Twitter Nation

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 14, 2009 9:28 am

There’s a little known–but not so private–tidbit about my arrival to the blogosphere that often raises eyebrows when I give talks.  I started because I lost a bet.  Really.  You see, when I left grad school for DC, some of the undergrads I worked with implored me to blog.  We regularly discussed science and politics in our seminar and they were eager to continue the conversation online.

‘Me blog?! No way!’

Admittedly, I didn’t quite understand what a blog was back then.  It seemed like the kind of activity for people with too much time on their hands… a hobby for those with the strange desire to report the hum-drum nuances of their day. Most of which involved complaining.  ‘This morning I brushed my teeth,’ and that sort of thing. I was not about to foray into the blogosphere, but I finally agreed to ‘when the Dems take back the House and Senate.’  Because that was never going to happen!

And so true to word, a week after November 7, 2006 I started a private blogspot to exchange ideas with the group.  Go figure a few months later, Randy Olson would introduced me and Chris. The rest is history.  And would you know it, blogging isn’t all that bad.  I’ve learned it can foster a very constructive dialog (or not) and serve as a bridge to communicate interesting subjects between fields and people.  On the whole, for me it’s also been cathartic.  So many crazy ideas swirl around my head and getting them down for discussion online–especially turning them over with readers–has been a lot of fun.  We’ve seen the rise of and I’ve learned a good deal about writing and journalism over the years.  By now I’ve come full circle.  I’m converted.  I blog, therefore I am.  But.  It turns out that what made me squeamish about the blogosphere actually does exist by way of another inexplicably popular medium.

It’s called TWITTER.

antitwitter1.pngCan someone kindly explain to me why this strange breed of shadowing has any merit?  I don’t want to report where I am and what I’m doing every five minutes.  Tweeters tell me it’s all about sharing the news when they’re doing really exciting stuff.  Well, if I’m ever that excited–say, hanging with Billie Joe–I’m not going to be focused typing about it into my cell phone. And why do we assume that everyone ‘following‘ tweets, chirps, or yelps cares to know exactly what we’re up to?  Furthermore, isn’t it a little on the creepy side to allow people to ‘follow‘ you?  There’s another term for that.  Stalking.  Authors and other writers tell me it’s good to build a following.  But Kurt Vonnegut didn’t twitter.  Neither will Captain Kirk.

We live in strange times.  No one has really come to terms with social networking.  A wireless internet connection affords every kind of media not just streamed into your living room, but directly to your palm… 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Craving extreme trucking from the Czech republic at 4 am? You got it!  Welcome to generation ADD.  We like our vodka sped up with Red Bull and expect reality TV stars to fall in love multiple times per season.  We’ve surpassed sampling music and transitioned to remixing youtube.  We’ve evolved into a culture that practices Guitar Hero while keeping virtual companions close at hand (literally).  We marvel at the obesity epidemic as our children rush home from school to hang out with friends in cyberland.  Even our Wii had to remind us to exercise.  And we want to share.  Every emotion complete with our most intimate footage to boot. It’s a circus and everybody wants to be a rockstar.  We can advertise our assets (and love of Star Trek) through online dating while Facebook lets us make and break relationships before the other party consents to a ‘status’ change.  Privacy is so last millenium.

Well call me old fashioned, but I draw the line at Twitter.  Yes folks, the rumors are true. Physioprof and I have made a pact.  We will never ever Twitter.  It’s time to slow things down a notch.  We want to enjoy a few moments disconnected.  No electricity required, batteries not included.

And we’re not alone.  The movement is growing.  James joined in on the pact with ‘Why Twitter Is Evil.’ And you won’t be receiving ‘tweets’ from my co-blogger anytime soon.  Of course, many will disagree–we’ve got Twitter happy colleagues across the Hive and over at ScienceBlogs–but those stalwart among us have yet to be seduced into joining the dark side.  Rather than documenting each experience as it happens in 140 characters or less–we prefer to live in the moment.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (54)

  1. I will join the “movement” out of sheer practicality. There’s just too much on my radar already (isn’t that true of everybody?) to contemplate having yet something else to pay attention to….

  2. Linda
  3. Tuatara

    Czech trucking rules!

  4. Holly Menninger

    Like Sheril, I had similar sentiments about Twitter. Then a little article by Dave Mosher in the National Association of Science Writers newsletter caught me eye:

    At the very least, it helped me to understand the potential utility and advantages of the mysterious Twitter for the science writing and science policy crowd.

  5. Jon Winsor

    Jay Rosen is the only twitter feed I read often.

    Oh yeah, then there’s Roland Hedley:

  6. Will there be a new Michael Moore movie… “Tweteing for $$”? Someone has to write tweets for busy Congress Critters.

  7. Michael D.

    I have these devices (one on my desk and one in my pocket) into which I type 7 or 10 digit numbers and I can instantly speak verbally with numerous people, therefore following their thoughts, actions and locations in real time. Or, I can leave them a (verbal) message, complete with nuance and inflection, and let them know I am at the grocery store RIGHT NOW.

  8. Catharine Zivkovic

    The thing that is really interesting about Twitter is the way that it changes the structure of journalism. Forget what you had for breakfast, etc., etc. Journalism is no longer in the domain of the few. Information is becoming truly democratic (at least for those who are privileged enough to own the technology…) Personally, I don’t Twitter and have no intention of starting, but I can see how it is useful for those who do.

    In terms of how Twitter can change journalism, it is (I think) not unlike blogging. However, I don’t necessarily think that it is an end in itself, like blogging can be.

    But change is strange and therefore can be unsettling.

  9. Sheril, I think you’re making the same mistake about Twitter that a lot of people make about blogging — confusing the most obvious and silly use of the technology for the only possible use. Sure, you can use Twitter for keeping people updated on what you are eating. You can also use blogs for that. But it’s not the only thing you can do. You can share links, update on breaking news, tell jokes, offer opinions. And — just like blogs — you don’t have to follow anyone you don’t find interesting, nor are you forced to reveal details about your own life that you’d rather not share.

    Compared to blogs, Twitter is never going to be anything other than superficial. It’s only 140 characters per update! But it can be fun and occasionally useful. I don’t see why anyone should complain about a technology that nobody is forcing them to use. If other people like it, what’s the big deal?

  10. Walker

    What floors me is that Twitter seems to be very popular among older people who are adverse to other forms of social networking. People who are squeemish about Facebook have absolutely no problem with Twitter. And this is despite the fact that Twitter does not have anywhere near the privacy controls that Facebook does.

  11. Gerrit

    I was sceptical about Twitter at first, but a while ago I decided to see what all the fuss was about. At first I had the same feelings as Sheril; yet another social networking thing, more bullshit on the web. This is ofcourse true, but what interests me is what you can do with all this data.

    * What’s going on?
    Check out You can see what people all over the world (or just near you) are talking about. Which topics or hot today. Trend watchers will have a ball.

    * What just happened?
    Moments after something big happens there will be pictures and videos all over the place, long before any newscrew will be at the scene.

    * Integration
    Twitter is very accessible, you can use it from a wide range of devices. There’s an API available which makes it easy for developers tot make their applications interact with Twitter. For example, it would be easy to automatically post messages whenever a new article is posted on this blog. This way you can get notifications about things that interest you on any device that’s available to you.

    I’m not saying Twitter is great and everyone should use it. It is interesting though and it can be used for usefull things. I’m not actively using my account, but I will continue to watch what’s happening, so I’m sorry to say I will not join the movement.

  12. Sean writes: Sheril, I think you’re making the same mistake about Twitter that a lot of people make about blogging — confusing the most obvious and silly use of the technology for the only possible use.

    Exactly. It’s what you make of it, like all new tech. You’d think someone who gave a talk entitled “I am new media (And so can you!)” would be a little less quick to tell Twitter to get off her lawn.

  13. You sound like a bunch of old fogeys. Twitter:

    A – is great for ADD types like me who can’t be bothered or don’t have time to write blog posts anymore (even finding time to contribute to Nobel Intent is becoming impossible these days).

    B – is great for rapidly disseminating short bits of interesting info like links to a range of people, as well as syndicating a blog – @Intersection could let me know when there was a new post here, for example.

    C – forces you to think really hard about communication – that 140 character limit focuses you.

    D – is proving to be surprisingly good for things like science outreach – witness the excellent use of twitter by JPL with the Mars Rovers tweeting in the 1st person (driven by that 140 character limit incidentally).

  14. You’d think someone who gave a talk entitled “I am new media (And so can you!)” would be a little less quick to tell Twitter to get off her lawn.

    That was a fun AAAS talk. Thanks for remembering…

    Twitter’s fine for other folks. We’re saying we’re ‘just not that into it‘. It’s not Twitter, it’s us.

  15. Jon Winsor

    “forces you to think really hard about communication – that 140 character limit focuses you.”

    That’s certainly true of Roland Hedley!

    One word: Indispensable.

  16. In all seriousness, just a few things I find Twitter useful for:

    – collecting links to read later (Tweetie and Twitterific iPhone apps are particularly helpful with this)
    – thoughts too short to warrant a full blog post that I do consider worth getting down
    – reading when I can’t devote a block of uninterrupted time to something weighty and/or am dealing with sluggish connectivity (e.g. a multiple transfer subway trip)
    – crowd sourcing answers to questions search engine queries cannot resolve
    – live-tweeting talks and following same (sure it doesn’t beat the real thing, but it can be quite informative)
    – perspectives I don’t normally get through daily reading (e.g. political viewpoints I am interested in but don’t have the time/investment to read at length)

  17. I agree. Twitter is terrible. I didn’t meet interesting new people in my new city through it, I didn’t get free tickets to my favorite artist’s unannounced sold-out show through people I know from twitter, I never hear useful reporting from conferences I don’t attend on twitter, it’s terrible for breaking up-to-the minute news, and it most certainly didn’t get me invited to speak at a local science networking meeting. Besides all that it didn’t do, it didn’t get me a part-time job defining standards for next-generation reference management.

    Why anyone bothers with the thing, I’ll never understand.

  18. Rather than documenting each experience as it happens in 140 characters or less

    Also, as the indispensable Jay Rosen points out (and what I was referencing in my first ‘use’): You’re not limited to 140 characters when you can link out to pieces of any length. Being directed to articles/posts I wouldn’t otherwise have seen and saving them is probably my favorite thing about Twitter.

  19. Erasmussimo

    I propose you make a bet that you will not try Twitter until the Republicans win the House, the Senate, AND the White House. That should give you a good safety margin.

  20. @BoraZ RT @jayrosen_nyu Notion that Twitter offers 140 characters is crap when 17 of those characters are hypertext that take you to 3,000 words.

    Find and collect 10 such links in 10 tweets during the day. Read the responses by others on Twitter, on FriendFeed (where you export your Twitter feed) and Facebook (where you also export your FriendFeed feed). By the end of the day, you have material for a blog post.

    That is called midncasting as opposed to ‘lifecasting’ you are talking about, e.g., what I had for breakfast. If all you see on Twitter is crap, you are following the wrong people. Never take seriously the “What are you doing?” question on Twitter. Use your 140 characters wisely to put out bait for information, to share links, and to collect it all in one place where you can use it for subsequent long-form writing.

    It took me a year of resistance to understand this. Just like you, I resisted many pleas by people like Anton and Wayne to get started. It took a couple of science bloggers who showed me how it is used wisely, for me to see its utility.

  21. I was also skeptical about Twitter — seemed like the height of lunatic narcissism (“I’m in the frozen food aisle!” “I’m pouring cream in my coffee.”)

    But people I respect prodded me to at least try it — and it took about two days to figure out that for writers and others w/something to promote, Twitter is THE greatest invention ever.

    For example, everytime I write a blog entry (and my blog is part of my business), I tweet the title of the piece and the url (which I also send directly to Facebook).

    My blog traffic has soared since I started “tweeting.” Bonus? It’s free.

    For writers, the greatest. thing. ever.

    As for the “follower/following” business: I follow people who are also using Twitter to broadcast stuff-worth-reading, many of whom are not in my own line of work (I’m a historian). So their tweets help me figure out what, in the vast ‘netsphere, I want to read.

    Indeed, I landed here because, ya know, someone tweeted a link to your blog entry!

  22. mk

    Count me in. I will NEVER twitter.

  23. Umm…what’s Twitter? First time I am hearing about it

  24. Twitter is amazing; it has almost totally displaced my RSS feeds as a source of interesting online reading. I follow about 100 of the most interesting people on the planet; they have a lot to say and also read a lot of interesting stuff.

    Occasionally I can even get their attention, in pursuit of my ambition to become the 101st most interesting person on earth.

    There is also the back-channel effect at certain types of meetings (SXSW Interactive is pretty amazingly interactive!) See

    I just tried an experiment asking a very technical question on Twitter. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

    I have only been participating for a couple of months and I am totally floored by this tool. Follow me at @mtobis ! The water is fine, and the more the merrier!

  25. “It’s not Twitter, it’s us”

    Twitter: You’re giving me the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine?? I invented “it’s not you, it’s me”! Nobody tells me it’s them not me, if it’s anybody it’s me!

    Sheril: All right, Twitter, it’s you.

    Twitter: You’re damn right it’s me!

  26. a^n + b^n = c^n has no solution for n>2 ; got a great proof, but can’t fit it in 140 characters.

  27. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I agree with Bora and especially Sean: personal Twittering is lame. Content-ious tweets are good.

    Oh, and good timing on this: DISCOVER [@DiscoverMag] just launched its official Twitter feed!

  28. Walker

    a^n + b^n = c^n has no solution for n>2 ; got a great proof, but can’t fit it in 140 characters.

    This joke is not nearly as funny now that the problem is actually solved.

  29. demonstrator

    I disliked twitter at first and now I’m getting into it. The thing is, you have to get away from the idea that there is an automatic obsessive compulsive tendency in the individuals reporting on their day. Also, you don’t have to follow anybody at all. Additionally you are supposed to skim through, no one expects attention to be paid to every little thing. Lastly, you don’t have to use your phone, so in essence its only a distraction if you make it so.

  30. Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes

    Got a great proof but can’t fit it in 140 characters, and in addition am paranoid that the ghost of Goldbach will hunt me down if I disclose it.

  31. I’m with you about twitter. I have no more time in my life. 140 characters isn’t enough for me to learn something. A blog post is still pretty short–but it has the space to convey a thought or teach me.

  32. Myth 1: you are restricted to 140 characters.

    No, do a series of tweets (you can even label them 1/3, 2/3, 3/3). Insert links to longer pieces.

    Myth 2: you are obliged to read every tweet by every follower of yours.

    No, skim occasionally, see if something grabs your attention.

    Myth 3: You are obliged to follow everyone who follows you.

    No, choose smartly who you follow, for what you need Twitter for.

    Myth 4: Use Twitter on

    No, use it on or other 3rd applications, where you can see the trends, search for keyword or people, etc.

  33. MadScientist

    It’s a social thing; to seek an explanation is most likely futile. I have no idea what the fuss is about either, but all sorts of people use Twitter including the EvilBad Astronomer. The BA recently received some complaints about “tweeting too much” (and most readers who posted a comment told him to ignore the complaints – the people who complain can always take him off their list).

  34. MadScientist

    *grumble* – why do different blogs behave differently? I can’t preview my comments and apparently hypertext markup is scrubbed; ‘EvilBad’ was meant to cross out ‘Evil’ and highlight ‘Bad’ as an insertion, but instead I just look plain stupid for typing ‘EvilBad’. If I had a twitter account I’d probably whine about it there.

  35. *grumble* – why do different blogs behave differently? I can’t preview my comments

    We’ve requested a preview option among other things. Watch for improvements to the site over coming months…

  36. Marcos

    Everything you said about twitter could be said about blogs and RSS feeds. People blog about their breakfast, their dog, you name it. You don’t do that here. You blog about science and policy and such things. One could restrict their tweeting to such similar topics; it need not chronicle your life, it need not be more than one tweet a day. You’re not required to follow anyone, or everyone.

    I started using twitter in just hitting a few people’s twitter pages on the web; and then using twitter search to see what was going on with Inauguration crowds in DC, and now I tweet now and then, but never what I’m eating, or where I’m going, etc. (well, not really anyway). I follow a few friends, some bloggers, some tech writers, some political types- it is what you make of it.

    Coturnix is totally right in quoting Jay Rosen than if a tweet includes a link to a long article it’s not exactly really restricted to 140 characters. Michael Tobis is right that it can, like rss feeds, be a source of interesting reading material and links.

    A medium really isn’t anything until you determine what the content is. Someone once told me they “don’t read blogs.” What did that mean? Blogs are, in some ways, just web pages; judging all of them together is like saying “I don’t read books” or “I don’t watch tv.”

    I’m not saying you must join twitter; certainly between all the web sites out there to join, it’s another to deal with. But, you’re missing out on some amusing tweets out there.

  37. A couple of good new links about Twitter:

    Twitter is the new headline: how blogging and Twitter are complementary

    5 Reasons Why You Should Get Twitter

    Putting Twitter’s World to Use

    Bagel and coffee, fwiw

    New Journalistic Workflow

    PLoS ONE on Twitter and FriendFeed (lots of useful links within):

  38. mk

    Coturnix… Do you have stock in Twitter? ;^}

  39. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I just found out about the new NIH stem cell guideline drafts from Twitter ( before it circulated here at NIH.

    It’s way more useful than a lot of you are giving it credit for.

  40. I guess you’ve never used IRC, or a chat room, or AIM. Twitter is essentially a twist on the idea behind all of them. Social interaction, instead of blocking the countless morons you dont have any interest in on IRC, you follow the few that do interest you on twitter. As for your rant on not wanting to share what you’re doing on twitter? ummm, arent you contradicting yourself by blogging about how you’re not twittering?

  41. Great ideas fit in 140 characters! Use Twitter for great ideas. Use your blog to give shape to it.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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