fascinated me. I asked Richard about this, and he provided a very good explanation about links to Darfur, Chad, migration, etc. My second question was about the role of Qatar. Again, Richard provided an excellent summary. In one hour I got a perfect survey of the situation in Libya and filled in two gaps in my understanding of the Libyan crisis.[3]

I could bring similar examples from other webinars. What more can one expect in one hour? I am sure that Aldo’s experience beyond his first webinar will inspire him to write reflections in real Aldo style.

[1] From Plato’s “Phaedrus”:

The god Teuth selected the invention of writing and proclaimed:

Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.

King Thamus replied:

…the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. … out of fondness for your off-spring you have attributed to this invention of writing quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

[2] Who said: I am sorry to have written such a long letter, but I did not have time to write a short one? Was it George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal or Abraham Lincoln?  Read more.

[3] What would be an alternative? Although, I am based in Geneva where you can find useful seminars and public discussions, it would be very difficult for me to find an answer to my questions (identify specific event, spend 3 hours, see if my questions would fit in the flow of discussion).