Nick Cohen writes about Twitter

December 30, 2022 • 9:15 am

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:

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.

Click to read:


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:

Twitter does not encourage people to read your work (or not so you’d notice)

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):

Would it bother you if Twitter disappeared?

View Results

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30 thoughts on “Nick Cohen writes about Twitter

  1. I don’t use Twitter so I am biased but what I don’t understand is all the people who want to boycott JK Rowlings over her reasonable, to me, comments on trans women dutifully keep tweeting even though Musk has said actually offensive things about trans people, among others. They feel they ‘need’ twitter so expediency trumps thier ethics.

  2. I agree with Cohen. I’m also sick to death of reading articles that center on tweets. I sense a progressive narrowing of intellectual variety in favor of fast reactions and juice. Twitter is like a steroidal tabloid. With so much of people’s time spent on it, there is also much less time to spend reading content of depth.

    1. I agree. Too many websites are reporting on Tweet/Counter-Tweet. Guess what so-and-so you never heard of said that was shocking, and what some other nudnik said in reply. Feh.

  3. Part 2. I think Ceiling Cat has always had the wise approach, using Twitter primarily to post and promote WEIT. In the end, he has created an encyclopedia of commentaries on the news and topics in biology. Those with 20,000+ tweets mainly only have engagements, a record that is easily used against them, and the social reach to write for other venues. However, Ceiling Cat has always had the social reach and writing prowess, long before WEIT. Now, many people have followings of over 10,000. But in the end, what do they have? What have they built aside from a quasi-fame?

  4. I don’t use my Twitter account, though it still exists, but I’ve just signed on to Mastodon because its algorithms seem better. It’s designed less to make snarky one-liners “go viral”, and more to encourage discussion. I’m not sure yet whether I like it enough to spend much time with it.

  5. It would bother me if Twitter disappeared, if the other social media remained part of the Progressive propaganda machine. I think, though, that as a format, Twitter is bad. It discourages reflection on the part of the Tweeter. The worst thing about Twitter is that short messages are not the best way to present information. The Twitter Files are, ironically, perfect examples of this, with the releases running into series of Tweets numbering in the fifties. Each individual Tweet was, in itself, a breathless summary of a point that would have done with more exposition. Let’s face it, all social media are focus on quick communication, so they are all as good or bad as the other when it comes to conveying information.

  6. I deleted my Twitter account so if it goes belly up, which I expect, I won’t fret. I find a FAR better source for journalism where longer form posts are the norm. Mastodon is also way more pleasant an experience and seems to be hitting a threshold of participation that will make it a success. Neither of these sites are driven by the kinds of algorithms that have poisoned Twitter and Facebook.

  7. I would be perfectly happy if all social media were to f*ck off and die. I don’t need to know everyone’s half baked halfwit opinions on everything and they don’t need to know mine, including this one. This site and yootoob are the only two places I make any public comments, never having written in to a newspaper, and honestly, I wouldn’t miss it at all if comments were blocked. I quit farcebook in 2012, sick of the fighting and politics, and quite tw@tter after the yellow journalism lies that led to the personal attacks on Sir Tim Hunt. I’ve considered just asking the kindly Prof. to block me here so I don’t ever feel compelled to comment. I think the only reason I do comment here is I don’t have any friends or acquaintances that I can talk to about science, but I don’t think I’m any happier for doing so. I’d be better off just reading books and talking to my pets and keeping my thoughts to myself.

  8. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, at the finding that users don’t click on the links to longer articles. 🙄
    From the beginning it seemed clear that Twitter was a silly and inconvenient communication mechanism aimed at those with short attention spans and little interest in serious discussion.
    If what Musk is doing finally kills it, I’ll consider that a positive on his mixed list of accomplishments.

  9. Is Mastodon really a curated echo-chamber for like-minded biens-pensants, as it seems so often to be described? Although I don’t make entries in Twitter, which I joined to follow the Obama campaign, I find its random contentious clamor and diversity of opinion very entertaining. I like having access to the thoughts of those whose reasoning differs from mine. I’m not easily offended, and it keeps me on me toes.

    1. I did have a look at Mastodon, searching for categories of interest to me (insects, macrophotography). What turned me off was the very very high level of censorship. There were frequent pictures that were blurred out, and you had to click on them again to have a prurient peek. What was disturbing? Pictures of caterpillars (?), pictures of a bug eating a bug (?), and of course spider pictures.

      1. Mastodon is not “a site” and you may have signed onto a server with odd habits. I’ve not seen that where I hang out. My interest is largely in following Ukraine war events. You need to find the folk you want to follow.

  10. I think some people just don’t understand twitter. I use it regularly as a news source. I don’t see endless squabbles because I don’t follow those type of people. I only follow professionals whose opinions I trust or who have something cogent to say. This includes academics, lawyers, journalists, scientists, and people in medicine.

    It would be a great loss if twitter went away (unless something similar replaced it) and here’s one reason why. Right now the best source of information regarding covid is on twitter. I follow dozens of epidemiologists, immunologists, doctors, nurses, and public health experts who are on the front lines of the pandemic. They present a reality that is in stark contrast to what is portrayed in the MSM. They share a sense of urgency that most Americans have chosen to ignore.

    I also find links from people I follow to other publications that are of interest to me (much like you receive from your audience here). It’s up to the user to shape twitter into something that is a positive experience. You are essentially curating you own feed.

    I’ve signed up for Post but there’s another twitter alternative coming out shortly called Spoutible:
    It looks very similar to twitter but with some better features.

    1. This is an excellent post. It’s hard to get outraged by nitwits on Twitter like Kanye West if you just never follow them. I agree that with a little effort, you can mold a much more positive Twitter experience.

      Complaining about the dross on Twitter is a bit like going to a buffet and thinking that you have to eat everything on offer, even if you don’t like it.

    2. Well said, I have a pretty positive experience on Twitter. It’s all about who you choose to follow (and a few other configurable options, such as using the “latest Tweets” option instead of the more “curated” default).

      1. Exactly. I can see what Pinker, Coyne , Harris, and other trustworthy people are saying. I don’t subject myself to garbage.

    3. Agree. I mostly see exactly what I chose to see on Twitter. For the rest, it’s easy to just ignore it but often it’s interesting to get a taste of what goes on in the world.

    4. With you. I donot use it for news, but I suppose I do use it for scientific news… 🤔 I follow all the Greats, like Matthew…! But it is brilliant for citizen science. I met my friend Rebecca through it, & from that a lot of other people who expanded my horizons. I use it to get ids of insects, spiders & plants from wxperts who are only too happy to interact with the peasants like me. If people get squabbles & nastiness, they are probably following non-science stories. Though people who are climate scientists can get lots of ‘trolling’ from abusive denislists.

      1. Yes. I want to hear what intelligent people are saying things, I don’t need to hear from those who are spouting nonsense.

  11. I have an account, but the only time I go there is in response to a prompt—often an amazing animal posting that I learn about in the Hili Dialogue. I also looked at some of the NASA posts. I don’t follow anyone and, frankly, I don’t even understand how Twitter works. The couple of times I tried to follow a conversation I couldn’t figure out how to do it. The tweet sequence that confronted me in the browser didn’t make any sense.


    I’m obviously not the target audience and I wouldn’t care if the site went away entirely.

  12. I am one of the 16 who voted it would bother me “Yes, a lot”. That was an accident. I meant to vote NO, but misread the question. The only tweets I ever read are on WEIT and I don’t do any form of social media personally. Though I do have youtube and FB accounts for my diorama website. Though I don’t interact much with the accounts.

    As far as Musk’s takeover, from a non-Twitterer’s pov, it seems he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

  13. I got “woke” and cancelled FB, as for Twitter… guano has its uses. It’s the smell downwind inducing twits puking all over it that’s unhealthy.
    These mediums will be superseded, as fads do, 15 mins of fame is still big deal it seems.

    1. It has not changed humans. We were always led by gossip & before social media bush telegraph was usual. Rumours would spread & urban myths would propagate. Example – my godfather was an MP. Some yime when John Major was Prime Minister, & my godfather came to see my parents, I mengioned the story that was going around that the PM was having an affair. He was shocked – it was along the lines that if ordinary people knew, then the cat was out of the bag. It was true, though I think the rumour got the details wrong of course. Twitter is just the or A market place for all the stuff people say yo each other in small convversations in pubs/front rooms/ cafes, only because it is all open some people forget that. One could be a racist or sexist with people who know one, but not at work, & no one would know. But if one share those views on social media, the world knows one’s views.

  14. I read a couple of Twitter accounts that mostly feature cute animal videos, and sometimes follow links to news stories there.
    It seems like an awkward format for news stories, and I would prefer to read them as regular articles.

  15. Voted “a little bit”. I don’t have an account but it is useful for severe weather updates and public announcements by local police and fire and rescue. Twitter sometimes seems to be the best source of info for things like accidents and sudden road closures and such.

  16. The Guardian‘s website (which it shares with The Observer, an editorially independent Sunday newspaper that has the same owner) says that “Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer”. However, his most recent column seems to from July 2022.

    Perhaps he has joined the exodus of writers leaving The Guardian or Observer? (Hadley Freeman recently posted a devastating piece about why she recently left The Guardian after 20 years there.)

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