Is Twitter just about flattery?

Posted by Rory on December 12th, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

Social networks as the new vehicle for brown nosing and sucking up

There is an interesting piece in today’s Financial Times by Lucy Kellaway (for those who don’t know she is the UK’s most famous ‘corporate agony aunt’) called Social Networks Upend Office Etiquette.  In the piece Kellaway laments the rise of ‘brown nosing’ and and ‘sucking up’ to bosses on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Twitter:  just a forum for flattery?

She then turns to Twitter:

“Above all, people flatter each other on Twitter. Indeed, this seems to be the main function of the site: it’s a great big, instant electronic support group. You tweet someone, they do it back to you.”

Twitter in the office versus Twitter for groups with particular interests

Kellaway’s observations center on people using Twitter in an office context, i.e. on the horizontal and vertical relationships that drive the office dynamic.  The people I am engaged with on Twitter are primarily either  academics and/or’ independent agents’ – software developers, people working in small organizations, etc.  So their Twitter activity centers around mutual interests — scientific topics, data sharing, science and social media, etc. — rather than office dynamics.  How does the charge of ‘Twitter is just for flattery’ stand up in this quite different context?

I am pleased to say that in my experience brown nosing and sucking up are relatively uncommon.  They do exist, but are certainly not the main drivers of conversations.

Simple flattery is more common, but still far from being the driver of most conversations.

Self-congratulation, another feature that Kellaway highlights, is, however, fairly common, and I have to say it’s not something I like.  In fact I find it an unfortunate aspect of the groups whose conversations I follow and participate in.  I would draw a distinction here between reporting something that you have done or participated in, like a presentation or blog post —  to me it’s a good thing to let others know about those kinds of things — and blowing your own horn — to me that’s usually not necessary and it does not enhance my impression of the person doing the cheerleading.

Another aspect of the conversations among the groups I follow I find somewhat troubling — because it is limiting — is that most of the people have basically similar views about the core topics that are discussed, and come from similar work backgrounds.  I suppose that is inevitable, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t want to be part of the conversations.  There is a positive aspect of this, too, in precisely the ‘support group’ aspect of Twitter that Kellaway points to.  The Twitter groups I follow usefully serve to support people who participate in them because they take heart from the fact that there are others with similar interests and largely similar perspectives.

Still, it would be nice if, for example, people who disagree with ‘open science’ participated more in discussions about open science, and if more scientists working in commercial backgrounds, and more people working in companies that provide services and tools for conducting scientific research, engaged with academic scientists about the use of social media in science.

Enriching the debate through widening the group of participants

For the groups I follow, Twitter is already a lot more than just a ‘great big electronic support group”, but diversifying the  participant  base by the addition of  people from these other backgrounds would certainly enrich the debate.  And that’s important because beyond providing support for groups with common interests Twitter also has the potential to become a forum for even more meaningful discussion and debate about the issues that interest those groups.