Thanks to several links provided by folks I follow on Twitter, I’ve been able to catch up on some reading today: two articles that take Twitter as their topic, one published on New Year’s day in the New York Times, the other on January 29 in The New Yorker. Taken together, they provide insights into why Twitter has become a feature of so many lives, and into the resistance that others maintain in the face of its burgeoning popularity.
“Why Twitter Will Endure”: The title of David Carr’s article for the New York Times does not pretend to disguise the author’s enthusiastic embrace of the service. He recalls the initial roll-out of Twitter at the SXSW conference in 2007, and his initial reluctance to add “one more Web-borne intrusion into my life.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/weekinreview/03carr.html
And then there was the name. Twitter.
In the pantheon of digital nomenclature…brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken – it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite than Twitter. It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it. And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, “to tweet,” is even more embarrassing.
Beyond the dippy lingo, the idea that something intelligent, something worthy of mindshare, might occur in the space of 140 characters – Twitter’s parameters were set by what would fit in a text message on a phone – seems unlikely.
Carr then returns to the present, to ask himself whether Twitter has, over the course of the past year, turned his brain to “mush.”
No, I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible, and instead of spending a half-hour surfing in search of illumination, I get a sense of the day’s news and how people are reacting to it in the time that it takes to wait for coffee at Starbucks. [He is not ordering brewed coffee at Starbuck’s, I’m guessing, but something involving espresso and steamed milk. – Ed.] Yes, I worry about my ability to think long thoughts – where was I, anyway? – but the tradeoff has been worth it.
Carr goes on to explain that, nearly a year after opening a Twitter account,
I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice.… At first, Twitter can be overwhelming, but think of it as a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while. [Does he use his Starbuck’s cup, I wonder? – Ed.] Much of what I need to know is in that cup: if it looks like Apple is going to demo its new tablet, or Amazon sold more Kindles than actual books at Christmas, or the final vote in the Senate gets locked in on health care, I almost always learn about it first on Twitter….
The expressive limits of a kind of narrative developed from text messages, with less space to digress or explain than this sentence, has significant upsides. The best people on Twitter communicate with economy and precision, with each element – links, hash tags and comments – freighted with meaning.
Carr goes on to cite Clay Shirky: “Anything that is useful to both dissidents in Iran and Martha Stewart has a lot going for it; Twitter has more raw capability for users than anything since email….It will be hard to wait out Twitter because it is lightweight, endlessly useful and gets better as more people use it. Brands are using it, institutions are using it, and it is becoming a place where a lot of important conversations are being held.”
It may be, as Clay Shirky suggests, that it will be hard to wait out Twitter. But George Packer, author of “Stop the World,” will be one of the hold-outs. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/stop-the-world.html [I should note at the outset that I find it passing strange that such visceral resistance to micro-blogging should come to us via a blog for newyorker.com. Jay Rosen was on target in a tweet that pointed to an earlier piece by Packer for Mother Jones, “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” (2004), as a precursor to “Stop the World.”]
Packer is responding to Carr’s “Why Twitter Will Endure” at least as much as he is responding to Twitter “itself.” His agitation – his “fear” – runs through almost every line of his post.
The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. [This unattributed partial citation from Carr precedes Packer’s direct invocation of “Why Twitter Will Endure,” which comes in the next paragraph. – Ed.] But that supposes that we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.
The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves – it’s an article by David Carr, the Times’s media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.” “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote. And: “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.” And: “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice…the throbbing networked intelligence.” And: “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.” And finally: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”
This last is what really worries me. Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them. Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”). Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it.
The analogy with addiction also figures in “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” (2004) which begins “First, a confession: I hate blogs. I’m also addicted to them.” What is also curious about Packer’s quasi-hysterical reaction to Twitter is the complete failure to recognize that it’s called a “service” for a reason, that it is what you make it, in the very specific sense that you choose, or curate, the accounts you follow. You have a lot to say about your incoming. The more time and thought that goes in to this process of curation, the more useful Twitter becomes. It’s pretty simple to tailor it to one’s own purposes, whatever they may be. And if Twitter will indeed endure, it is largely for that reason.