With 2019 well underway, it seems like an appropriate time to reevaluate the status of our New Year resolutions.
Regardless of whatever self-improvement method you thought would enhance your life, one thing is certain: conversations on Twitter are still as vicious as ever.
The waning months of 2018 proffered some of the fiercest exchanges we’ve seen to date, with topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, the border wall, and the sputtering political career of Michael Avenatti used as fodder.
A few weeks into January, journalists have been yanked, once again, into the familiar frenetic back-and-forth of knee-jerk opinion lobbing.
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Heather Wilhelm, writing over at National Review in the aftermath of Covington Catholic’s unfortunate episode at the March for Life, claimed that such backlash was only possible on a medium like Twitter, and that without it, “this frenzied display of snap judgments and public shaming would probably have vaporized before it was even a twinkle in a writer’s eye.” Wilhelm then offered a bold call to action: “Each and every responsible member of the media should immediately and dramatically declare a Twitter strike.”
Is it too late for another resolution? Apparently, Wilhelm doesn’t think so, and perhaps such a dramatic declaration could indeed encourage some media members to think for an extra second before they tweet. But it probably won’t, because Twitter is too enticing.
That journalists, news anchors, and politicians have a penchant for displaying their allegiances through 240 characters and witty hashtags has become increasingly obvious, if only within the last few years.
So is it realistic to expect that a well-intentioned boycott will turn the tide? Or would a levelheaded response be more practical? Even someone like Jordan Peterson, no stranger to Twitter’s caustic brand of public debate, asked this question amid his own imbroglio after tweeting during the Kavanaugh hearing: “Should I just abandon my account, or should I try to use it properly, whatever that means?”
To respond intelligently, and to work towards using this relatively nascent technology “properly,” we must define it.
First and foremost, Twitter is a medium.
In the most general sense, a medium is a means of doing something, and what Twitter seeks to do, according to its mission statement, is maintain a platform on which every voice has “the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.”
After twelve brief years, Jack Dorsey and his compatriots have achieved this lofty goal. Anyone with internet access can now spout their thoughts, informed or not, for the world to read.
Clearly, however, it hasn’t been the smoothest ride, and Twitter’s accumulation of nearly 67 million users has run directly parallel to the sharp decline in our ability to communicate over the web with a modicum of civility. And since it is so new, Twitter is difficult to study.
Thankfully, Neil Postman, the late author, New York University professor, and media critic wrote a book back in 1985 to help us do just that.
Amusing Ourselves to Death is a polemic that, among other things, attacked television, the most popular technological medium of Postman’s day, and stressed the ways in which it undermined public discourse.
Since publication, it has occupied a peculiar place in American culture. Those who appreciated it uniformly refer to Postman as a prophet, while more skeptical critics label him a Luddite, a term that Twitter abstainers like Wilhelm refuse to shirk. But Postman wasn’t a
If you caught Ezra Klein’s article back in August, you might think that Postman’s mission was to eradicate Sesame Street with 163 pages of “cranky”
Oversimplifications notwithstanding, Postman was fascinated with technological mediums, especially those fostering mass communication.
In contrast to television, a medium like the printed word
Absorbing information from a book is a different cognitive task than acquiring it from a screen.
In the oft-ignored fifth chapter titled, “The Peek-a-Boo World,” careful readers will discover that Postman’s concerns did not begin with television, but with an
At the time, few grasped the consequences of such an aim, but Postman cited one famous cultural figure who did. Writing in Walden, Henry David Thoreau observed how the American public was “in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Obviously, no one listened, and the telegraph partnered with the major newspapers of the day, blasting out, as Postman called it, “news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular.”
Moreover, he lamented the way this medium “made public discourse essentially incoherent,” as its “principal strength…was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.”
Does any of this sound suspiciously familiar? It should, because Twitter has taken after its predecessors and facilitated a forum in which users do nothing but pass discrete bits of information around the world, at unprecedented speeds, and has (in what would have been Postman’s view) actively promoted “incoherence and triviality.”
By departing from the printed word, the telegraph and television made “the news of the day” a convoluted web of disparate stories, none of which begged to be dwelled upon for more than a few minutes.
Fast-forward to 2019: a media landscape in which major periodicals and networks are no longer the sole purveyors of
Take, for example, an archived blog post from Nicholas Carr’s latest book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations, in which he featured a 2007 Twitter thread composed by software developer Dave Winer, typing for the budding handle of The New York Times. The following three tweets were published successively in four minutes:
My dog just piddled on the rug!
Seventeen killed in Baghdad suicide bombing
OMG I cant [sic] believe I just ate 14 Double Stuf Oreos
The fact that the thread is over a decade old is of no
The assault of disconnected information that first emanated from the telegraph subsequently prompted Postman to view television as a medium where no serious discourse could take place.
In his opinion, the phrase “serious television [was] a contradiction in terms.” It’s safe to assume that he would’ve regarded an expression like “serious Twitter” with similar skepticism. But, to our detriment, 67 million tweeters have done the opposite. And who could blame them? Just within the last six years, the medium has
To an alien visitor, Twitter’s current clientele would suggest that its content deals exclusively in issues of global importance. The rest of us are all invited. Fact-checkers need not apply.
So what’s to be done? Based on the case I’ve laid out, Wilhelm’s exhortation to boycott might seem attractive, but what if we agreed upon something slightly less extreme?
Even digital wounds need to heal before we rip the Band-Aid off. It will be challenging, but what if we acknowledged Twitter’s inability to provide an online space for serious debate? What if we opted to tweet about issues that wouldn’t trigger adherents of any ideology? Would that render the discussion any less volatile?
I’m no prophet, but here’s another great matter: Twitter isn’t going anywhere soon, and users haven’t learned to exercise civility when communicating with it.
So if we can’t handle dicey content like the latest Trump-related drama or mass shooting, then we’d better stick with the milquetoast anecdote. Because in the second chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman humorously appraised a medium that few on this earth have ever used:
“While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument…You cannot use smoke to do philosophy.”
From where many of us currently sit, it doesn’t look like we can use Twitter either.
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