Serial pedant and curmudgeon Jonathan Franzen has come out against Twitter, and engendered the typical reaction. I don’t agree with Franzen on almost anything, despite our shared anti-Twitter stance, and would not define Twitter’s problems in the same way as Franzen. As is so often the case, it strikes me that the counter-arguments are more telling than the argument itself.
One common defense of Twitter that I find unsatisfactory is the one offered at Text Patterns by Alan Jacobs, an enthusiastic Twitter partisan. In essence: Twitter is a medium and is therefore neither good nor bad.
Twitter is a platform and a medium, not an organized and coherent body — it’s not like a book, for instance, which can be said to have a single overall character. Imagine what you would think if someone said, “Email is all about fitting in.” Or “The telephone functions as banally as a school hierarchy.” Or “The telegraph relies on people’s desire to be the same.” Media platforms are what you make of them, and the history of each reveals that its makers expected it to have a relatively narrow set of uses and were surprised when people exercised their creativity to find remarkably varied uses.
To a degree, hey, I’m on board there. Various media have different strengths and weaknesses, and should not be judged by the standards of other media. But surely if Twitter, as a medium and platform, is not an appropriate receptacle for hatred, it can’t responsibly be a receptacle for love. And yet Dr. Jacobs. claims to love Twitter all the time. This strikes me as straightforward “have your cake and eat it too” stuff. (I’m reminded of Bill Waterson, in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, arguing passionately that comic strips are a medium, and that individual works within a medium shouldn’t be judged by perceptions of the medium as a whole– and then later in the same text saying “comic books will always be deeply stupid.”)
More, I don’t think this defense withstands much scrutiny. Surely, it is fair and appropriate for people to judge what they perceive to be the usual practice within a medium. Sure, Twitter is a medium and could be used for all kinds of things. That doesn’t preclude me from looking around and noticing that it’s mostly links, spam, one-liners, and people agreeing with each other. Which is fine. But the fact that writing on bathroom stalls could be a medium that produces any kind of content doesn’t preclude me from making a (necessarily limited) appraisal of what bathroom stall writing actually is in practice.
Here’s what I’m most adamant about. The other classic defense of Twitter is a related one, and not so much self-defeating as undone by reference to the real world. Pointing to Twitter’s 140-character form, people say in regard to complaints like Franzen’s, “of course, people aren’t writing political manifestos and long form prose and philosophical treatises on Twitter! That’s not what it’s for.” “That’s not what Twitter is for” is the most common defense, I think. Which would be valid, except for the fact that nobody seems to have told most Tweeters.
What I mean is that there’s a large gulf between the way people defend Twitter when making that argument and the way most people actually use Twitter. People certainly seem to think that they can solve political, scientific, and philosophical claims on Twitter. People make sweeping judgments about movies, books, political candidates, ideologies…. I can’t tell you how many several-hundred-word blog posts I’ve written that have been dismissed on Twitter, briefly and profanely. (Followed by the usual “right ons” and retweets.) It happens with blog posts from just about everybody, and with 600 page books, and on and on. If you want to defend Twitter by saying that it isn’t for certain kinds of arguments, you might try telling your friends on Twitter that. They don’t seem aware.
Of course, some may say that the world is not so complicated that it can’t be reduced to 140-character chunks. As for me, I think that quantum mechanics, sociolinguistics, economics, Ulysses and many other subjects need a bit more room to discuss intelligently. But maybe that’s just me.
Update: For balance, here’s a post where Dr. Jacobs evinces some skepticism about Twitter hagiography.