All too often I see a lot of time and energy expended by people on social media on topics they obviously care a lot about. If the purpose of this energy is advocacy and bringing about real change, then it’s hard to think of a less effective way toward reaching the widest audience one can aim to reach.
By some estimates, only about 20% of Americans are active on Twitter. Of this 20%, most users rarely tweet, but the most prolific 10% create 80% of tweets from adult U.S. users. This means about 80% of tweets are generated by 2% of the U.S. population.
At its best, content on social media can truly be enlightening, educational, inspirational and more. A lot of this content should be easy to find even five or ten years from now. In the current day and age, to an increasingly degree, the real, lived experience of folks is captured on social media in higher fidelity and with a greater level of urgency than any think piece or newspaper article I’ve seen. It’d be a pity if most of this content doesn’t enjoy any longevity other than its “15 minutes of fame”.
At its worst, what drives “engagement” on social media is often completely antithetical to reasoned, nuanced arguments. Shades of grey are harder to capture succinctly in 280 characters, which often leads to people making absolutist statements. Mediums like Twitter are fundamentally unsuited to preserving any scrap of context or nuance. Most of the tweets that seem “impactful” (as measured by metrics like likes or retweets) often play to the gallery. Furthermore, the nature of social media makes it incredibly easy to garner what I call “drive-by consensus” or “drive-by outrage”, where people can cleave to arguments without having to invest or engage with the content in any meaningful manner. While this can seem affirming, it does very little to build real consensus or even reach a wider audience.
Long form writing, on the other hand, requires more effort and can be fairly tedious. It won’t (immediately) reach as many people as a well-constructed/inflammatory/provocative/funny/moving tweet will, since engaging intellectually with a topic at length takes far more effort than the few seconds it takes to read a tweet and hit a like button on an app. The reality is that I can consume about 500 (often half-baked) ideas (er, tweets) in the time it takes me to read a piece of long(er) form writing.
However, long form writing still has several benefits. Most people who are not super keyed into social media often try to seek information on a topic they’re trying to educate themselves about from the internet. Search engines fail to even surface “viral” tweets (let alone the plethora of non-viral tweets) when I search for specific keywords; instead, what a search often does surface is news paper articles or opinion pieces or lacklustre Medium posts or anodyne corporate blog posts or a host of other forms of long form writing. It’s this (oftentimes milquetoast) content that most new people are exposed to.
On social media, I find my opinions affirmed by the people I follow who hold views similar to mine on a host of topics. While this is certainly very intellectually comfortable, it does very little to broaden my horizons or even reflect on my own biases. In my own experience, writing down my thoughts about a topic or reading a well-argued piece of long form writing often requires me to think deeper about the various consequences, tradeoffs and complexities of the topic in question in ways consuming social media rarely does. My opinions have only ever truly changed when I set out to think deeper or more at length about the topic.
I hope more folks are encouraged to write more, or at least convert their tweet threads into a blog post for posterity’s sake. It’d be an absolute shame if a treasure trove of information and a wealth of opinions are lost to the sands of time for the want of being captured somewhere less ephemeral.