As new communication technologies emerge, it is not uncommon to see articles or essays bemoaning how the new technology will destroy or damage communication as we know it, that a tool will lead to illiteracy, narcissism, or whatever social ill might be haunting society at any given time. Twitter, if we accept Alexander Zaitchik’s reading published on AlterNet, is poised not only to dumb down discourse to levels seen only in Mike Judge’s hilarious dystopian comedy Idiocracy* but also to produce a narcissistic, infantilized public concerned only with broadcasting to the world every banal idea that comes to mind. And, just for good measure, Zaitchik takes pains to remind us that Twitter is not journalism.
It’s probably not worth the energy to write a detailed response to Zaitchik’s article, but because it misunderstands Twitter at such a fundamental level, I think it’s important to challenge some of the major arguments that he raises. As others have pointed out, articles that complain about Twitter typically focus on the content of individual tweets rather than focusing on those tweets in a specific context. It would be similar to denigrating conversation by pulling out individual pieces of dialogue rather than seeing how conversation involves a variety of practices: connecting with others, sharing ideas, linking to blog posts, participating in mini-memes, whatever.
Quoting “bad” tweets also misses another key point about the medium. By identifying bad tweets, Zaitchik seeks to discredit the argument offered by Clive Thompson that Twitter is a “literary form” analogous to an “American haiku.” I’m not really interested in making the claim that Twitter is a form of poetry, but Zaitchik’s move of identifying poorly written, banal tweets doesn’t really work: just like there may be tweets that don’t match the prose style of Hemingway or Faulkner, not all poems are Great Works of Literature (and to be fair, Faulkner may not have written a single sentence of less than 140 characters, so that’s not the best example, but you get the idea).
And, yes, many tweets entail banal references to a need for more coffee or whatever, but there is something to be appreciated in sharing in the routines of everyday life with friends and colleagues and even complete strangers nearby or thousands of miles away. I may be over-romanticizing a bit by connecting Twitter to Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities,” which he associated with readers picking up their morning newspapers over breakfast and recognizing that others in their town and even nearby towns were doing the same thing. Every time I check my Twitter feed, I’m able to share in the enjoyment of daily routines and rituals: a good cup of coffee, a long run through the park, a good episode of BSG. Twitter isn’t the only tool that can provide that, but if you look at an individual tweet, you miss the fact that my description of my morning run is responding to someone else’s (and it’s worth noting that these articles rarely, if ever, quote a tweet with an @someone, which pretty much misses the whole point).
But one of the biggest misundertsandings of Twitter is the suggestion that the practice of writing in 140-character chunks suggests that we are thinking in the same bite-sized bits. Yes, Twitter sometimes requires me to engage in some linguistic cartwheels to distill something down to 140 characters, but arguably that’s a sign of creativity and facility with language, not a decline in good grammar. First, this assumes that language–what is written in a tweet, a blog post, or any text for that matter–is identical to thought, a pretty reductive view of how thought and language interact. Second, it views Twitter in isolation from other media. Many tweets make reference to other texts, whether films, TV shows, blog entries, newspaper articles. Twitter, in that context, can supplement larger conversations. My decision to link to Zaitchik’s artcile, in fact, sent at least half a dozen readers over to see what was fuleing my barely-caffienated ire so early on a Saturday morning.
In fact, the “backflick” meme, in which Twitterers describe the plots of popular movies in reverse, is a great example of creative intertextuality that can take place in these short status updates. Thus, “W is about a President who becomes an alcoholic and a coke addict.” Or my contribution: “Bonnie and Clyde: benevolent kids donate money to failing banks, return stolen cars to rightful owners.” Again, it’s a form of community building, a quick way to share with others a self-indulgent love of movies in a pretty clever way.
Finally, Zaitchik worries that Twitter will somehow not only supplement but “supplant journalism,” echoing an argument made by fellow AlterNet writer, Rory O’Conner. This argument, in my reading, reduces “journalism” from the activity of gathering facts and checking sources to whatever final product appears on the page, whether on the web or printed. Yes, the first photo of the Hudson River airplane landing may have been posted to TwitPic, but that’s not so much a “scoop” as it is an initial gathering of facts: something is happening here, and we need to document it. The articles and reports and interpretations all came later in every newspaper and on every TV station in the country. And guess what? Most of those reports were more than 140 characters. If we want the strongest possible journalistic practices, there is no reason not to tap into the collective intelligence of other people who are witnessing an event, watching a debate, or whatever. Then a good journalist reconciles those interpretations into a longer story, one that hopefully approximates what actually happened.
I’m responding to Zaitchik’s editorial at such length because it seems to fall into some of the worst habits of technological determinism. Twitter is blamed for any number of problems, whether shorter attention spans, bad grammar, or poor critical thinking skills. It also assumes that Twitter can only work as it was designed, a miniature, public status update (implied in Twitter’s guiding question: “What are you doing?”). Instead, users have developed any number of new uses for it, some that were clearly not predicted by its creators (hence the need for updates to Twitter that conform to user practices). While I use Twitter quite a bit–according to my Twitter stats, I tweet approximately five times a day–I don’t intend to champion everything about it. I’ve known many people who tried Twitter and found that it failed to supplement their communication with others in any meaningful way. Sometimes I can get distracted by constantly updating “friend feeds,” and 140 characters can lead to miscommunications, but rather than engaging in forms of unneeded media panic, we need more thoughtful, more flexible accounts of how media work.
* By the way, I’m just snarky enough to point out that the name of the electrolyte-laden drink in Mike Judge’s brilliant satire, Idiocracy, was not Powerade. It was Brawndo. Brawndo’s got what plants crave.