Recently, David Carr wrote a piece called Why Twitter Will Endure, in which he expressed some surprise at his own conversion to Twitter advocate:
On Twitter, anyone may follow anyone, but there is very little expectation of reciprocity. By carefully curating the people you follow, Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people in their respective fields, whose tweets are often full of links to incredibly vital, timely information.
The most frequent objection to Twitter is a predictable one: “I don’t need to know someone is eating a donut right now.” But if that someone is a serious user of Twitter, she or he might actually be eating the curmudgeon’s lunch, racing ahead with a clear, up-to-the-second picture of an increasingly connected, busy world. The service has obvious utility for a journalist, but no matter what business you are in, imagine knowing what the thought leaders in your industry were reading and considering. And beyond following specific individuals, Twitter hash tags allow you to go deep into interests and obsession: #rollerderby, #physics, #puppets and #Avatar, to name just a few of many thousands.
The act of publishing on Twitter is so friction-free — a few keystrokes and hit send — that you can forget that others are out there listening. I was on a Virgin America cross-country flight, and used its wireless connection to tweet about the fact that the guy next to me seemed to be the leader of a cult involving Axe body spray. A half-hour later, a steward approached me and said he wondered if I would be more comfortable with a seat in the bulkhead. (He turned out to be a great guy, but I was doing a story involving another part of the company, so I had to decline the offer. @VirginAmerica, its corporate Twitter account, sent me a message afterward saying perhaps it should develop a screening process for Axe. It was creepy and comforting all at once.)
Like many newbies on Twitter, I vastly overestimated the importance of broadcasting on Twitter and after a while, I realized that I was not Moses and neither Twitter nor its users were wondering what I thought. Nearly a year in, I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice.
Not that long ago, I was at a conference at Yale and looked at the sea of open laptops in the seats in front of me. So why wasn’t my laptop open? Because I follow people on Twitter who serve as my Web-crawling proxies, each of them tweeting links that I could examine and read on a Blackberry. Regardless of where I am, I surf far less than I used to.
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. 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.
Carr’s piece stirred some yowling in the commentariat, in particular a post from George Packer that casts Twitter as the worst part of a world moving too fast:
- George Packer, Stop The World
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. But that supposes 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.”
Nick Bilton responded to this post, trying to counter Packer’s points one by one, in The Twitter Train Has Left The Station:
[…] Mr. Packer’s misgivings seem to be based entirely on what he has heard about the service — he’s so afraid of it that he won’t even try it. (I wonder how Mr. Packer would feel if, say, a restaurant critic panned a restaurant based solely on hearsay about the establishment.)
“Twitter is crack for media addicts,” he writes. “It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it.”
Call me a digital crack dealer, but here’s why Twitter is a vital part of the information economy — and why Mr. Packer and other doubters ought to at least give it a Tweet.
Hundreds of thousands of people now rely on Twitter every day for their business. Food trucks and restaurants around the world tell patrons about daily food specials. Corporations use the service to handle customer service issues. Starbucks, Dell, Ford, JetBlue and many more companies use Twitter to offer discounts and coupons to their customers. Public relations firms, ad agencies, schools, the State Department — even President Obama — now use Twitter and other social networks to share information.
There are communication and scholarly uses. Right now, an astronaut, floating 250 miles above the Earth, is using Twitter and conversing with people all over the globe, answering both mundane and scientific questions about living on a space station.
Most importantly, Twitter is transforming the nature of news, the industry from which Mr. Packer reaps his paycheck. The news media are going through their most robust transformation since the dawn of the printing press, in large part due to the Internet and services like Twitter. After this metamorphosis takes place, everyone will benefit from the information moving swiftly around the globe.
You can see that change beginning to take place. During the protests in Iran last year, ordinary Iranians shared information through Twitter about the government atrocities taking place. That supplemented the reporting by professional journalists, who faced restrictions on their movements and coverage. More recently, after the earthquake in Haiti, Twitter helped spread information about donation efforts, connected people to their loved ones, and of course, spread news from inside the country — news that reprinted in this publication.
Bilton’s reasonableness completely misses the point, because Packerisn’t really concerned with Twitter’s relative merits, or even it’s potential utility to him as a journalist: he is lamenting the decline of a passing intellectual world in which criticism and long-form writing were the zenith, a pinnacle to which he had aspired and succeeded. In this rebuttal to Bilton’s piece, Packer makes this clear.
- George Packer, Neither Luddite Nor Biltonite
It’s true that I hadn’t used Twitter (not consciously, anyway—my editors inform me that this blog has for some time had an automated Twitter feed). I haven’t used crack, either, but—as a Bilton reader pointed out—you don’t need to do the drug to understand the effects. One is the sight of adults walking into traffic with their eyes glued to their iPhones, or dividing their attention about evenly between their lunch partner and their BlackBerry. Here’s another: Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic’s very good politics blogger, was asked by Michael Kinsley to describe his typical day of information consumption, otherwise known as reading. Ambinder’s day begins and ends with Twitter, and there’s plenty of Twitter in between. No mention of books, except as vacation material via the Kindle. I’m sure Ambinder still reads books when he’s not on vacation, but it didn’t occur to him to include them in his account, and I’d guess that this is because they’re not a central part of his reading life.
And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head. The other day I had to reshelve two dozen books that my son had wantonly pulled down, most of them volumes from college days. I thumbed idly through a few urgently underlined pages of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a book that electrified me during my junior year, and began to experience something like the sensation middle-aged men have at the start of softball season, when they try sprinting to first base after a winter off. What a ridiculous effort it took! There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world. The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution. In fact, I’d think asking such questions would be an important part of the job of a media critic, or a lead Bits blogger.
Instead, the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions. If a Luddite is someone who fears and hates all technological change, a Biltonite is someone who celebrates all technological change: because we can, we must. I’d like to think that in 1860 I would have been an early train passenger, but I’d also like to think that in 1960 I’d have urged my wife to go off Thalidomide.
Bilton’s arguments on behalf of Twitter are that it’s useful for marketing and “information-sharing,” and that I, as a journalist, ought to understand the value as well as anyone: “Twitter is transforming the nature of news, the industry from which Mr. Packer reaps his paycheck. The news media are going through their most robust transformation since the dawn of the printing press, in large part due to the Internet and services like Twitter. After this metamorphosis takes place, everyone will benefit from the information moving swiftly around the globe.”
If there are any journalists left by then. Until that promised future, American newspapers and magazines will continue to die by the dozen, and Bilton’s Times will continue to cut costs by asking reporters and editors to take buy-outs, and the economic basis for reporting (as opposed to information-sharing, posting, and Tweeting) will continue to erode. You have to be a truly hard-core techno-worshipper to call this robust. A friend at the Times recently said he doubts that in five years there will be a print edition of the paper, except maybe on Sundays. Once the print New York Times is extinct, it’s not at all clear how the paper will pay for its primary job, which is reporting. Any journalist who cheerleads uncritically for Twitter is essentially asking for his own destruction.
Bilton’s post did prompt me to seek out a Tweeter, which provided half an hour of enlightenment, diversion, and early-onset boredom, at the end of which I couldn’t bring myself to rue all the Twitter links and restaurant specials and coupon offers I’ll continue to miss. It’s true that Bilton will have news updates within seconds that reach me after minutes or hours or even days. It’s a trade-off I can live with. As Garry Trudeau (who is not on Twitter) has his Washington “journotwit” Roland Hedley tweet at the end of “My Shorts R Bunching. Thoughts?,” “The time you spend reading this tweet is gone, lost forever, carrying you closer to death. Am trying not to abuse the privilege.”
[all emphasis mine.]
Here, Packer drops the curmudgeonly pretense of the first piece, and starts chewing the furniture. He makes clear that he believes Twitter is the archangel of a dark future, an appliance that will make us stupid. Twitter and other web tools take us away from grown-up activities like reading and walking slowly through museums. These are dangerous toys, he says, that could blow off your prefrontal cortext if you aren’t careful. And he’s an attention economist, saying we don’t have time to mess with this junk when there is so much to do! You can almost hear him yelling, “Get back to work, slackers!”
Then he attacks all those that smirked and called him a Luddite, calling us cultists and intolerant. (Well, I admit I am intolerant of people that call me an intolerant cultist.)
Packer also suggests that Bilton is a traitor to his calling, supporting the use of technologies that are directly leading to the erosion of old media. He has a point, since time that people spend using tools like Twitter does cut into traditional media, like TV, radio, and newspapers. But the media folks should take the rap for that, since they are losing us exactly because they failed to provide open social discourse. We moved onto the web to have what they failed to produce, and we are doing it ourselves, and to the degree that old media figure that out, the more they will change.
But beneath all this is fear: fear of the future, fear of change, and fear of the new.
Packer senses a world he loves slipping away. A world in which rereading Kirkegaard is seen as a noble end, and not just escapism or a mere hobby.
He makes Twitter a demon, and calls us cultists, worshipping technology. This is the war on flow, yet again. Packer and his ilk will say what we are doing is illegitimate, immoral, immature. Any slight merits these tools may have are overbalanced by the harm they do. While they may give their users pleasure, those pleasures are like drugs, gossip, or masturbation. We should put these dangerous mind-altering toys aside, and invest ourselves in grown-up activities, like quality face time with a small circle of ‘real’ friends, or reading.
Critics like Packer always miss the social dimension of these tools. They focus on their informational use, or talk about them as if they were communication devices like phones. Or compare them to drugs. But they are much more than that. Those of us online are deriving community and involvement from participating in these social settings, a sense of being connected that may have been missing in many people’s live before the web.
Sociality on the web is subversive, and it does alter the established role of media, which directly threatens Packer and other journalists. But mostly I think Parker is suffering a sort of future shock, a fear of the future, and the loss of a precious past, a time in which he knew what was right and wrong, what to do and say, and which way was up.
I might feel the same way if I thought the web was going to come to an end, and all that I have come to rely on — friendship, connection, and membership in a community of other minds — were to go away. But I think the web is here to stay, and if something new comes along, I would probably jump on that, anyway.