Bill Keller Is Sort Of Right About Twitter

by Jonathan Chait | May 19, 2011

Bill Keller's anti-Twitter column is taking enormous abuse on, naturally, Twitter. But I think he has at least half a point here:

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

My first reaction to Twitter was also to shake my fist and yell at it to get off my lawn. Of course, my debut on twitter was inauspicious, as I chronicled at the time:

I read Emily Bazelon's article about how somebody was impersonating her on Twitter. I signed in, just to make sure nobody was doing this to me, only to discover that this meant I have officially joined Twitter. Ever since, I've been receiving regular messages about how many "followers" I've been accumulating. My only message on Twitter was an instruction to my "followers" to go away because I wasn't planning to tweet anything:

Unsurprisingly, I managed to bungle it and the message never went out.

But I tried to stay on Twitter, and I hated it for precisely the reason Keller identifies. You can crack jokes or call attention to new developments -- and Twitter is really useful and fun at this -- but you simply cannot have a decent argument or even discussion there. People do try, and it's about as ridiculous as Keller portrays. A while ago, my children were having the "uh huh!" "nuh uh!" argument with each other, and I solemnly took them aside and advised them that nobody, in the history of the world, had ever won a debate by outlasting the other person in repeating "uh uh" or "nuh uh." They actually listened to me and have never done it since. I suspect one day people will be offering this same advice about Twitter debates.

The irony here is that blogging, a medium that very recently occupied the same space in the old media mind that Twitter does today, is extremely useful for debate. You have unlimited space. You can go back and forth quickly, and link to your partner's arguments so that readers can have both sides of the debate. You can use hyperlinks to establish premises without gumming up your writing by spelling out every supporting piece of evidence.

My initial aversion to Twitter was based on seeing it as a retrogression from blogging -- a thing that's aimed at people who want a much stupider form of blogging. It is that if you try to use it for the same purpose. But as a device to communicate ideas that don't need to stand up to critical scrutiny -- i.e., here's a story you should read, or here's a little joke -- it's pretty great. I am on Twitter now and no longer urging my followers to go away.

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