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Is Twitter Now Dead for Lively #ICT4D Discussions? Asking for a Friend…

By Wayan Vota on December 30, 2020

ICT4D Twitter Chat

#ICT4D Twitter Used to be Great

I remember a heyday of Twitter for ICT4D discussions. Around 2009-2010, Twitter was the place to be for great digital development debates. The #ICT4D hashtag was lively with regular conversations between interesting people. We even once proposed proprietary hashtags for an April Fools Day joke.

We had regular Twitter Chats with multiple great outcomes on ICTworks. For example, from the Fail Day Chat came the multi-year Fail Festival initiative. Other chats inspired ICT4D best practices, precursors to the Digital Principles. These conversations introduced me to awesome people that are still friends and peers today. People like Linda Raftree, Tony Roberts, Michael Downey, and many more.

#ICT4D Twitter is Now PR Posts

Fast forward to today, and the ICT4D hashtag on Twitter feels like a bad public relations feed. Most of the posts are links to blog posts, or event announcements. ICTworks on Twitter is no different. Gone are the great conversations of the past, replaced by outbound blasts hoping for readership.

For example, the recent Global Digital Health Forum was a great opportunity for a lively discussion around the #GDHF2020 hashtag. Several thousand people were online for the conference, and yet the Twitter feed was organizations inviting you to their session or bragging about their staff’s presentations.

Twitter Overall is Now Toxic

Maybe this isn’t a problem unique to digital development. Twitter overall seems to be filled with toxic political discussions. Certainly in the USA, the medium is no longer shiny and fresh. There is too much focus on a soon-to-be ex-President’s tweets. Or people trying to “win the Internet” for a moment with a well-crafted quip.

Then there is the larger issue with social media and its data privacy nightmare. At least Twitter is obviously a public-first medium, hence your thoughts will be broadcast. That hasn’t stopped people from tweeting stupidity, and getting fired or worse afterwards. Or from Twitter itself being hacked and revealing our data to others.

Is #ICT4D Twitter Now Dead?

Here is my central question: Is #ICT4D Twitter now dead? Should we give up on the medium as a source of conversation and debate? Just accept it as a place to send links into the ether? If we do, and I believe we essentially have already, then where do we go to hear new ideas and fresh voices? What is the new Twitter Chat location?

I don’t see it being Facebook, where privacy violation is company policy. We tried, and failed with Skype, which limited group chat size, and is now a Microsoft product. WhatsApp Groups might have promise, but you need to be invited to participate, and that can restrict voices. Where are you finding great conversations today?

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the digital lead on the Deloitte for Development team. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of Deloitte, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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28 Comments to “Is Twitter Now Dead for Lively #ICT4D Discussions? Asking for a Friend…”

  1. Ayo Edinger says:

    Spot on observation Wayan. I left Twitter about 3 months ago to escape the toxicity. Left Facebook over a year ago too. But I do now feel uninformed about what’s happening in ICT4D. So I agree we need an alternative. I would lean towards a WhatsApp or Telegram or even Slack channel as a possible alternative

  2. Stewart Craine says:

    I never signed up for Twitter in the first place (or at least never used it) and don’t feel like I’ve missed anything much – most other ways of getting info got the same messages to me. These days, I’ve found LinkedIn delivers a good stream of interesting talking points and a good array of comments that then flow from each story. I’ve made a few new connections from the comments I’ve posted there. Some describe it as “a wasteland of endless management consultants congratulating each other” which is partly true, but there’s other lively discussions happening too.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I’ve tried to engage with LinkedIn but I find it a weird mix. Yes, as you say, too many people congratulating themselves for professional accomplishments that honestly are just plain boring to everyone else. Then the random personal post that feels awkward in a professional setting. And finally, a decent selection of job ads that are so scattered that it feels like LinkedIn purposely hides them so one feels the need to scroll just one more time…

  3. Email based communities of practice can work very well to support any aspect of global communications for international development, global health and social justice. HIFA is a global health CoP with 20k members inter=acting in four languages.

  4. Erich Pawlik says:

    We might need an alternative, but is definietly not WhatsApp. WhatsApp (and Instagram) are owned by Facebook and as you alreday did point out, privacy violation is Facebook’s business model.

  5. Monica Jerbi says:

    I was involved in Twitter discussions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election before and after it happened as well as the subsequent rise of white supremacy (e.g., Charlottesville) using Russian-style “reflexive control” on social media to spread it. There has been a problem with trolling and toxicity in both types of conversations. I have observed two solutions to this: (1) private group chats on Twitter and (2) group public conversations tagging many people like https://twitter.com/CyberlandGal/status/896505643342995457 and https://twitter.com/CyberlandGal/status/910213021993140226 . As you can see from those examples, Twitter cuts off your conversation if it gets too long, making it hard to follow. That said, each time an ICT4D post goes out on Twitter, you could tag a bunch of tweeps relevant to that subject to spur short-term discussion. In my experience private Twitter group chats usually involve a dozen or so people, so I don’t know how it would work for the broader ICT4D community unless there were a few by different topics. Lastly, I note the broader context for all of the above has been personally demoralizing for me in terms of ICT4D. I am wondering if others have been similarly demoralized with the increased conversations you are suggesting a possible antidote.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Twitter trolling and toxicity is certainly demoralizing. I think also the public nature of the conversations hitting organizational censorship creates a hesitancy to share honest opinions

      • Monica Jerbi says:

        Yes, the public nature of Twitter conversations and the politics of a lot of these issues certainly had me shift to just RTing almost all the time versus adding any of my own commentary. As Shelley Taylor previously detailed, the issue of demoralizing content is multifaced from being trolled in your personal Twitter conversations to perceiving social media contributing to genocide to feeling powerless as you see redflags in real time on social media that many are ignoring or denying. The example tweets I referenced before followed getting pinged by European tweeps just in advance of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally along with the “Freedom Rally” and counter protest just after in Seattle (I am from Bremerton, Wash., and surreally found related posts on Facebook in advance), where thankfully violence was better avoided. See https://twitter.com/CyberlandGal/status/896881674193129473. With Europeans tweeps seeing things clearly and most of our country in denial (many through the present), demoralizing doesn’t really capture how this feels. On the positive side, having Europeans be able to send out flares and a few Americans see them does speak to the potential of ICT4D that is still there.

  6. Luis Crouch says:

    It may be that this is the fate of all communication technology in the modern world. Maybe it is the fate of all technology, ever, including the printing press! Maybe one has to find spaces *within* technologies. Or maybe realize that technology is a treadmill, you have to sign on early, use it for a while, then abandon it as it gets toxic and strange. One could argue that this was the fate of Twitter but also FB and the Internet itself. I signed on to the interet first in 1985. Great place for exchanging science. Back to the retro comment. Maybe one has to go back to good old e-mail tied to streams of comments, precisely such as this one, with your newsletter. I *still* find this newsletter one of the most useful and insightful things “on the internet.” I don’t know what it is about this community, or maybe your curation, that keeps things honest and meaningful, But something does.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Luis, thank you for the kind words about ICTworks. I work hard at the curation to make sure each post is relevant to some aspect of the ICT4D community and interesting to read. Its also focused on the email stream. The vast majority of people who read ICTworks, read it as an email in their inbox – 26,000 email subscribers vs. 3,000 who view the same post on the web. Long live RSS-to-email!

  7. Well said, Luis Crouch.

    Professional discussions are only meaningful and valuable when they are supported and skilfully facilitated, as with ICT Works.

    The design of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp precludes such facilitation.

  8. #ICT4Discussion? /s

  9. I couldn’t agree more that Twitter does not create an environment for discussion, and certainly not for the humanitarian sector. As a company offering software to NGOs, nonprofits and government service providers we sill post and tweet on social networks but without a huge investment it is just shouting in the wind. For some time in the future I suspect we will all have to maintain social media accounts as a channel for receiving questions and feedback from our customers or stakeholders but other than that there is no value.

    The biggest problem, apart from the medium itself and the algorithms that make or break content and audience is the motivation of the management of these social media companies. They have optimized for advertising revenue which is why Facebook has been responsible for genocide. Amplifying anger and bigotry lead to increasing advertising revenue. I don’t think a competing channel has to generate revenue that way, “free” for users where ads generate the revenue.

    The alternative needs to have ethical management, a different business model and be designed for the services sector. My company, creators of the RefAid app (the de-facto app for migrants and refugees to find social services in 24 countries, and growing), has built the first-ever global network of public and social services providers – NGOs, nonprofits and government. Our platform enables communication between members of its community and will be adding features speaking directly to the subject of this thread in the new year. I would welcome any conversations about our goal to create an alternative to Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

  10. Paul Tuthill says:

    Maybe the term “ICT4D” itself has become unhelpfully broad. It seems like online discussions are now more likely to be centered around specific technologies or functional areas. This is a positive evolution now that use of technology in programming is becoming the norm and not just a gimmick or add-on.

  11. Benita says:

    I was just thinking about this the other day. I learnt so much from ICT4D Twitter from ca. 2011- 2014. It was awesome!
    I think Twitter can still be valuable for ICT4D but the thing that causes me to flick through it briefly and then disengage is a lot of what we were learning/ exploring back around 2011 seems to be forgotten. It feels like groundhog day. Another iPad dump. Another online-first app. The 10,000 version of Internet in a Box that the implementing org won’t be able to sustain after the pilot for reasons long established. Another debate about whether or not technology/ iOS app xyz can replace teachers (nope). Someone informing the world that OLPC failed (yes, but we gained knowledge that should act as a natural barrier to iPad dumps). Someone RTing that with “it’s not about the tech” (true, but obvious, not insightful, and if you don’t pay any attention to the tech/ don’t take the time to understand it you end up with iPad dumps). I mainly use Twitter now to engage with researchers and their work, or directly with practitioners (generally via DM), and participate in conferences etc.
    ICT4D Twitter still has potential imho – as you point out it comes down to how it’s used.

  12. kiwanja says:

    I think your conclusions about the ‘death’ of engaging, informative Twitter chats for ICT4D are correct, but I don’t think this is necessary limited to Twitter. I’m no longer directly involved in the sector for a number of reasons, but one observation I’ve noticed is that the sector has become institutionalised, and professionalised, and feels like it’s now dominated by management consultants. I know that’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but when I think back a decade or more, most of the conversation was driven by people building things. I don’t really see that any more.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Hmm.. Interesting point. I do think we have institutionalized, and professionalized the sector, which is a good thing to a great extent. We have years of lessons learned and research evidence from many of the early interventions. For example, we have Digital Principles now, so no need for long-winded debates on how we should approach deployment. That may have driven out the early tinkers, or more likely, they are now experienced enough to be paid experts, or to use your term, management consultants. Might that also include yourself? This too, is a good thing. I feel it is way more healthy to have staff able to earn a living in a profession versus expecting endless volunteering.

      • kiwanja says:

        There’s all sorts of debates intertwined here. Not everyone agrees with the Principles, and I think the general direction of the ‘sector’ hasn’t been a great one. Innovation Specialists who have never innovated, Programme Managers who have never stepped into any of the communities their projects work in, huge salaries (read: not just good salaries), most jobs being created in the donor country, etc.

        But one for conversations over a beer when that time returns!

  13. Dear Kiwanja, I agree, the lack of engaging communication for ICT4D is not restricted to Twitter – it is a problem with all the big tech social media companies. In my experience, such communication can only thrive in well-moderated discussion forums. Even then, there are challenges to participation and engagement.

  14. Holly says:

    Reddit?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Really? Is there an ICT4D community on Reddit? Someone tried to start one once, but it didn’t last. I think there aren’t enough digital development professionals on Reddit for it to be a viable platform for us. Are you a lively Redditor?

      • Holly says:

        Well, if the objective is to move the conversation to a place where participants are more interested in the discussion than in self-promotion, then it seems like setting up a Reddit community makes sense. You could then tweet/FB/LI/email links to interesting discussions, to pull in a larger audience for good debates.

        It’d be a test, really, to see whether debates have eroded b/c Twitter, or b/c no one wants to debate anything anymore and only want to use public fora to confirm their agreement with prevailing wisdom…

        • Wayan Vota says:

          So you think medium (Twitter) is the problem? I have a feeling that moving the discussion to Reddit will just recreate the same broadcast-only mindset. Per others’ points, the nature of the ecosystem has matured, therefore changing the nature of the discussions.

          • Holly says:

            Oh, I thought the theme of the post was that Twitter was not meeting the community’s needs. I think I’ve misunderstood the challenge – sorry, Wayan!

          • Wayan Vota says:

            When I wrote the post, I did think Twitter itself might be the problem. However, the comments have me believing that its not Twitter per se, but a shift in the community overall.

  15. kiwanja says:

    Twitter is without doubt a very different place than it was 10-or-so years ago, so there is that. But I do think ICT4D and those in and around it have changed just as much, even more. This was a very personal reflection from a good few years ago – which I still think stands true.

    https://www.kiwanja.net/blog/2017/03/the-end-of-a-golden-age-of-discovery/