Friday, April 24, 2009

Twitter

First of all, congratulations to Emmanuel Saez, of UC Berkeley, on winning this year's John Bates Clark medal for best Economist under the age of 40. That is the highest honor in the field except for the Nobel Prize (and the two are highly correlated.)

Judging by the sudden increase in people I know who use Twitter, and the sudden increase in news commentary about Twitter, and Facebook's redesign to mimic Twitter, this movement of white noise, brevity and a high percentage of banality, has reached some kind of cultural tipping point. I feel compelled to protest, however futilely.

Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy Twitter myself. I am naturally quite solitary, and Twitter provides at least an illusion that I'm still in touch with the world. I also compulsively write things down. I have this public nonpersonal blog, another personal blog, and twitter for inane one-liners that don't fit either place. These two aspects are important enough to me that I will certainly not abandon Twitter any time soon.

But as a cultural movement, I fear this is the next thing catering to the intellectual lowest common denominator. The fact that serious news and analysis is trying to adapt to the 140 character format is downright disturbing. There is no room for anything but a headline, no discussion, no elaboration, no nuance, and not even aesthetically pleasing wording. It's too easy to produce and too easy to consume. Call me old-fashioned, but I think things worth doing generally require effort.

All of the recent praise for Twitter reeks of mendacity. The best argument they can come up with is that Twitter encourages brevity. There's certainly nothing wrong with brevity, but there's an enormous difference between writing headlines and writing a story complete with every interesting, challenging nuance with appropriately concise language. People who like their information in bite-sized pieces are trying to elevate a ridiculous fad in moral status, and they aren't doing it very convincingly. The other argument is in favor of so-called "ambient awareness". I already admitted to enjoying this aspect, but I also have no delusions that this is more than an entertaining illusory semi-addicting way to simulate true human connection. Neither television characters nor twitter followers are substitutes for deep friendships. Everyone knows this, but ease and novelty pulls a welcomed veil over the truth.

So can we please admit that while Twitter is indeed useful for quick contact, feedback, staying somewhat in touch with people you wouldn't otherwise often see, and maybe even following unfolding news, it is not the future of high-quality journalism?