Twitter Agonistes

By Sean Carroll | April 23, 2009 7:45 am

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.

MORE ABOUT: twitter
  • ScienceSoWhat

    An interesting article – I think our twitter feed is particularly informative and useful!

    I aim to post interesting and accessible science links and stories relevant to the UK and beyond.

    check out: (I’m already following you)

    Science: [So What? So Everything]

  • costanza

    I’ll just paraphrase Samuel L Jackson: nothing worthwhile was ever written with 2 thumbs

  • the intersection

    Oh Sean, I would never disapprove! As I explained before, Twitter’s fine for other folks. I’m saying I’m ‘just not that into it‘. It’s not Twitter, it’s me.

  • Seth

    If you really only use Twitter for three minutes a day, then you’re in the minority for sure. I bet most keep the feed going all day to distraction. Twitter is not evil; it’s just not needed.

    This site has lots of examples of how Twitter is misused by so many:

  • Mike

    Twitter should be made illegal because it threatens traditional electronic correspondence. In fact, it threatens my very liberty to live in a Twitter-less world. Did you know, if Twitter exists long enough, they might actually begin to refer to it in public schools? Churches could be sued if they didn’t allow people to Twitter during service! And what’s next, mind-sharing by electronic implants? Clearly we have to nip this in the bud.

  • Tom

    The major difference I see between twitter and blogs is push content versus pull content. I have no problem allowing material of interest to aggregate in my Google reader, where I can read it or ignore it when I get a moment. The idea of all of my feeds being pushed onto my phone is much more akin to drinking from the firehose. I prefer to reserve push content for higher-priority communication, so I do not miss those communications. I think iPhone / Blackberry style devices checking Google-Reader feeds will eventually kill Twitter as the most popular method for blog-style output. Twitter does have a place in the future for sure for the large scale coordination of people and groups, but I do not think casual content will remain there in its current volume.

  • Mike

    One thing that strikes me is the number of politicians using Twitter. I can’t help but think, when you broadcast your opinions in real time, that occasionally you’re going to say something stupid. And that will come to haunt a politician in the next election cycle.

  • ayasawada

    @ Tom

    Er, you don’t have to have it pushed to your phone. That’s entirely optional (and you can choose who’s messages you receive, so you don’t get everyone’s).

  • Jim

    Actually, complaining about Twitter is more like yelling “Get off that other guy’s lawn!” when the other guy has a sign out that says “FREE LAWN – PLEASE PLAY”.

  • boreds

    I guess it’s more like saying “get off your own lawn”.

    I’m very happy without twitter, but then I did feel that about Facebook for a good while. And gmail.

    Web 2.0 is more powerful than me.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Don’t knock Twitter: George Will and the Washington Post conduct their fact-checking through the service.

    [For more on the “George Will on Ice” affair, see: ]

  • mk


    Why do you care what Sheril thinks about Twitter? You and Coturnix appear to be defending Twitter and criticizing those don’t have a thing for it as if you were in fact the creators. Isn’t your defense of your use of Twitter a little.. well, defensive?

  • Ali

    I have a feeling that people who don’t like Twitter don’t like it precisely because it’s “a small part of something very important: a changing information landscape.” And they don’t like the decontextualized, phantasmagoric look of that new landscape.

    Just a guess though. What would I know? I’m a hip 20-something who doesn’t even have a lawn….

  • Noadi

    I’m totally addicted to Twitter. By the way you don’t have to use it on your phone, I don’t even have a cell phone (rural Maine means crappy signal so just not worth it), instead I run it in the sidebar of firefox. It’s always open and I give it a glance every few minutes, respond to something or tweet when I feel like it. I don’t feel it’s pushing anything on me, I probably miss 90% of the tweets of people I follow because I just skim to see if there’s anything interesting.

    Of course having been online more than half my life I’m probably far more connected than the people complaining.

  • Pingback: The Defense of Twitter : clusterflock()

  • MP Lockwood

    I would like to point out how I use Twitter and find it VERY effective and useful. I am a musician, and I have found that people are happy to follow me on Twitter when they would never sign up for an email list. Either because it’s more “passive” or they think it’s more “cool.” But in any case, I can twitter show dates and reminders and updates that I wouldn’t choose to bother people with on the email list. And yes, sometimes links or random thoughts, but this still serves as a reminder for followers that my music project exists. I follow other like-minded musicians and get reminders about their shows and new releases. Some people do just twitter nonsense all day, but if I find someone annoying, I just stop following them! Simple!

    I also follow the Mars Rovers, and I DO find their daily activities interesting, unlike our terrestrial dinner choices. And hey, 4 hours ago CERN said: “first proton beam in the next stage of the accelerator chain, the SPS.” You don’t have to follow the musings of bored teenagers, just because they’re on Twitter.

  • coolstar

    Please, get over yourself BA. That Dowd column is one of her funnierrones (word to the unwise: trying to out-snark Ms. Dowd is better left for far, FAR sharper minds). If BA was still a professional educator, he’d likely have a very different opinion of Twitter.

  • coolstar

    OOPS, my bad, that post certainly SOUNDED like something BA would do. My apologies to his Baldness.

  • rob

    twitter. facebook. myspace. meh.

    kids these days really ought to watch more t.v.


  • Haim

    I admire people who can express great ideas in less then 140 charecters. The rest are drowning great ideas in a diluge of blah. After all aren’t we the sound-bite society, and 20sec commercials? The long winded writing are there for the politicians, and should stay there, so we don’t have to listen to it much.

  • Heather

    On the hater’s side, I’ve noticed that because of twitter’s huge popularity, it’s not always so easy to ‘opt out’ as you make it out to be.

    Sure I don’t have to sign up for an account if I don’t want to, but I still can’t escape the site and its inanity. Tweets repost to blogs I read; friends and acquaintences reference them constantly and check them on their phone during dinner; more than once I’ve been called upon to defend my lack of a twitter account.

    Like any successful fad, Twitter is annoying because of it’s ubiquity. Once people stop acting like it’s the be-all end-all of chic, entertaining communication, I’ll start hating it a little less.

  • Shawn Hickman

    When I first heard of Twitter, I thought it was the dumbest thing on the planet. Now I think it is possibly the most powerful thing on the Internet. The problem with Twitter isn’t the service. Twitter, as a tool, is extremely powerful, but the way they market themselves is awful. Of course nobody cares about what you had for dinner (except maybe your family), Twitter is so much more powerful than that. Businesses can use it to track what people are saying about them and provide customer service. You can share links with people and learn about new things every single day. You can ask questions about anything and probably get an answer back.

    Twitter did a great job at building something that is simple and powerful, but they need to start educating the new users about how their service can be used. For all the haters out there, why don’t you actually try it before saying that something sucks. Otherwise, just let it go, it’s all opt-in and you don’t have to be a part of it.

  • Brian Mingus

    I think it’s cute that you guys are all suddenly discovering Twitter. I’ve had my account since Jan of 2007 and I’ve used it twice, once to say “I am wondering why I am doing this.” Soon you will come down from your “oh my god everyone is using twitter I have to use it too” buzz and realize that its its just a fad. It’s not going to make you a more productive person in either your personal or your professional life.

    Now, if you just want something to do instead of say, watching television, why not spend some time on twitter? But don’t pretend it’s any more useful to you than that.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I don’t hate Twitter, but I have absolutely no interest in using it. I don’t use Facebook or any of the rest of this social networking stuff, either. I don’t even text. I jut can’t understand what makes some people think these services are so essential. As it is I’m swamped under a mountain of emails and cell phone messages any given week, so I can’t see how enhanced connectivity is going to make things easier and more convenient. But, hey, if you dig the hive mind, knock yourself out. I’m far more bemused than enraged, I guess.

  • Derek

    Kottke has a similar post up today. Must be the Defend Twitter Day.

    I appreciate Twitter because it allows me to communicate things to my group of friends without using Facebook’s clunky message system, without having to broadcast it to all the people who I’m Facebook friends with and don’t communicate with, and without having to include everyone in an e-mail. It’s simple, quick, and pretty. It also seems that, if haters don’t find it worthwhile, they shouldn’t have to devote so much time to knocking it. I care about Maureen Dowd’s opinion of Twitter as much as she cares that her friend had a hamburger.

    (Actually, I like that last line — maybe I’ll tweet that right now.)

  • Yvette

    Just wondering if my memory serves me right, but was any other internet technology so controversial when it came out in the love it or hate it mindset? Because I can’t remember something similar for, say, Facebook, but that might have been because Facebook was exclusively a college student thing for such a long time before others caught onto it.

    Myself, I’ve been traveling for three months so I haven’t had a phone or constant internet ever since Twitter became chic. I would confess it’s been nice but then I’d have to turn in my geek card. 😉

  • Ahmed

    Dear Sean,

    Please try not to take flamewars and childish bickering away from the internet, it wouldn’t exist without them!

    I haven’t tried Twitter, and your points are all valid of course, but from a comp.sci point of view it is a huge security risk. I have friends in security who use it, so my points are not exactly non-debatable either, but I’m fairly certain that for younger generations of computer users, an idea of something like Twitter every day leads to very silly things happening in the majority of cases. Facebook is a far better option security wise, and people STILL fall for automated bots and get their ‘private’ data (like pictures, locations..etc) harvested freely. A friend did this for a security project last semester. It was shocking. I guess an educated user base is a solution for everything, but ‘educated’ doesn’t really mean much these days.

    Also, I would far recommend younger people read than write useless things. I am 24, and if I had spent all my days as a 12 year doing stuff online as I do now, I would not know enough to even consider looking at your blog here. Strange, innit? But teenagers’ lives are none of my business, it’s their parents and schools that need to tell them these things. We can still debate it though. It’s just a noble effort to tell them to read (any material, including horror books). Hopefully that’s not too harsh of a suggestion.

    I find that people who have read a lot at any point in their lives tend to put better things online.


  • zincsplash

    Wonderfully succinct; Thanks Sean.

  • J.J.E.

    I think that Twitter is a fairly useful technology that seems to be way over-used by the average person. My biggest complaint is that its most frequent use seems to drown out the uses I find most compelling.

    Sure, for celebrities, bloggers with big followings, and other public personalities, it kinda makes sense to life cast or mind cast. That’s part of their (your) game.

    But for the average person, Twitter seems like a pretty useful thing to have in order keep a circle of friends very cohesive. You could post informal plans “Going out for a beer at 7; wanna join?” or reminders for a movie date “7pm at theater 15 at Cinemark tonight”. But almost nobody seems to reserve it for that utilitarian use. Invariably, life casting slips in, at least in my experience. You get mundane updates of your friends’ lives that they usually wouldn’t even bother to share in person.

    That the aspects of Twitter that appeal to me seem to be drown out by the background noise is a real pity. I would follow more friends of mine if doing so didn’t require sifting out the things I really don’t care about. Because of this, I stopped using it. If Twitter allowed you to post to different “channels” or something, I could see re-adopting it. Like, I want to subscribe to my friends’ “meeting” channel or whatever. I’d like to skip the other stuff. Is this possible with Twitter already? Did I give up on it before I gave it a fair shake?

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Good time-related quotes being sought. “The future’s not ours to see.” — Doris Day”.

    If you’re still looking, how about “Dessa dagar som kom och gick, inte visste jag
    att det var livet.” Author is Stig Johansson, described on the web page as an “aphoristicist”. Now
    that’s a nice job. A translation is “All these days which came and went, I didn’t know
    that that was life.” As a Twitter motto, how about the classic self-referential quote from
    Stephen Jay Gould: “No one-liner is ever optimal.”

  • Lab Lemming

    Twitter effects non-users when great bloggers start twittering and stop writing informative, interesting posts like they used to.

    Of course, it is possible that they’d quit without twitter, but those who haven’t quit, merely dropped from three days a week to once every three weeks are probably twtting instead of writing.

    Some examples include:
    Who actually fesses up here:

  • daisyrose

    What about ones own thoughts – How can you have them if you are constantly interrupted – Steady stream of what ? It is difficult for me to clear my mind – stop the chatter – decide between thousands of possibilities – All the Foofaraw …… getting used to quiet. …. and finally: Ideas – ways of looking at things I never planned on all on my own.

    If you want to feel connected and important – and that gives you the energy you need to do your work you are in luck – instantly ! Twitter.

  • rob

    c’mon, drink the twitter kool-aid…


  • Ray Saunders

    Personally, I see no reason to Twitter. I have a FB account mostly to share photos and news with family and a few friends, but I ignore the ‘applications’ there. I have no objections to others using Twitter, but then, I have no objections to them jumping of cliffs or drinking themselves to death. It’s a free country.
    I think most grumpy old Luddite curmudgeons feel the users of making more of less…pretty soon they will be ‘friends’ with everyone but not really know anyone. All relationships will be virtual (sounds like the subject of a thesis for a psych PHD, doesn’t it?)
    BTW: My blog is entitled Get Off My Lawn

  • James

    Yet another instance of the following:

    1. Some people do X, where X is something that is easily avoided if you want to.
    2. Some other people complain about people doing X. These complaints are easily avoided if you want to.
    3. Some people (often a subset of those who do X) complain about people complaining about people who do X, on the grounds that X is easily avoided if you want to, though they usually fail to mention that the complaints they’re complaining about are easily avoided if you want to. These complaints are also easily avoided if you want to.
    4. You get the idea.

    This phenomenon needs a nice, pithy name.

  • mk


    “Circular Whining”?

  • greg

    Just what the world needs – a plague of self absorbed inane text snippets, polluting the radio spectrum.

  • Moshe

    The column by Maureen Down is really terrific. You would think it is dumbed down intentionally to demonstrate how the soundbite format makes communication superficial. This would be a brilliant way to make the point, unless you are familiar with all the other columns Dowd write over her long career…

  • Claire C Smith


    I am a Twit now. In some ways, wish I hadn’t bothered being a Twit, but the people/followers seem ok tho. Can’t see my self dropping it now, for fear or offending what followers I have (haven’t yet got round to talking to anyone on show, just direct msgs to and fro).

    You know that Campbell’s Condensed Soup, Twitter is like that – but without the soup.


  • James

    @mk: That’s pretty good. I also like James’s Law. :) I guess we’d have to make it into a law first.

  • James

    How about “onewhinesmanship”?

  • ChrisG


    Last I checked, when someone posted something on the internet, they are inviting a reply.

  • ChrisG

    Oh, just a reminder that Twitter isn’t always about “What I had for dinner”

  • James

    ChrisG: I’m not judging. I just want a nice name for it.

  • mk

    @ James…

    Ah, “onewhinesmanship” I think is better! Go with it.

    And thanks to ChrisG for playing along! ;^}

  • ptah

    “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. ”

    And – just as with blogs – it is false to say that Twitter is NOTHING BUT mindless inanities.

    However – just as with blogs – it is MOSTLY mindless inanities.

  • Andrew S

    The real problem with twitter is that it’s a centralized service controlled by a single company. It’s sort of like what AOL mail or Compuserve mail were back before they joined the real internet. Twitter is a walled garden and a single point of failure.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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