Monday 25 February 2013

Twitter Through the Lens of the Exercises

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

When words are invented out of the sheer impact or popularity of a phenomenon, we know that such an event has “arrived”; its status is of such importance that our language needs to adapt to it. For example, to google something is to search for its meaning on the internet by using the Google search engine. Another example is to tweet; while this word has its origin in the sounds made by birds, it mainly refers to the action of sending short messages through the social media platform that is Twitter. When a friend of mine recently told me that she was giving up Twitter for the Season of Lent, it dawned onto me that Twitter has reached a point where it is considered by many as an object of indulgence, one that creates a sort of dependency on its users.

For those of you who have had the chance to know me as a person, I may come across as a sort of a severe critic of social media; after all, I am one of that dying breed who does not own a Facebook account by choice. What would such a person have to say about the quickly-evolving world that is social media? For starters, the fact that I am writing this blog entry should serve as evidence that I am not that big of a Luddite; nevertheless, a critical look at our media of communication is necessary. While using it in moderation is commendable, understanding the intentions behind it is the next step.

For this article, Twitter is the subject of interest. Here I intend to take an approach that has been recommended by St. Ignatius of Loyola, as prescribed in the Spiritual Exercises (SE): “ is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another's statement than to condemn it as false.” (SE 22). In other words, I don't think that it is just another example of the decline of human civilization. It seems to me that Twitter is sticking around for the long haul. Given this reality, what are the goods that can come out of it? More importantly, how should we utilize it appropriately? How can one put the best interpretation on Twitter?

While I find its bird logo quite attractive, another distinctive feature of Twitter is its one hundred-and-forty character limit. Regardless of what we want to say, we need to be concise. Then the following question is: what kind of information do we need to be concise about? Intentions do matter: not everyone needs to be fed with information such as “...just had the best slushie ever, lolz”. Perhaps these kind of useless tweets give Twitter a bad reputation, but as with any other tools, it can be useful when used properly.

Some like to share inspirational quotes through tweets. Another interesting initiative is the sharing of one's  PhD thesis summary through tweets. This requires that the PhD student be able to succinctly summarize volumes of work within the Twitter character limit. If there is something valuable to share, deliver it in a compact package. This also points to another aspect of Twitter that is inherent in all types of social media: information sharing. If it is meant to be shared with others, let us be considerate and discerning in what kind of information we are transmitting. It is no longer just about me, myself and I; it is about us.

In addition to the “whats” of Twitter, the “hows” are also important. First of all, we need to be aware of how we are processing the information. What are we doing to the information being fed to us? Is it a kind of rote retention of information, or is there any kind of information synthesis taking place?  Hoarding information is easy; putting information together in a meaningful and coherent way is difficult but worthwhile.

Secondly, paying attention to how we are being affected by this information influx is also crucial; we need to be reflective about the message. The shortness of the message does not necessarily exclude the possibility for depth; the key is to have the willingness to explore it. Wisdom sayings and famous quotes serve as good examples. This goes both ways: to explore the depth of the message received, and also to deliver messages of depth. Regardless of whether we are on the receiving or the giving end, does the message draw us closer towards the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? In other words, does it draw us closer to God? If so, in what way?

The issue of depth warrants a closer look. Take the PhD thesis summary tweets, for example. While it may expand the horizon of our knowledge to a certain extent, it merely whets our appetite. There are times when we need more than just a one hundred-and-forty word snippet. This highlights the value of comparatively lengthy messages such as blog entries, articles and books. While a tweet can capture a beautiful snapshot of a scenery picture, a book takes you for an interactive tour, through which we better understand the logical flow and context of our message of interest.

This is by no means an either-or scenario: we are not called to choose between small, smart chunks of information and a great piece of literature. Both are legitimately useful in our lives. Some may contend that since our lives are so busy nowadays, we need to have an efficient intake of information. But if something is truly useful and beneficial, it is worth the hassle of making time for it. Ultimately, the question is how we are being transformed by the delivered message that we consider as knowledge. To take it a step further, on which level are we being transformed?

St. Ignatius has this to say about what we are to do with our knowledge, and particularly regarding our knowledge of Jesus Christ: “For it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul, but the intimate understanding and relish of the truth.” (SE 2) An intellectual knowledge can be immensely useful, but our relationship with the Lord is more than just intellectual; it is personal in that it involves the engagement of our entire being. If God can be found in all things good, true and beautiful, then this knowledge that we gained cannot just rest in our heads, whether they be from an insightful tweet or a poem. In the end, let us reflect upon this recurring question: in what way am I being transformed by these knowledge? Do I love the Lord more, and am I now closer to him because of it?

1 comment:

  1. One of the important facets of Twitter, and one that I think is often overlooked, is the way it can point you in the direction of further reading and reflection. When the Pope resigned, for example, I read a lot of 140-character jokes, I got a snapshot of the general feeling among the people that I follow, but I also got links to lengthy, deep articles on the subject. Sometimes articles come my way over Twitter because I follow someone who's an expert on the topic, but sometimes good reading comes my way because of a sort of "survival of the fittest," where good stuff gets passed around a uninteresting stuff gets ignored. There are lots of ways to find what you want online, but Twitter is one of them!