5 Tips to Twitter

How to survive EduTwitter (Blob 2.0)

It’s been an entertaining start to the year in the microcosm that is education’s Twitterati or EduTwitter as I’ve seen it called.

Appalled by my earlier posts realigning the dots around the motivations of education reform we have been treated to the now standardised set of tools deployed to neutralise conversation.

Who wants to accept that they’ve been duped, caught drinking their own Kool-Aid or had their ego stroked as an unwitting pawn in someone else’s bigger plan?

Surely, we have freewill?

So, here’s my light-hearted guide to what appears to be the standard arsenal of indignant Twitter attack dogs and avenging angels. Feel free to use this in your exchanges like Twitter bingo.

The Conspiracy Theory Dismissal

Primitive but one of the most commonly used tools in the bag of the intellectually challenged is to dismiss your argument as a “conspiracy theory”.

In colloquial language, “conspiracy theory” isn’t a neutral label to describe a type of explanation. It is an evaluative term with significant pejorative connotations. According to David Coady in his book on the subject, to allude to an account as a “conspiracy theory” is to make a judgement about its epistemic status; it is a way of branding an explanation untrue or insinuating that it is based on insufficient evidence, superstition or prejudice.

Positioning an explanation as a “conspiracy theory” serves to legitimise the competing one as rational, reasonable and evidence-based.

Take this statement from spin master Alistair Campbell speaking before the War Crimes Inquiry in 2010:

“People can reach different conclusions, but for heaven’s sake let’s do away with all these conspiracy theories that it was about oil, it was about George Bush telling Tony Blair what to do…”

The remarkable thing here, as used by an expert, is that an explanation is dismissed as a conspiracy theory without acknowledgement that the official sanctioned account set up as rational and non-conspiratorial also contains an allegation of an organised plot, i.e. that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre were the result of a well-coordinated conspiracy orchestrated from caves in Afghanistan.

In the world of academia, characterising someone as a conspiracy theorist is a form of character assassination. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tantrum or expletive used to dismiss or marginalise dissident views.

So essentially calling “conspiracy theory” is a typical retort of the feeble-mind unable to comprehend alternatives to the safety of their rigid opinion. Considering an alternative, let alone accepting it, means that they have to do some work & they’re lazy.

Give yourself a point if your idea is immediately dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

5 out of 10 for this attempt

The Ad Hominem Claim

This is a beaut and always used by cry babies who readily troll and insult those outside their clique / sect / cult or whatever it is floating their boat when their intellectual canon is out of ammo.

For the avoidance of doubt, “ad hominem” is (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.

It’s like playing the man rather than the ball. Educationalist theorist Stephen Downes demonstrates this magnificently here.

Ad hominem is a fallacy of relevance where a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument.

So using relevance as our guide:

“You sleep with goats so I won’t accept your teaching proposals” is ad hominem.

“How can I take your proposals seriously when you do the opposite” is not ad hominem.

Finally, ad hominem shouldn’t be confused with straight up insults like, “You’re a buffoon!”.

The Straw Man

Another predictable accusation used when the accuser is having difficulty following the argument.

Essentially, a straw man argument gives the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument not advanced by that opponent.

“John Smith says that iPads are distracting, I don’t know why he wants to ban them.” is a straw man argument.

“John Smith says that iPads are distracting, perhaps he’s not using them properly.” isn’t.

“I don’t like your tone”

Another whine from the cry-babies.

I believe that my online persona is playful, combative and respectful yet others will disagree. Those who disagree usually don’t know me in real life. They have constructed their own version of who they think I am based on what they’ve heard, what their friends (who also don’t know me) think, what I look like and so on. This construction also affects what they consider to be my “tone”.

Before Alain de Botton turned his Twitter timeline into a link farm he used to tweet short philosophical insights in less than 140 characters. To amuse myself I used to read these in the voice of Forrest Gump. Try it, you’ll enjoy it. 
Interpretation of tone in written work depends on a number of factors such as whether you know someone, your internal critic, humour and so forth. The medium used can also affect tone and sometimes meaning. Many an ill-feeling has been the result of a tersely worded email or a comment limited to less than 140 characters. Often this is a misunderstanding because the reader applied a tone that wasn’t there and the writer has limited control over this. The emergence of emoticons are an example of trying to mitigate against misunderstandings of tone. If someone complains about my tone I ask them to read it in another voice and see if that helps.

Another thing about tone, like vocabulary and grammar, is that it can be a signifier that communicates your social group, background and privilege like a linguistic equivalent of body language. The social theorist, Bourdieu, suggests that those closer to the prevailing dominant culture have cultural capital providing them with inherent advantage which is apparent, for example, within assessments. He argues that “in rewarding grades, teachers are strongly influenced by the intangible nuances of manners and styles”. I’d suggest that the same could be said of tone and we should be mindful of our prejudices. I don’t beleive this is an argument for cultural programming however.

Sometimes tone is used as an editorial device to grab attention or take the reader on a journey that includes their emotions. Tone is also a matter of taste which explains why you can’t please everyone especially in matters deemed controversial.

Where are you on the Jimmy Carr to Michael McIntyre spectrum?

One of the reasons academic writing is different from conversational writing or commentary is that it is structured around an absence of tone or opinion and, whilst often informative, is as boring as fuck* (*word used an editorial device to provoke an emotion, get it?).

Here come the Twitter Police

I published my first tweet in August 2007 and in those days there weren’t many of us there. It was like the early days of CB radio, everyone was just pleased to be there and marvel at the possibility of sharing and having collegial discussions for the benefit of humanity.

Much has happened since my first tweet. Twitter has been implicated in everything from the Arab Spring to armchair lynch mobs engaged in ritual public shaming of people for minor indiscretions. In 2007 there were around 300K users of Twitter, today there are over 300 million. It’s still a new medium and we’re still trying to figure out what it means when we can instantly communicate with so many people let alone the rules of engagement.

With so many people online the signal to noise ratio is far from optimal. Unless you’re really dedicated to your filtering it’s like a stream of relentless messaging, each message asking for your attention. Do I click on this, do I respond, share it on or ignore?

It’s the decision to respond where we get into an attempt to conduct conversations, often with people we don’t really know outside of Twitter, and interpret all kinds of meaning from a very limited set of data. Some have elected to impose a set of rules on the space afforded by Twitter. I was recently schooled in subtweeting. Whilst I am thankful for being enlightened about how some people choose to use Twitter I can’t say that I’m inclined to comply.

So, here we have an immediate obstacle in the form of a digital social signifier that Bourdieu couldn’t have imagined. An immediate set of rules of engagement; what does a fav mean? what does RT signify? and so on. I guess there are people who feel lost without rules. Anything that will stop you having a conversation.

Then we come to the type of conversations you’re going to have. It turns out that there’s a whole set of rules about debating, popular with a number of EduTweeters who insist on applying a set of logic to each aspect of the exchange. This, they will argue, is the language and terms upon which we must engage. This is where we get someone who is back at school or university when pretending you were a Vulcan might have been cool amongst a certain clique.

Then there are those that are just rude.

You know who you are.

The alternative is not to engage at all or to filter out everyone you don’t agree with or can’t bear and to be honest I think there’s something to be said for that. But whereas I could just filter it all out I also benefit from being exposed to people I don’t agree with. The alternative is the creation of an echo chamber like the ones I complain about. On that basis it may be that Twitter has reached the point where, in education at least, multiple echo chambers are converging and as a result we are hearing new voices. I know that I am being hopelessly idealistic but I do wonder if this might also be an opportunity.

In reality collusions happen throughout our lives and in different circumstances. Those collusions become increasingly transparent in a society that is connected and I refer again to the fact that we’re still figuring out what that means. In my more optimistic moments I’d like to think that we were able to benefit from having more dots. More dots, more innovation, more possibilities. As our echo chambers collide could there be a chance to collaborate rather than isolate. Education is surely far too important to be a party political issue or subject to the influence of a very narrow constituency.

Are we really arguing about having less transparency?

If you like this article or just want other people in your feed to see it then please click the like/heart thing below. I also welcome response posts, it’s all good