Should Elitists Get Off Twitter?
An opinion piece in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh (2022) argued that the real reason to get off Twitter was that it “reeks of low status”. Stay on it long enough and you can “catch” its tone of “domestic mediocrity”. Even elites who use this micro-blogging site should beware – it will “cheapen them”.
Ganesh seems to be having fun with this piece, but he is expressing a very common refrain among those who steer away from Twitter. It’s not only “social media” but social media with a limited number of characters. How can one fully express their brilliant ideas? Well, you can link your tweet to your book, essay, video, or tome if you wish. That might help others discover it. So I don’t agree with the social media or Twitter bashers generally, but what I find most interesting is the degree social status is explicitly coming into play. The FT is published in Britain, so that might explain part of this status consciousness. But it might well be more than that.
Historically, new media have often been vilified. When the first trans-Atlantic cable was installed for telegraphy, enabling a person in London to communicate with someone in New York, Ralph Waldo Emerson was reported to have said: “But will he have anything to say” (Briggs 1977). When Samuel Morse claimed that this new medium of the telegraph would enable Maine to speak to Florida, Emerson reply was: “Yes, but does Maine have anything to say to Florida” (Kelly 2020). If he were to learn that Twitter enables ordinary people to send 50 million tweets per day, he would inevitably wonder if they had anything to say.
In the early days of the telephone in Britain, many would never put their telephone number on their “calling card”, “no one of good breeding would be so crass as to extend or accept an invitation by telephone” (Perry 1977). It was viewed as interrupting life with “trivial matters”. Often the elite of British society would not personally answer a phone, as it should be answered by a servant, according to A. H. Hastie of the Association for Protection of Telephone Subscribers.
Finally, from the early telephone to today’s social media, electronic or digital media enabling person-to-person communication, in contrast to broadcasting, was seen as having a levelling effect. For example, the ordinary person can tweet over the same media as the journalist at the FT. That tends to democratise communication and is heartening for people like me, but understandably threatening to those of higher status.
That said it is good to see the enduring links between social status and media of communication. And with that, I encourage journalists, elites, and all statuses to keep engaged on the digital media of their choice.
Asa Briggs (1977), “The Pleasure Telephone”, pp. 40-65 in Ithiel de Sola Pool, ed. The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Janan Ganesh (2022), “The Real Reason to Get Off Twitter”, Financial Times, Opinion, 11 November: https://www.ft.com/content/8a040159-502d-491d-8ad3-2200609dae71
Mark Kelly (2020), “Ralph Waldon Emerson”: https://medium.com/grab-a-slice/ralph-waldo-emerson-1db2f755c1b6
Charles R. Perry, “The British Experience 1876-1912”, pp. 69-96 in Ithiel de Sola Pool, ed. The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.