If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m not a Twitter fan. In fact, I outright despise the inescapable microblogging service, which nudges its users to leave no thought unexpressed, except for the fully formed ones (there’s a 140-characters-per-tweet limit). I hate it not just because the Twidiocracy constantly insists I should love it, though that certainly helps. Being in the media profession (if “profession” isn’t overstating things), where everyone flocked en masse to the technology out of curiosity or insecurity or both, I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness. I hate the smugness of it, the way the techno-triumphalists make everyone who hasn’t joined the Borg feel like they’ve been banished to an unpopulated island, when in fact the numbers don’t support that notion. Even after seven years of nonstop media hype, only 16 percent of Internet users tweet, the same as the percentage of 14-49-year-olds who have genital herpes. The difference being that the latter are not proud of their affliction, while the former never shut up about theirs.
I hate the way Twitter transforms the written word into abbreviations and hieroglyphics, the staccato bursts of emptiness that occur when Twidiots who have no business writing for public consumption squeeze themselves into 140-character cement shoes. People used to write more intelligently than they speak. Now, a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet. If that’s a concern—and all evidence suggests it isn’t—you can keep your tweets private, readable only by those you invite. But that reduces your number of “followers,” so almost nobody does it. A private Twitter account cuts against the whole spirit of the enterprise—a bit like showing up at a nude beach in a muumuu.
Study this sentence: This is all the wisdom that anyone is able to express when it must be done it in a sentence that has 140 characters, more or less.
I can appreciate the ways Twitter can make us better writers: It forces us to be concise, it forces us to exercise our vocabularies, it forces us to improve our editing skills. I used to fool around with haiku for the same reason -- trying to say as much as you piossibly can in 17 syllables is wonderful practice for those wanting to improve their powers of persuasion. And it takes a lot of time and effort to keep paring your writing down to the essence. Whenever someone complains that an editorial is too long, the standard response from editorial writers is, "Sorry, I didn't have time to write it short."
But what something can do and what it actually does are not the same thing. Twitter is dumbing down conversation in this country -- well, this world, I guess -- at the same time it is revolutionizing the flow of information. Just imagine if the Greek philosophers who had centuries-long arguments about the nature of the universe had had to do it with Twitter. Hell, even the most eloquent among us would have had trouble.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that . . ." Whoops! Out of characters.
"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of . . ." Whoops!
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream . . ." Whoops!