Twitter is in crisis. The little blue bird that flew into our lives 10 years ago, connecting us through hashtags and retweets, is in poor health. Its once innocent song is beginning to sound hectoring and shrill. A few weeks ago Stephen Fry, a keen tweeter, very publicly deleted his account. For him, the social media platform has become “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”.
For many teachers, Twitter used to be a shiny playground in a new school, full of interesting kids with lots of sophisticated ideas. But now it’s all looking tired and grey: the swings and slides are not seen as fun any more but rather as redundant models for measuring student resilience and wellbeing.
The new kids are humourless and self-important, and are in a gang called the Social Justice Warriors. They form twitchfork mobs and put on public trial anyone who does not speak in their “progressive” vocabulary.
“Telling” is encouraged, detention is called “blocking” and permanent exclusion is a desolate place known as Google+. Some of the older kids have become VIPs (Very Important Prefects) and enjoy the company of the senior leadership team. It’s like an Animal Farm/Lord of the Flies mash-up but without their subtle differences between right and wrong. No wonder many are leaving the playground.
'Twitter can be an unsafe place'
But Twitter has bigger problems. Its user base is falling away, top executives are leaving, new services are derided, share prices are plummeting. Perhaps most critically of all, Twitter is not attracting new, young users. Here’s a test: if you’re a teacher, ask your students if they use Twitter, and then ask them if they use Snapchat or WhatsApp. See the difference? Twitter is irrelevant to the young.
Big deal, you might say. We’ll learn to live without it. Possibly. Except…Twitter is different. On a micro-level, it has changed many people’s lives for the better, personally and professionally, allowing them to make connections across cultural and political barriers. On a macro-level, the global conversation that Twitter has created has challenged prejudice, even helping to bring down dictators.
Twitter has been invaluable for teachers such as José Picardo. “It has revealed whole philosophies and educational models that I would have otherwise have been oblivious to,” he says. This limitless propensity for connecting people and ideas has profoundly changed how we learn.
But Twitter can be an unsafe space – and not only for those who question “progressive” ideas. Those who try to argue against what Michael Merrick calls “the neo-traddie chorus” can also be met with disdain. For Merrick, who identifies broadly with traditionalism, there has been a loss of “the importance of the intangible”, with a new research-dependent mindset leading to group outrage against those practices and individuals that contravene it.
Merrick believes the “muscular determination of student culture to shut down viewpoints with which it disagrees” has its roots in the schools they came from – perhaps here there is something recognisable within the Twitter forum, too. As teachers we must promote diversity, not only in cultures but in viewpoints. This is often lacking on Twitter.
Claire Buckler, a subject leader in computing at South Dartmoor Community College in the UK, agrees. Twitter, she says, “has always been a hostile place”, populated by cliques who look down on those who do not follow their ideas. Much of what is posted is irrelevant to her own school, she adds.
But for some, the damage goes beyond a few trolls saying nasty things. Researcher and psychology lecturer Neil Gilbride believes that Twitter’s influence on teaching is more malign. “There is no room for nuanced debate on Twitter,” he says. “If you dare to raise a critique of certain bloggers’ work, it is made clear you are not welcome.”
Worse, for Gilbride, Twitter reinforces the sense that teachers are experts in specialist fields such as research and memory when, in reality, they are amateurs. And amateurs can do a lot of damage in the classroom.
An abattoir for sacred cows
Perhaps teaching and Twitter are fundamentally incompatible. Teaching is founded on a need for authority, both inside and outside the classroom. But authority is anathema to social media: it is an abattoir for such sacred cows. Learning to defend that new, public voice, especially for those who have no prior experience of such things, can be almost impossible.
For many teachers, being publicly accused of everything from naivety to mental illness because of a throwaway comment directly undermines them as professionals. It’s little wonder that some teachers retreat to the safety of their classroom. Twitter simply isn’t worth the risk. If more teachers feel like this, the slow death of Twitter will accelerate.
So what could replace it? The radical answer may be: “Nothing, just teach more.” Perhaps in the post-Twitter school, teachers will spend less time online and more time working, face-to-face with their students and colleagues. Is it so fanciful to see a lack of online activity as a redoubled dedication to the primacy of the classroom? Or are such statements close to apostasy in our brave new connected world?
Perhaps if teachers tweeted less, and talked more, we would see more teachers finding their own unique solutions to local issues, rather than sharing policies that have little merit other than the number of likes that they have generated online among (literally) like-minded followers.
If this were to happen then, ironically, teaching might become more diverse, and more authentic, as new orthodoxies are cleared away for more local solutions. A million ideas might bloom without fear of being picked apart by flocks of those little blue birds.
Dr David James is deputy headteacher (academic) at Bryanston School in Dorset