Many of you know that, in addition to my duties as scientist and blogger, I have recently started a Twitter account. This allows me to share with the world all of the deep insights, amusing trifles, and enlightening links that are just too short to fit into a blog post.
It has not escaped my attention that the world is filled with grumpy old people (of all ages) who take great joy in mocking the mode of superficial sound-bite communication that Twitter embodies. Usually this mockery is broadcast by means of their blogs or Facebook accounts, which … well, I’ll let you finish the thought. (Some of it will be broadcast, I hereby predict, in the comment section attached to this post.)
So I was going to let it pass when our wonderful new bloggy neighbor Sheril took the time to explain in great detail why she disapproves of Twitter. Different strokes, and all that. But then she went a step too far: she linked to a column by Maureen Dowd, and described it as “terrific.” Oh Sheril, how could you?
Here are some excerpts from Ms. Dowd’s foray into honest reportage — the probing queries she asked during her interview with the founders of Twitter.
I was here on a simple quest: curious to know if the inventors of Twitter were as annoying as their invention.
ME: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?
ME: If you were out with a girl and she started twittering about it in the middle, would that be a deal-breaker or a turn-on?
ME: Do you ever think “I don’t care that my friend is having a hamburger?”
ME: Why did you think the answer to e-mail was a new kind of e-mail?
ME: Why did you call the company Twitter instead of Clutter?
ME: Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?
I guess these are the kinds of questions they’re teaching people to ask in Serious Journalism school these days. (The answers were a lot more polite than I would have been.)
The anti-Twitter crowd always hastens to explain that they are not, really, grumpy old Luddite curmudgeons. The reason why it’s necessary to make this point is, of course, because they are all grumpy old Luddite curmudgeons. And here’s how we know: a little-appreciated feature of the Twitter technology is that it’s completely optional! You don’t have to get involved. It’s okay, really. Nobody is forcing you. Now, when there is something new going around that nobody is forcing you to be involved with, there are a couple of possible non-curmudgeonly responses. One is: ignore it completely. Nothing wrong with that. Another is: give it a try, decide whether or not you like it; if so, your happiness has been marginally improved, and if not, leave and get on with your life. Simple!
And then there is one quintessentially curmudgeonly response: don’t try it, but take valuable time out of your day explaining to other people why they shouldn’t be enjoying it, either. The only difference between that and yelling “Get off my lawn!” is — well, there isn’t any difference, really.
For me, Twitter is mildly amusing for three minutes a day. Could take it or leave it, really. But it’s nice to get science links from the Telegraph, updates on Penn State’s spring practice from Jay Paterno, Senate gossip from Claire McCaskill, peeks at the Iron Man II set from Jon Favreau, breathless scoops from Roland Hedley, or reassurances of continued insanity from John McCain. I find it interesting, but that’s me. Again: completely optional!
The biggest substantive complaint is that we have become a society of over-sharers, and one simply doesn’t want to be continually updated about what people had for dinner. Again: fine! Just don’t subscribe to Newt Gingrich’s feed. But the claim that Twitter is nothing but mindless inanities is just as wrong as the analogous claim for blogs — in fact it’s precisely the same claim, five years later. There are other things you can do with the technology — the technical terms are “lifecasting” [here's what I had for dinner] vs. “mindcasting” [here's a thought, a question, an observation, a link to something more substantial]. And if someone else really does want to know what their friends are having for dinner, why should you be so bothered?
Twitter is not very important, on the cosmic scale of things. It’s just a fun little gadget. But it’s a small part of something very important: a changing information landscape that enables new kinds of communication. (That link via David Harris’s Twitter feed.) Nobody has any idea what that landscape is going to look like twenty years from now, but it’s interesting to watch it evolve. Not that anyone is forcing you to do so.