Twitter: A vacuum of intellectual depth

09 Jan 2019 Posted by
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Here’s my problem with Twitter

Twitter is a vacuum of intellectual depth. Not for the reasons you probably think of first. Yeah, there are many screaming clueless voices there. That’s OK. It’s the reason some people SHOULD be there, not a reason to avoid it.

I mean something different. Maybe vacuum is the wrong word. Too strong. Maybe it’s more like the couch or the bed or the cupboard that you sweep stuff under or into to avoid doing a proper clean-up.

You know how if someone is popping around for a surprise visit – your parents, in-laws, a girlfriend etc, and your place is really untidy, and you need to tidy up in a hurry? You don’t do a proper job, because all you need to do is sweep a bunch of stuff under the couch (or maybe the bed when you were a kid and your parents knocked on your bedroom door), and it creates a veneer of respectability?

That’s what Twitter became like for me, but for ideas. It allowed me to sweep the stuff I should have picked up under the couch and then deceive myself that a job had been done.

The result was that I was progressively losing the ability to think deeply about topics. The convenience of twitter meant that instead of taking a concept or an idea, holding it very deliberately, inspecting it, turning it over and looking at it thoughtfully from all angles, I could instead drop off a few tweets and feel like my contribution to sporting society had been made sufficiently.

And that’s not good enough. It never will be. In order to make effective contributions to complex issues around subjects like Caster Semenya, doping in sport, sports performance and analysis, human physiology, I think it’s important to ‘reflect’, to analyse, to consider, to ferment ideas, to think more deeply about issues, and then speak.

This problem works in the other direction too – in two minutes, I can see twenty opinions on a given subject. Many of those twenty are thoughtful and accurate, but even those that are (and I’d like to think I have selected my following to those who provide good insight, anyway), cannot possibly do justice to the issues they talk about in 280 characters. The result of this is that I came to never truly know what existed in my mind as my own thought and insight, as opposed to the thoughts I inherited from other people, however good they were.

And that combination of things is the main professional reason why I stepped away from Twitter last year. OK, there were some personal things, and some other professional reasons too, but it was not frustration at the arguments and debates (I loved those, and will miss them most) or the ‘trolls’. And it’s not that “they have gotten” to me (whoever “they” are).

It was simply that I couldn’t abide continuing to add what I feel is superficial value to weighty discussions, and as long as I’m enticed to take short-cuts and prioritize “promotion” over product, which is what Twitter does.

I’ll give you two examples – first, the debate about the Nike running shoe and the marathon world record. Is it cheating? Should they be banned? That’s a complex issue, one where there probably shouldn’t even really be an expectation for universal agreement, because it ultimately boils down to a philosophical decision of what you value more in performance.

I can accept that.

But Twitter doesn’t facilitate it. Or at least, I couldn’t figure out how it did.

And the problem is that in order to do that subject (like most others) justice, I would need to sit down, possibly for a day or two, after spending at least a week reading and thinking about it, and then I might be able to scratch the surface.

There’s performance analysis, there’s theory, there’s biomechanics, there’s philosophy, there’s critiquing what’s already been done (some of it good, most of it poor, in my opinion). That’s too much to do, I simply didn’t have the time or energy. But with Twitter, it’s just a matter of chucking out a quick thread and feeling like I’m part of the conversation. But who am I helping? Maybe some of you feel that’s enough, and believe me, I am deeply appreciative. But it’s not enough for me. No longer. And so I need to change the way I share those insights.

Another example came up in November, when WADA invited me to attend a conference on the biological passport in Rome. It was utterly fascinating, and I saw and learned many good things, and also identified what I think are a few ‘holes’, areas of ‘concern’, where I genuinely felt I could add some value by explaining and challenging the thinking in those areas.

Constructive criticism is difficult though – if you get it wrong because you aren’t thoughtful enough, and you don’t hold that “object” and analyse it from enough angles, it’s just criticism. You’re an intellectual terrorist, no more.

Best case, you come across as misguided and achieve the opposite outcome. And so in the weeks after that conference, I had every intention of explaining to you my thoughts, the weaknesses, the strengths, the opportunities in the biological passport, but I never got round to it.

I was traveling, going from one conference to another, trying to keep up with my work for World Rugby, until eventually, one day waiting for a plane at an airport in Marseille, I gave into the voice on my shoulder to “just tweet a few thoughts. It’ll be quick, and at least it’s out there”.

One Twitter thread later, it’s “done”. Except it isn’t really. It’s been bastardized for the sake of speed and access, and that doesn’t really serve anyone, especially me (and in this case, WADA and anti-doping, who I’d like to think might benefit from the conversation).

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Introducing “A Short Thought on Sport”

So that’s it for Twitter, at least for now. Until I figure out how to use Twitter to add value to these topics, I won’t be back, sorry.

However, I don’t want to vanish, because I love the discussion and I feel a responsibility to have a say in it. I feel like I need the stimulation you provide in order to light the flame that drives me to thinking about these issues more. So for somewhat selfish reasons, I need to figure out a “bypass” to Twitter. A way to not only express thoughts, but to create them myself, without getting sucked into the vacuum that Twitter’s design creates – it’s too transient, too byte-sized, too rapid fire.

And so what I’m committing to doing from now on, and I don’t know if this will work, is to share with you a DAILY short post on something I’ve thought about in the world of sport.

I know, it may seem like an even bigger commitment, but I need to make it if I am to get back in to the habit of being “thoughtful” and mindful about sport and sports science. So what you’ll get, moving forward, is a “Short Thought on Sport”, every day, and sometimes it’ll literally be one sentence, one question (rhetorical, probably) or one link to an article I enjoyed reading, a podcast I enjoyed listening to.

Many times, it’ll be longer – it depends on time, and my energy levels, passion and enthusiasm. But the idea is that I have at most 15 minutes to write it, and you would need at most 5 minutes to read it.

Sometimes it’ll seem superficial, because it is. It’ll read like “The Diary of Ross Tucker’. But that’s because I don’t have the capacity to do more, most days. The intention is thus to have a word, to plant a seed, to trigger a thought, not to write a thesis, and in time, those may come together to build a coherent argument. It’s a conversation, not a speech.

And at least it will peel away the first layer or two on a subject, unlike Twitter, and maybe that’ll be the catalyst for deeper discussion moving forward, to reignite the spark that it takes to write thousands of words on these subjects.

So, let’s see how it goes, starting tomorrow. The link to each of these articles WILL appear on Twitter, even though I’m no longer going to spend time there – I set it up to post automatically, so you will see the links there, or you can subscribe at the website and follow along.

Finally, huge thank you to everyone who contacted me after I dropped of Twitter. As I said, our discussions and debates are the best part, even the disagreements, and I don’t mind the trolls (I know you’re invested in the topic). I’ll miss those, but I don’t want to cut them off totally, so every time I post, I’m going to share my email address, and if there’s something burning or pressing and you feel the need to respond and debate, please use it. I’ll do my best to respond, though I can’t promise I will. But it’ll be a lot better than Twitter!

Ross

ross.tucker@nullmweb.co.za

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