I hesitated about a month ago to comment on the whole NYTimes article by Bill Keller about how Twitter could possibly be killing off some of our humanity. I think he did a good enough job laying out a solid opinion that I didn't have to tell anybody about how much I agreed with it (you probably already knew I did). He's a decent writer. I mean, he is (or now was) the executive editor at the New York Times. What disturbed me the most about the whole response-fiasco is how nobody seems to care about that fact. He's the goddamn executive editor of the new york times. You don't think he gets to have a somewhat weighted opinion? I mean, I'm all for disagreeing with authority, I do it often, but always with the understanding that I am disagreeing with authority. There is an understanding that the authority we grant the person is earned by some social mechanism (whether we agree with it or not). I compare this to bashing a famous poet for his views on the demise of poetry... I can disagree with them, but they're probably right. Nobody learns anything by blindly disagreeing with someone who probably knows more than you. (There is a middle ground between blindly agreeing and blindly disagreeing, lol.)
There were a few blog posts about, roughly, "welp technology has always been killing humanity; writing itself diminished human thought, we weren't programmed to write, so why should we feel bad about tweeting?" I can tell you that you're a near-sighted asshole and you're wrong if you stand by that statement. You're absolutely right that the human skill of writing has been a technological one and not a biological one, and that our brains were never "designed" to read or write. However, one can clearly see that the act of writing serves to enhance and expand knowledge rather than diminish it (in the vast majority of cases). One could easily argue that the formation of written language is a step in evolution that is beyond biology, the same way many see the internet/instantaneous communication as a step in evolution (which I would not disagree with). But writing has been around for thousands of years, and we have had a lot of time to mull it over, to consider it, to think about its implications. We have generally formulated a ways and means of integrating writing into our lives so that it is as natural as breathing, and yet does not disrupt or diminish our lives. Can the same be said for Twitter, or social media in general? It is way too soon to say for sure, but it is the perfect time to question it.
What Bill Keller (and I, and many) ask and opine on is not a vehement dismissal of Twitter and social media, but a questioning. A critique. A thought process. And what everyone seems to fail to see is that there is nothing wrong with this. It's a healthy, necessary reaction to any major shift in cultural/social norms. Just because everybody thinks jumping off a cliff is the new rage doesn't mean you should do it. This is all we're saying. We're saying: "hey, stop and think about this before you blindly commit yourself". The people who say "we are not going to forget our power of memory" are completely wrong. That is exactly what we are doing. We are relying on network to replace brain. While this may seem sensational, it's more or less true as the furthest forseeable consequence, and that's how you have to view it to truly evaluate it. The road to hell is paved with people saying "yeah but the technology would never be taken to that extreme!" see: fire as warmth vs fire as destruction, atomic power vs atomic weaponry, your fun twitter app vs the malware created to exploit it. You must think in terms of possibilities and potentials rather than your own naive generalization. We cannot assume that every child using Facebook will understand what used to be friendship.
Think in these terms: what if everyone started using Twitter today. What if everyone used it at the median level that it is currently used. I bring it to this because that's the level by which everyone is attributing it and aspires it to become. I levy this claim against Facebook all the time because it has more people on it than most countries have population. What would this mean to our norms, our cultural production, our social understanding. What does Twitter bring to the table? How is it controlled? Do we control it? Does it become a routine rather than a recreation? Does it further us -- all of us, together? Do we become better, worse, indifferent? Does it do something better than how it was done before? The same questions have been asked of television and film, and rightly so.
I do not believe that Twitter is truly social. Not yet, at least. Twitter, as it stands, does more to destroy social than it does to enhance it. Twitter limits you. It inundates you with status updates. It parades around your self-importance. It's a marketer's dream and nightmare. It is an unstable element that gathers more gravity and mass as more and more people willfully subject themselves to it. Twitter is the antithesis to conversation, not its medium. What is conversation? The free exchange of ideas in an articulate manner between people. Do you think you can do that in 140 characters to a handful of followers? What are we really objectifying, commodifying, and systemizing here, other than conversation itself? We are attaching boundaries to a limitless abstraction (conversation) with a system that is chained with limits.
However: can Twitter be a facilitator of discussion, rather than the discussion itself? Definitely. reddit is a facilitator of discussion rather than discussion itself (most of the time). Anyone who says that "the conversation about Twitter happens on Twitter" is living in some crazy otherworld. If you would notice, all of the discussion about Twitter is happening everywhere but Twitter, because nobody can write a proper response within the limits of Twitter. The only reactions on Twitter to Keller's #twittermakesyoustupid were snarky one-liners or vague anecdotes. Nothing substantial. What is without substance can be dismissed without substance. I can sit back and laugh at this because it is obvious (and obvious troll is obvious).
So again... fuck you if you think Bill Keller is actually attacking Twitter. He is and he isn't. He's attacking a problem that is systemic to all social media: the question of what it truly means to us as a society. Furthermore, what does it mean for us as a global culture. We need to reconcile this but nobody wants to because it's just so hard. Technology is moving too fast for the vast majority to keep up with it. Those of us who are tech-savvy often forget that there are people who still aren't on the internet. A lot. When they do show up, and they will soon, what will they think? How will it affect them? Their children? Especially if we are trying to make internet access a global human right alongside all freedom of the press and expression. Again: you must think in these terms to truly grasp the problem. What if everybody was on the internet, free to use Twitter or Facebook, free to do whatever? It's both beautiful and horrifying.
Jonathan Franzen wrote a similar, though differently toned, article about social media and its diminishing returns for humanity. And again, I read responses, and I wonder whether anybody actually read it, or if they just had their knee-jerk internet-protective reaction. I'm all for the internet, but that doesn't mean I need to blindly submit to everything that comes along. Franzen is bringing up visceral, ethereal concerns with how we engage with technology. Not really so much Keller's "twitter makes you stupid" but rather a more simple "social media makes us underappreciate what actually liking something is". Why the fuck is this a hard pill to swallow? Why is mere thought, reflection, and consideration such a notion now divorced from everyday action?
I have argued many times that we are a culture now not concerned with ends or means, but instead with our interpretation and reconciliation of those ends and means. An easy example being global warming. It is very much not about our solution or the consequences, we (as a culture) have become entirely preoccupied with how we feel about it and how much it sucks and what small things we can do to help. Without any real consideration for global change in a politically-conscious and responsible sense. Instead we are worried about how it reflects on us individually. The same is true for social media: we are not concerned with how it could change the "us", rather how it benefits the "me". (Also, oh noes, the internet might be killing the planet, too.)
What I'm asking for (and what I think Franzen and Keller are asking for) is just some goddamn thinking on all our part. Just some goddamn stop and think before you jump. That's all. Not a rash DON'T DO IT, but a steady THINK FIRST. We determine our own futures, our own norms, but we can't do that if there are other people determining them for us when we willingly submit to their parameters (whether it be a 140 character limit or a friend request). Why anyone would be so outraged about this is beyond me. Don't be outraged; engage in the conversation. While I point out the blog posts that are against F&K, I applaud them for existing. I'm glad there is a conversation (which is independent of Twitter). There needs to be one. More people need to speak up on both sides. We need a revolution of morality in response to technological innovation. What is right, wrong, best, better, bad, about what we are allowing to happen? We've spent enough time pouring money into what's possible; we now need to pour our thoughts onto why it's something worth doing.