Thursday, July 7, 2011


By Peter K. Stephens

Before the advent of the internet, it was extremely difficult to be published. In order to write a book, an aspiring writer would likely have to submit their book to a litany of publishers, and typically would be met with rejection. Writing in a newspaper was slightly easier, but not by much. A writer would either have to be hired onto the staff or as a freelance writer based on the strength of their portfolio. If they were lucky enough, they might have a letter or guest column published if they had some particularly relevant insight. Somebody could attempt to self publish, but this was usually (justifiably) associated with fringe writings about conspiracies or the virtues of the communist party. The advent of the internet, to use an overplayed phrase, "changed everything." The democratization of communication was universally hailed as the dawning of a new golden age. The gates of the literary Bastille were stormed, and the voices of the people would finally be heard!

As it turns out, they typically have nothing to say. With some exceptions, the outpouring of white noise and the advent of digital pseudo celebrity has revealed that we may have been better off before we were subjected to the thoughts and opinions of every single mouth breather with a Twitter account. I contend that the advent of social media in general and Twitter in particular has directly led to the dumbassification[1] of society at large. You can disagree if you want, but it's difficult to form a coherent argument in 140 characters.[2]

One of the hallmarks of Twitter is the 140 character limit. This is a stunningly perfect metaphor for how asinine Twitter is. If the internet made communication faster, briefer, and less substantive, then Twitter is like the super-internet. Every single line of thought is condensed into a virtually nonsensical jumble of text message speak, hashtags, and url's. No longer do writers need to worry about the content or quality of their writing[3], all that matters is that they can regurgitate their thoughts as quickly as possible. I'm reminded of Newspeak in the book "1984," wherein the totalitarian state has purposely eliminated extraneous words from the dictionary and forced people to speak in as base a manner as possible.[4] As it turns out, you don't need thought police to accomplish this task, all you have to do is limit the number of characters people have to work with, and they'll fill in the remainder with their own ignorance. Shakespeare said that brevity is the soul of wit, but I would think that Hamlet's soliloquy might have lost something if tweeted.[5]

At its root, Twitter distils and debases communication to the lowest common denominator. This reflects an overall trend in our society, wherein quality is sacrificed in the name of quantity and expediency. It simply doesn't matter whether anything is good anymore, only that it can be easily and quickly consumed in order to make room for the next empty meal.

95% of Twitterers can broadly be divided into three categories:

· Celebrities stroking their egos by accumulating followers and reminding themselves that people care about the minutia of their lives

· Ordinary people stroking their egos by accumulating followers and incorrectly believing that people care about the minutia of their lives

· Journalists using Twitter to break stories or rumours without having to deal with inconveniences like "sources" or "journalistic standards"

Ordinary people discussing what they had for breakfast[6] or keeping us posted on their location[7] is one of the more widely discussed and accepted (I hope) criticisms of Twitter, so I'll focus on the other two topics for critique.

Celebrities have embraced Twitter like few others, and it's easy to see why. Twitter allows celebrities to quantify their celebrity by the number of followers they have. Twitter followers and Facebook friends have become a convenient way for people to reaffirm their self worth. No celebrity will ever have to deal with painful thoughts of inferiority or self-doubt. They can just look at their Twitter account and remember how many people are interested in hearing anything they have to say, no matter what its value. They get this benefit, and they don't even have to actually deal with the people who admire them, which is surely the downside of celebrity. People who follow celebrities on twitter benefit from this relationship because they

a) Can pretend that following someone famous on Twitter creates a reciprocal relationship, thus making them famous, and

b) Are huge starfuckers.

This is, of course, just an extension of the general vapidity of celebrity culture in general, the value and meaning of which has been discussed and dissected ad nauseam. To the extent that it lets people interact more directly with the people whose lives they irrationally care about so very much, and puts as many TMZ employees and paparazzi out of work as possible, this is arguably slightly positive. What is less favourable is the effect that this phenomenon has had on traditional journalism.

One of the worst trends in Twitter is the tendency of journalists to use it as a half-assed substitute for their traditional medium. This is especially apparent in sports journalism, where writers will frequently float trade rumours and deals before they have any reputable sources or confirmation that anything is actually occurring. Any semi-competent editor would call them out on this, and wouldn't publish the story. However, through the magic of Twitter, these writers can say whatever they want, no matter how outlandish or disreputable. If anyone ever calls them out on this (and they won't, because nobody remembers anything written on Twitter more than an hour later), their defense is that it "was just a Tweet and wasn't a 'real' article." It's good to know that modern journalistic integrity doesn't extend past the boundary of the column inch.

Some people actually enjoy this, believing that Twitter allows them to get scoops earlier than anything else. While this is true to an extent, so many of these scoops end up being completely false that the true ones are impossible to verify until they're reported by traditional media. This is relatively harmless in sports journalism, which has a long standing history of unfounded rumours, but more damaging when important stories are broken by Twitter. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, false stories[8] appeared out of the ether of Twitter and were then retweeted until their original source was lost and they were then reported as actual news. It's hard to argue that the amount of gross misinformation circulating on Twitter outweighs the cost of waiting 15 minutes and having a story properly vetted.

The other aspect of the news media's infatuation with Twitter is their ham-fisted attempts to integrate it into their traditional broadcasts. This typically involves a news anchor reporting a story, and then inviting the audience to 'tell us what you think.' CNN has been the frontrunner in this regard, going as far as dedicating an entire show (Rick's List) to this call and response act. This attempted synergy reminds me of the horse and buggy manufacturer whose response to the invention of the automobile was to try to make the world's fastest horse and buggy. Instead of specializing and emphasizing what they can do better than the new medium of Twitter (such as actual journalism and news reporting), they've instead tried to graft it onto their forehead by dumbing down their reporting and broadcasting the opinions of @JoeSchmo like anybody cares what they think.

Luckily, I believe that this particular trend won't last. Oh, there will be a continuing trend towards cheap and quick communication (along with everything else), which seems like an inexorable part of modern American society at this point. However, Twitter itself has two major problems:

1. It is already becoming uncool, and

2. It makes no money

The financial side is boring, so I won't get into it too much. Let's just state the simple fact that a company that provides a free service without any real source of ad revenue probably isn't on the soundest ground.

Arguing that Twitter is becoming uncool will probably take a bit more convincing. After all, it's social media, and nothing's hotter than social media right now! Well, that's the story if you're the kind of person that regularly uses words like Generation X and synergy.[9] Twitter at this stage reminds me of Facebook when they dropped their .edu email address requirement and everybody's mom signed up. It's a little less fun to use when your great uncle is following you. With corporations and politicians stumbling over themselves to target 18-29 year olds, Twitter is being positively flooded by the unhip. So tell me, how cool is something that's filled with celebrity watchers, corporations, and politicians? Are these the kind of people that can sustain something's popularity in the technology world?

Based on this, I think Twitter itself is short lived. It will be replaced by something even faster and even dumber. And then some asshole will write a 140 character tweet about not liking the new technology.

[1] Thanks for the new word Chuck D!

[2] Some people would point out the irony that I'm writing this on Blogspot, which some people would argue is just a long-form, unpopular version of Twitter. To which I respond: Hey, shut up.

[3] Some of those critics from the last footnote might point out here that the quality of my writing isn't that great either. To which I respond: Hey, fuck you.

[4] For example, the word 'extraneous' would most likely be eliminated and replaced with a simple 'bad.' From Wikipedia's description of Newspeak (due to laziness): "In keeping with the principles of Newspeak, all of the words…. serve as both nouns and verbs; thus, crimethink is both the noun meaning "thoughtcrime" and the verb meaning "to commit thoughtcrime". To form an adjective, one adds the suffix "-ful" (e.g., crimethinkful) and to form an adverb, "-wise" (e.g., crimethinkwise). There are some irregular forms, such as the adjectival forms of "Miniplenty", Minitrue, Minipax, and Miniluv (Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Peace, "Ministry of Plenty", and Ministry of Love)." Reading this now, this actually sounds a lot like how the German language works.

[5] @BardoAVN: 2 b or not 2 b #iz?

[6] @Peter is eating breakfast! Nothing beats Apple Jacks!

[7] @Peter is driving! Commuting sux!

[8] Bin Laden being killed in Afghanistan, him being killed by a Predator drone etc.

[9] I realize I used the word synergy earlier in this essay. I was being ironic.


  1. I do enjoy the fact that this article is basically outlining the irrelevancy of itself and the site that it is on. As a writer on this site, I respond: Hey, fuck you!