The top Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, spoke at length about Twitter on his TV show last week. He had much to say, including that Twitter is the "source of all evil and devastation." And that is where much of the news media has focused its attention. But while the press focuses on the negative, I prefer to look deeper into what he said, where I see a very realistic reflection on the full scope of the Twitterverse. The Grand Mufti framed his critique by saying, "If it were used correctly, it could be of real benefit, but unfortunately it's exploited for trivial matters."
And that is where Sheikh al-Sheikh makes firm contact with the reality of Twitter. A lot, if not most, of what transpires on Twitter is trivial. A report I read a couple years ago suggested that 80-percent of what is said on the site is "blather." And if you focus on the blather, it is quite reasonable to conclude that Twitter is a major distraction from the important issues of the world. Further, the existence of all that blather is why it is so important to develop everyone's media and information literacy skills, so that they are equipped to know the difference between fact and fiction on Twitter and elsewhere on social media.
While I understand that cultures and concerns are different between the west, where I live, and Saudi Arabia, I am hopeful that we can improve the way people use Twitter to at least mitigate the bad and achieve more of its potential "real benefit." To that end, I recommend we relax our focus on the negatives to consider the following:
1. 20% of what transpires on Twitter is not blather.
Here we see people using Twitter to break and curate the news, keeping most of us informed and many of us engaged in society. Some of us use Twitter to get our news. Among those that do are many members of the press, who use Twitter to enhance their news collection and reporting activities. And it is their reporting that informs the rest of us, even if we never use Twitter. So Twitter is already adding to the collective knowledge of people around the world and will continue to do so. And with more media and information literacy training, we can be sure the facts in the news rise above the fiction.
2. Twitter is a reflection of life.
So many people use Twitter that we should expect the patterns of behavior on it to reflect patterns offline. Offline, most people tend to be politically disengaged and focused on their day to day lives. This means they are focused on friendships, family and entertainment to a very large degree, thus tending to the more trivial pursuits. As we see this offline, we also see it on Twitter. So a large focus on trivialities on Twitter is no different from that focus offline. As in other parts of life, we should always strive to elevate facts over fiction and the important over the trivial. But, that said, the trivial will always be part of life and as long as we can minimize destructive trivialities, we should be able to weather the rest.
3. Twitter connects people to ideas and news.
Even among those who are in the trivially-focused 80-percent, Twitter is still valuable. It provides a way to reach people who may be normally disengaged when they need to be engaged. In the event of a crisis, for example, people tune in and come together. Twitter provides a very effective channel to facilitate that. And those who get connected to society on Twitter will reach out to their friends and family offline to spread important information, when truly needed. It makes a difference when it really needs to make a difference.
It is true that I take a more "glass half full" view of Twitter than Sheikh al-Sheikh, but that can probably be chalked up to our respective roles in life. As a cleric, Sheikh al-Sheikh's role includes warning his flock off from the hazards of life towards a more righteous path. As an educator and organizer for social good, my focus is to raise people's skills for using social media to make the world a better place. My role is to increase the 20-percent to a larger proportion of people using Twitter productively for good.
Having devoted so many years to training people to be better Twitter users, I have seen improvements-one person at a time, one organization at a time, one community at a time-and thus I am optimistic. As a result, I am confident we will continue to be successful at improving how Twitter is used to improve the world.
We should take Sheikh al-Sheikh's warning to heart and work to improve the good that we get from using Twitter. But I recommend that we take care not to dismiss Twitter as a tool for good just because it isn't being used as effectively as possible, yet. The potential for "real benefit" is there.