Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why I'm Afraid of Twitter

In a January 1 New York Times editorial entitled "Why Twitter Will Endure", David Carr wrote,
"Some time soon, the company won’t say when, the 100-millionth person will have signed on to Twitter to follow and be followed by friends and strangers. That may sound like a MySpace waiting to happen — remember MySpace? — but I’m convinced Twitter is here to stay."
He backs up this bold statement with several articulate arguments:
  1. It's a source of "incredibly vital, timely information... from really bright people in their respective fields".
  2. It's a means by which we can glean succinct, pithy information in lieu of spouting-off, because of the 140-character confines and tools like the hashtag (which collects comments by topic).
  3. It's a source of "algorithmic authority", in his words, "meaning that if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal."
Okay. Fine. I cede those points. It's an effective, efficient mode of communication in an information-inundated technological climate. But in the milieu of writing, it is also a loss of voice. And what do writers have if they don't have their voice? Every writing instructor and magazine editor has imparted the fact that cutthroat editing, writing short and sweet, is a greater challenge than writing lengthily with eloquence. So I'm not implying that the Twitter platform is fundamentally opposed to strong writing. But the users, as a vast whole, are.

I support the use of social media products like Facebook and Twitter for just that- social media. But the threat of corrosion of quality news media and literary craft is undeniably due, in part, to the spreading-like-a-virus use of these communicative tools. Why painstakingly construct a well-reported and -composed piece of narrative writing to spark debate when an economical 140-character message blasted into the digital cosmos will accomplish the same? I'm not claiming that award-worthy writing is dead, or dying. I'm just worried that the overlap in usage- social and professional- in a creative product like Twitter is working toward a level medium in which we'll forget there was ever a difference between the two.

Perhaps the most worrisome: Carr wrote his editorial January 1, the first day of a new decade. A coincidence? Or is his message, then, harbinger of our publishing future?


  1. Yet another great post! I would say that as long as Twitter does not supplant other forms of writing and is used as a complementary entity, it's actually an interesting evolution in writing. Writing with constraints is a very post-modern creation in its own right, so you could say it's a branch off that tree.

    (I hate Twitter though, so I hope I'm wrong)

  2. Statistics have come out since David Carr's piece that might give you more comfort. Only 7% of Americans are actively using it, and the majority of those people merely to follow tweets by companies and businesses. And even from that slice of the pie, "active user" means that they are following the tweets not by logging into twitter, but just by having them sent to facebook or another web application they use. Judging from this there doesn't seem to be any danger of loftier forms of composition being supplanted. The craving for material more than 140 characters isn't going anywhere. Thankfully.