x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

When tweeters become twits, communication suffers

Social media has revolutionised the world of communication, mobilised uprisings and given many an outlet for their ideas. But there should be a limit.

"Soon, the human touch will become obsolete," my grandmother used to say. Perhaps we have already reached this point.

The other day, I sat down with a group of journalists and activists to discuss our annoyance at how almost everyone who opens a Twitter account thinks they've become an instant expert, an activist, a writer or an artist - often all at the same time. But what if you've never actually produced a piece of art, written a proper article or actually stood and protested for anything? You tweet, therefore you are?

Sure, social media has revolutionised the world of communication, mobilised uprisings and given many an outlet for their ideas. But there should be a limit.

For instance, does a journalist who sits in front of a computer all day and re-tweets news wires and opinions by others deserve the same respect as one who actually risks his or her life and goes out there, reports and investigates?

It's a fair question, and while it may rub some people the wrong way, it needs to be asked. There are infamous twits who seem to tweet non-stop, often with very little to say.

"It is almost like the one who says the most obnoxious things gets the most followers," noted a dear friend and journalist with over 10 years of experience in some of the world's roughest places. "What is happening here?"

I want to share a funny moment that might explain it. A while back, I opened my laptop and showed a group of senior citizens Twitter and Facebook, and asked them what they thought of social media.

"Are all these people talking to themselves?" one 80-year-old family friend chuckled. "We do that too."

Like her, most of the older people had a problem with the term "social media," suggesting that it really isn't that social to sit alone in front of computer screen. The virtual world is impersonal, narcissistic and despite all the "friends", rather lonely. And with the speed at which people fire off information in these forums there is also a high risk of inaccuracies and resentment if a message gets ignored or slammed by readers.

Compare this to my grandmother's generation. I recall the day I made fun of her as she clacked away on a noisy and messy typewriter, double-checking every word before she pulled the page off the roller. This memo was not addressed to Twitter followers, but one of the thousands of people she had met face to face and knew personally. How did she manage to make so many friends without internet or even a mobile phone?

This is one way: she carefully wrote thoughtful prose that demanded a response. Every morning, whenever I visited her estate in Poland, I would sneak a peek into the rusty, unattractive mailbox at the front of the house. I couldn't believe it, but there was always something in there. There were letters with exotic stamps, postcards from around the world, even clumps of paper with a cry for help or complaint.

My grandmother was sort of a self-appointed don or mayor of her neighbourhood, and she enjoyed helping and fixing problems.

I don't know how she managed, but somehow she knew the latest news, whether in her own neighbourhood or far-flung places around the world. Yes, she had a radio, a TV and a telephone, but it was her passion to go and shake hands, have tea and give hugs to whoever needed it that earned her real friends. There were no 140-character limits in her day.

It is true few of us have the time to drop everything and be as deliberate with our words as my grandmother. But in some ways this is our own fault. Twitter and Facebook, meant to ease communication, might actually be hurting it.

At the end of my conversation with activists and fellow journalists, someone asked, "Has conversation become obsolete? Are we like old typewriters whose time has come and gone?"

It's a question I wonder, too.