Commodore Ackland is a Royal Navy Officer and UK Defence Academy staff member, you can follow him on Twitter at @HeberAckland.
Recently I was scrolling through the online version of the Washington Post when I was drawn to a striking headline describing twitter as the crystal meth of the newsrooms, ‘a drug [sic: twitter] that insinuates itself into our vulnerabilities only to leave us toothless and disgraced.’ This journalist saw twitter as a platform providing a series of amphetamine hits of ‘fleeting sensations, momentary outrages, ersatz insights and provocative distortions.’
Then on my drive to work last week, the headline was about the potential tragic role played by social media in teenage suicides; and again, later in the week, a feature on screen time and children’s health. The is a particular concern for friends with teenage children and younger.
Meanwhile, foreign policy by twitter is the new normal in the Trump era, for better or for worse. The jury is perhaps out on this – after all it may be that a diet of meaningful lies is more attractive to people than a menu of meaningless lines..
And back within the professional leadership of my Service, there are many who see twitter purely in terms of 280 characters of polemic offered at the expense of ‘proper’ writing and research.
I recognise all of the above as an important part of the truth with social media in general, and twitter in particular. But it is of course only part of the story. At the heart of the matter is not just the need to avoid living our lives excessively and vicariously through social media with the associated risks of polarisation, dumbing down and displacement from the real world.
There is also the issue of utility. This is to say that social media have many different, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses which make it important to understand for what purposes we wish to employ them. Many might argue that the description of twitter by the Washington Post journalist is pretty accurate. But this would be to ignore the positive, imaginative and professional ways in which people are using the platform.
To put this in context, since I started using twitter in a work related capacity, I have accessed more serious articles about my profession in 6 months than I have in 26 years using mainstream MOD systems. This is not a criticism of Defence IT per se but rather a reflection of the reality that the open source accessing of ideas is an overwhelmingly more dynamic and effective way to acquire knowledge and understanding than via an official, closed-loop system.
The network I access via my twitter account spans across globe from America to Australia, across military, academia, the public sector and the commercial world. While language and culture is a barrier, this is still a far more diverse milieu than I could access conventionally. And what’s better, as I get to know and respect certain opinion formers, I can get a sense of what’s worth reading and what may not be; again cautionary alert here to guard against the ‘echo chamber’ effect but at least with twitter I have a significant personal choice about what I decide to read (I think…).
For those who operate in this world, as I now do, none of the above will be news. And as a recent convert, I am bound to feel all this with an extra dose of passion. But as I speak to those who have different foundational beliefs about social media, it is clear to me that some do not realise is that it is not the 280 characters that count, it is what sits behind them; high quality, reasoned, referenced, challengeable, articulate arguments, information and knowledge (usually).
So, twitter is not the engine, it’s merely the access point. If thought of and used in this way, responsibly and professionally, the real question is: can any of us afford not to be engaged?
Image: U.S. Air Force Col. Derek Salmi, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Lee Mills, 92nd ARW command chief, answer questions submitted via audience member smart phones during a base all-call at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, Sept. 26, 2018, via Fairchild.af.mil.