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Twitter as a social mobility tool

James O’Malley opens his latest Substack post:

Twitter’s most underrated function is that it is a tool for social mobility.

After graduating into the financial crisis, I moved to London and I didn’t know anyone. My parents are not super wealthy, I went to a normal comprehensive school in the Midlands – and then to a post-1992 university. So when it came to getting a job and building a professional network, I was essentially starting from scratch.

But the one asset I did have was that I was a Twitter early adopter. Through the platform I discovered an entire professional world that would historically have been closed off to me, and as I followed journalists, politicos and other high-flyers, I was able to glimpse into their world, learn the industry gossip, identify the behind-the-scenes power-players and master the terms of art. Scrolling my timeline was like having a permanent spot at the water-cooler of London’s political and media elite.

I’ve never previously considered Twitter from the perspective of social mobility, but now that James has pointed it out, it seems obvious. Indeed, when I was active on Twitter in the early stages of my career, it helped me to make professional connections in a similar way. Public health in England is a small professional world, and as a result, it is disproportionately London-centric. Twitter helped me to make professional connections even from afar.

Yet, looking back, many of the people I made professional connections to were the—for want of a better phrase—‘extremely online’ colleagues, who were often not as influential, switched-on or expert as they thought they were.

Last week, we heard complaints at the COVID inquiry about politicians’ inability to distinguish between absolute and relative risk. Not many years ago, I did my best to explain the same to an uncomprehending prominent professional by direct message on Twitter. They may have been rarely off the telly and hugely popular on Twitter, but the conversation revealed their grasp of the basics to be a little loose. Another told me that a study they shared was significant because of a wide confidence interval, which they believed to demonstrate a very high level of confidence: an almost perfect inversion of the true meaning.

I came to learn that the people with deep knowledge and real, lasting influence tended not to be active members of the Twitterati. In my field, at least, when ‘extremely online’ people reach positions of real-world seniority, it can become somewhat fraught. Public health is a naturally complex, subtle and political field which perhaps doesn’t reward talent for brief, blunt, off-the-cuff responses. There are exceptions, of course, and I’m not inured to the irony of writing all of this in a blog post.

In politics and journalism, public engagement is the job, so naturally, excellent practitioners will often do well on social media. In these fields, Twitter is a perfect tool for social mobility, precisely as James describes. In medicine, I’m not so sure.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

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