Perhaps Nick Cohen is still writing regularly for the British papers, but since I don’t check them regularly I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that, like many other writers, he has a Substack site called “Writing from London.” It’s free, but you should subscribe if you read regularly.
His latest piece is a critique of Twitter, especially for writers. Although I don’t “follow” anyone on Twitter or look at it often, I do realize it has its merits. Those include getting news fast and seeing animal pictures of interesting human feats or works of art. The downside is the endless squabbles, which I skip. Otherwise, I could live without it, though I realize that some people (like Cohen himself, as he admits) are addicts. I’ve known several people who are perfectly satisfied to sit and scroll through Twitter for hours, and I don’t understand that at all. (This does not mean that readers should stop sending me good tweets, because of course I use them in the Hili Dialogues every day.
Here is a good tweet:
I got dizzy 😯😍😱 pic.twitter.com/CKg3rkzpLX
— 𝓥𝓘𝓚𝓣𝓞𝓡𝓘𝓐•🙏🇺🇦💔 (@viktorinini) September 17, 2020
But back to Cohen. His serious and specific objection is that Twitter erodes good journalism, and does so in several ways. And I agree with him.
Cohen introduces his beef with an appetizer showing its one advantage for journalists:
Twitter holds journalists under a spell. If we agree on one thing it’s that we must be on it. As does pretty much everyone involved in academia, politics, and broader intellectual life. Before arguing that there are good reasons to leave, I should say that Twitter has not bewitched us entirely, and there are rational grounds for our infatuation.
People who dismiss it as a “hell site,” because they have seen too many mobs cancel too many victims, are not using Twitter properly. If they could ignore the trolls and the show offs, they could listen to informed conversations on any and every subject. Working journalists discover experts to call if they work in the serious end of the trade, and quotes to pad out stories if they do not.
These are real advantages. But there are stronger grounds for arguing that journalists and others are deluding themselves when they say they must be on Twitter.
But then there’s the heavier downsides, of which there are four. Cohen’s main points and words are indented:
Writers think they must be on Twitter to build an audience. The more clicks you get, the happier your bosses are, and the greater the chance of the editor commissioning your next piece.
The bitter truth is that the ungrateful swine don’t click. A study of 200 US news publishers from 2016 found that Twitter generated “1.5 percent of traffic for typical news organizations”. At the same time a joint study by Columbia University and the French National Institute concluded that your tweet may go viral but your content may not be read.
Turns out a majority of the content shared on Twitter (59 percent) never gets clicked on, it concluded.
In 2020 Twitter nudged users by putting up messages asking if they’d actually like to read an article before retweeting the link. Its prompts had little effect. Twitter is a site dominated by chats, headlines and one-liners, and no amount of prompting can change its nature. . .
Twitter encourages intellectual conformism
By this Cohen is referring to “cancel culture”: say what your tribe expects, or there will be trouble:
The dismal effect of Twitter on book publishing has been well covered. Censorship and self-censorship are now so endemic previously respectable publishing houses fire authors because of a Twitter storm. If it were to vanish tomorrow, the book business would not be such a frightened and miserable place.
Less discussed is the professional conformism social media enforces on journalism.
People take more notice of the approval of their peers more than the approval of outsiders. In 2000, long before the invention of social media, the Pew Research Centre surveyed US journalists to find why they did not cover important but complicated stories.
The first reason reporters and editors offered was that they feared their readers or viewers would simply not understand the story. A close second, however, was an explanation I suspect no one outside journalism would think about.
“Peer pressure — fear of embarrassment or potential career damage — is mentioned by about half of all journalists as a factor for avoiding newsworthy stories,” the researchers found. They would back away from stories because “they did not want to be ridiculed by other journalists”.
Twitter has made peer pressure a dominant obsession.
And, of course, it’s a drug.
True Twitter addicts check their phones from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. Instead of producing work that pays, they strive to increase their status and follower count by giving Elon Musk their copy free of charge.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” said Dr Johnson. But he knew nothing of the enchantments of the social media world where the desire to be noticed eclipses the need to make a living.
Unless you are a genius, good writing is hard work. You must clear your mind of distractions and focus, as must anyone engaged in any other serious task. For today’s writers, social media is now the prime distraction and the foremost enemy of promise.
For sure it’s a distraction. I stay off social media constantly when I have serious writing to do. And truly, I don’t understand why it’s a drug unless you’re one of those people who takes great pleasure in “likes”, which I see as the sign of not having a life. And yet, and yet. . .
I will stay on Twitter for the good reason that I follow interesting people and the pathetic reason that, alas, I am also an addict.
But if Musk were to close Twitter tomorrow, I don’t doubt for a moment that intellectual life would be the better for it.
Let’s have a poll (please answer):