Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Arm-chair environmentalism, science communication, and why I hate Twitter

by Jordan Tam

"@LucidStream, Jordan you are a fool"

"Well you're an idiot!" was my sophisticated gut reaction to the random Twitter user's response to my second-ever tweet.

When UBC President Stephen Toope said of Twitter:
I dislike everything about it. I think that the notion of the immediate reaction to something without any reflection, the idea that you can say anything that matters in the limited number of characters you’re given, and that you have to do it immediately, and everyone will respond immediately with no reflection, I think it’s the worst of our society...
I thought, 'Yes. This is bang-on'. My skepticism of Twitter and its ability to foster meaningful dialogue began well before I started @LucidStream two days ago, and Toope's assessment echoed in my head the moment the first replies to my tweet sounded their arrival.

For what was I being accused of being a fool so directly (but distantly)? It was this tweet:

Which was, what I perceived, a justified salvo fired at the article's ("The Ocean in Broken" in the Newcastle Herald) careless language and phrasing, and overemphasis on a single line of anecdotal evidence to fuel its conclusions. The article describes yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen's sea voyages and is currently enjoying the rounds on Facebook, and so I thought it warranted a tweet. Ironically, I soon realized my most popular tweet had a typo; the result of trying to squeeze more meaning into the 140 characters alotted.

In my tweet I wanted to question the contradictions, like: "...the sea was dead... There was nothing to catch", while in preceding lines, (bags of) fish that were gifted to the yacht's crew by a large fishing vessel are described as  "...good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while". I wanted to raise a nuanced point about the potential harm of drawing derision and reinforcing stereotypes of environmentalists by using hyperbolic and vague language such as "the ocean is broken" to describe multitudinous marine issues. All of the ocean is broken?! How are we still alive?! I wanted to emphasize that even if you care about something, like the ocean, a lot, one boat trip is insufficient evidence to claim that the ocean is dead. And I had 116 characters to do it because the rest was taken up by a web address.

It didn't work so well.

Nonetheless there are three brief lessons from my neophyte interactions with the Twitterarti:

1) Language (precision) is key
'Broken ocean' aside, I believed that stating up front that "Some important marine issue [were] identified" by the article would insulate me from the public tirade accusing me essentially of hating the Earth. Nope. Admittedly, this is probably because I shouldn't have used such an affectively loaded term like "tear-jerker", but it's genuinely how I felt. Also, leaving a typo is just low-hanging fruit for the frothy-mouthed masses hunting for blood as vengance for hurt feelings. Oops did I say I should avoid loaded language?

2) Twitter is not the venue for (expressing) critical thinking
I like to think that, in general, my comrades who are concerned about environmental issues are careful and critical thinkers who have processed the evidence and have an appreciation for nuance. But I think Twitter has a tendency to corrupt the frontal lobes. It's clear that thinking twice before going on the attack is not a prerequisite for publishing on social media. Hence this post (not to mention the beautiful limitless room for me to ramble).

3) Not all tweets are created equal
It was a mystery to me, until this morning, why my other tweets are communing with tumbleweeds, while the 'ocean' tweet was drowning in a sea of hatred. When you have no followers, it's a case of real estate: location, location, location. Going back to the article I discovered my tweet among the top of the comments section in the Newcastle Herald. Ah-hah.I may have also temporarily closed the cover on my "Shit-Disturber's Dictionary" for subsequent tweets.

In the end, I still hate Twitter. But it is kind of addictive like a videogame, the exposure is surprising, and the (personal) benefits...well, that's to be seen.

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