I was compelled to open a Twitter account for my New Media class and reluctantly joined the ranks of the twits. After toying around with it for a few days, I can see both its utility and its limitations. I followed some institutions, including a few local museums, libraries, etc. The format suits their purposes well – allowing for short announcements on exhibits, new holdings, bulletins, etc. I then added some individuals- people who just randomly came to mind: Cornel West, Bob Dylan, Paul Krugman, etc. I tried to add Noam Chomsky only to find that he apparently dislikes Twitter.
In a rather informal interview Chomsky expressed his view that Twitter is a “shallow” form of communication. He said, “My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.” He concluded, “I think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent. One other effect is there’s much less reading. I can see it even with my students, but also with my children and grandchildren, they just don’t read much.”
Of course this sentiment isn’t new. With the spread of radio many feared the decline of literacy and later television was excoriated by some for encouraging passivity and social isolation. As recently as 1985, media theorist Neil Postman lamented, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” With the passing of 1984, many recalled George Orwell’s distopian warning from about three decades prior, however Postman viewed Aldous Huxley’s earlier cautionary tale A Brave New World as more prescient. He writes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”
After spending some time in the “Twitterverse” I promptly found that both Chomsky and Postman have a point. As a forum for exploring deep and complex issues, Twitter is clearly an inappropriate platform. It does seem to cater to a superficial “soundbite” culture. However. as a technically advanced digital bulletin board – it appears useful. Just in the last day I was directed to an a few interesting news stories, made aware of a new album release and received an update on my intramural basketball team.
I can also see the efficacy of Twitter for political organizing and social networking. It is well suited for communication via smartphone and should be a useful tool in coordinating demonstrations, meetings, etc.
It seems that it may get out of hand as the Twitter feed grows and one becomes bombarded with perpetual tweets from all a plethora of sources. For example, I added the New York Times and was immediately inundated with updates – to the point that they seemed to be crowding out everything else. I would probably be better served to just check the website. I imagine that the more sources one follows, the more cacophonous the experience becomes. A narrow and focused list may be the key to managing it and maximizing its utility for ones own purposes.
Glancing at the “trending topics” and the people with the most followers revealed how most people are engaging with the technology. I read recently that celebrities with millions of followers can be paid upwards of $100,000 for a single tweet endorsing a product. It is clear that Twitter can be used as a powerful tool for advertisers to directly market their products under the veil of a personal endorsement. It is incumbent on those using the technology to recognize when they are being marketed to in this way. Overall, however, Twitter can be an effective social networking tool if used cautiously.