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Twitter Nation Has Arrived: How Scared Should We Be?

Can it be long before the entire country is tweeting away in the din of a giant turd-covered silicon aviary?
 
 
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Welcome to Twitter Nation. What was once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls is now a growing part of the social and media landscapes, with Twittering tentacles reaching into the operations of major newspapers, networks, corporations and political campaigns. 

Suddenly, our skies are dark with brightly colored cartoon birds. As in a nightmare, they are everywhere.

This has all happened very fast. It was less than three years ago that Twitter hatched as a harmless Web 2.0 curio modeled on Facebook's status-update feature. Twitter offered people a forum devoted exclusively to short blog entries known as "tweets," most of which answer the company's tagline question, "What are you doing now?"

By mid-2008, the San Francisco-based site was garnering feature coverage in national magazines and batting away $500 million buyout offers. With nearly six million users and counting, it is now on a Plaguelike pace to obliterate last year's growth clip of 900 percent. Twitter is growing so fast that 2009 may come to be known not as the year America swore in its first black president or nationalized the banks, but the year America learned to think and communicate in 140 characters or fewer.

For some, the breakout came with the site's role during the Mumbai terror attacks in November. For others, it was the Dalai Lama's decision to start Twittering. Some might point to Twitter feeds featured on cable news, or the dozens of Fortune 500 companies now Twittering their way to better sales and mitigated PR disasters. But there's no debating that a tipping point has been reached. Use of the site is now mainstream standard practice for everyone from national politicians to editors at highbrow publications like Harper's. Sites are popping up that discuss music and economics using the Twitter formula and size. Not a week passes without another creepily overeager New York Times trends piece about the site. Earlier this month, a Twitter style guide was released, and the first national Twitter awards ceremony, known as the Shorties, was convened in New York. Hosted by Twitter's own Walter Cronkite, CNN's Rick Sanchez, the awards ceremony featured acceptance speeches limited to 140 characters.

Can it be long before the entire country is tweeting away in the din of a giant turd-covered silicon aviary? And how scared should we be?

There is evolutionary logic to the building Twitter surge. The progression has been steady from blogs to RSS feeds to Facebook. But Twitter brings us within sight of an apotheosis of those aspects of American culture that have become all too familiar in recent years: look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity. When 140 characters is the ascendant standard size for communication and debate, what comes next? Seventy characters? Twenty? The disappearance of words altogether, replaced by smiley-face and cranky-crab emoticons?

I am a veteran Twitter hater—a "twater" in the cutesy Twitter mode. People like me have shadowed the site since it was still crying blind in the nest. As early as 2007, tech blogger Robert Scoble called Twitter hate "the new black." The first wave of Twitter hatred tended to be visceral and knee-jerk, a reaction to the site's unique ability to make everyone using it sound annoying and pathetic.

How can you not hate a site that encourages people to post, "At the park -- I love squirrels!" and "F@*K! I forgot to tivo Lost last night." How can you not want to slap these people with a mackerel? It's no coincidence that the second-most Twitter-happy people on Earth are the Japanese, the undisputed champions of self-infantilization. Twitter provides the closest thing most people will ever get to their very own paparazzi or reality show, a trail of imagined eyes on their every move, thought and taste.

The old Twitter hatred now feels quaint. Before, the site and its users were simply annoying. Now there is serious talk about "Twitter Journalism" and "Twitter Criticism." What was once just a colorful special-needs classroom on the Internet is starting to look like a steel spike aimed at the heart of what remains of our ability to construct and process grammatical sentences and complete thoughts.

Twitter's defenders roll their eyes at such criticisms. People have been saying this about the Internet for years, they say. You're just a grumpy old snob, they say. (It's true that at 34 I am old by social-networking standards, three years older than the average Twitter user. But nothing reveals age more than being terrified of being thought old, a fear that is obviously driving so much uncritical Twitter coverage.)

What's more, say Twitter's defenders, haters like me focus on the banality and chirpiness of tweets because we are ignorant of the wonderful personal and social benefits of regular Twitter use. The company's founders go so far as to call it the ultimate civilizational feel-good experience. "It is about the triumph of the human spirit," Twitter CEO Biz Stone recently told New York magazine.

Chief among the Twampions of the Human Spirit is the tech journalist and blogger Clive Thompson, who has been on self-appointed Twitter guard duty since 2007. In the first conceptual defense of microblogging ever penned, Thompson concedes in Wired that tweets are often grating and vapid. But, he argues, over the course of hundreds and thousands of individually insufferable tweets, eventually an "ambient awareness" is achieved that creates greater empathy toward, and understanding between, groups of people. Within the patterns of minutia about office life and television habits, argues Thompson, dwells an online cosmic consciousness.

Twitter and other constant-contact media give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.Twitter is almost the inverse of narcissism. It's practically collectivist—you're creating a shared understanding larger than yourself.

And what do these "weird, fascinating feats" of Twitter-enabled coordination look like? In awe of the power of the "practically collectivist" Twitter, Thompson relays the story of the time he met a friend for lunch. Even before sitting down, he already knew from reading her Twitter feed that this friend "was nervous about last week's big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and [was] addicted to salt bagels."

But salt bagels are just the beginning for the mighty Twitter Overmind, ever a work in progress. Just last week, Thompson contributed to Twitter's national epic psychosocial genome project by tweeting: "I'm extremely sad that I can't find Liz Phair's 'Rocket Boy' to blip on blip.fm." Frowny faces all around, Clive.

Thompson builds upon his edifice of bullshit in a September 2008 cover story for the New York Times magazine. With the need to fill up several magazine pages, Thompson gushes that Twitter not only melds a group of individuals into a near "telepathic" unit of kinship, it is the ultimate Socratic app.

The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you're feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It's like the Greek dictum to 'know thyself,' or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute.

Again, Thompson instructs us to put up with thousands of idiotic and maddening tweets in order to "get" the full beauty and bounty of the site. Only after we burn swaths of our lives reading mindless tweets will the Twitter oracle reveal the wisdom it reserves for dedicated supplicants. Thompson doesn't explain why having an audience makes self-reflection "even more acute," whatever that means. Nor does he betray any concern that 140 characters might be enough space to state a tiny fact about a Liz Phair song, but not enough to reflect or meditate on it by any meaningful definition of the words.

But taking people like Thompson seriously isn't necessary when the proof is right there on Twitter.com. What does the praxis of "acute self-reflection" look like in the Twitter Age?

It looks like this: "someone has coffee and it smells gooood. must resist." (Twitter name: dorisnight), and "hey, i still have the # for twitter on my cell phone. whatever. im bored" (Twitter name: DomGatto). "Bladder has been treated. Best part of that appointment? I've lost 12 pounds total since I started dieting." (Twitter name: Blueinsideout)

The most maddening defense of Twitter is that it constitutes art. Boosters like to claim that compressing communication into 140 characters results in a kind of computer-age poetry. "[Twitter users are] trying to describe their activities in a way that is interesting to others: the status update as a literary form," writes Thompson in his NYT piece. Howard Lindzon, founder of StockTwits, recently told the Financial Times that the format "is an art form."

So is speaking through burps. Again, any attempt to defend Tweets as some kind of new American haiku runs up against the reality of what people Tweet. Here's that great 21st century New York Twitter version of the haiku poet Basho, known as "aliglia": "OMG, I want brownies! When are we having dinner again? :)"

It may not be true that only morons are drawn to Twitter, but everyone on Twitter sounds like a moron.

It could be that the best Twitter has to offer -- delicious prose, supernovas of self- and communal knowledge -- are visible only near the top of the Twitter hierarchy (defined in Twitterville as those with the most followers). Let's check out the Twitter feed of CNN's Rick Sanchez, a legend in the Twitter community for incorporating the site into his cable news program.

Here's Sanchez Twittering to his viewers last week: "anybody got anything real good out there, btw.. thanks for tip on dentist kid.. wow that funny!"

Some say the glorious potential of Twitter will be fully realized in bite-sized Twitter citizen journalism. My AlterNet colleague Rory O'Conner has studied the evolving impact of social-network media on the news business and concluded that sites like Twitter are "not only supplementing but supplanting" traditional news. As others have done, O'Conner notes that that the first photo of U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson was posted not on the New York Times site, but on TwitPic.

"When it comes to breaking news -- from heroism on the Hudson to terror in Mumbai to calamity in California -- Twitter leads the pack these days," writes O'Conner. "Twitter has become a go-to source of news you can use when and where you want and need it -- often when and where the legacy media cannot yet or no longer supplies it."

It's true that Twitter has been used to get information out during crises. But so what? Does that make it journalism? When people started calling in stories to their editors by phone, did we start talking about "AT&T journalism?" And imagine if telephones only allowed you to speak for 8 seconds before cutting you off. Whatever events Twitter may allow us to report a few minutes faster, it is still limiting that reportage to a space that can't even hold an Associated Press wire blurb about a minor bomb blast in Sri Lanka.

When the Los Angeles Times ran a Twitter feed about local wildfires on its home page, it was an informational service to its readers that was distinct from and complementary to its coverage. It was not, let us hope, "the future of journalism." Efforts to use Twitter as a vehicle for first-person reportage with voice -- Slate tried to cover the Olympics this way, Talking Points Memo lamely tweeted the inaugural parties -- have been laughably bad and quickly aborted.

The problem with Twitter Journalism is the same as with communication. Twitter can provide stick-figure snapshots, nothing more. Worse, the constant posting and following of these snapshots takes up lots of precious time, sucking up and fracturing the dwindling number of solid blocks of minutes that remain after checking e-mail, Facebook, Myspace, and other now-routine diversions.

But Twitter is unique and more dangerous because of the rolling, inherently content-less and bite-sized nature of the tweets. It reflects and feeds an autistic culture unable to focus on anything but the tiny feed box in front of it, and even that only when medicated. Programs like Tweetdeck (currently in public beta) are working to perfect a permanent desktop scroll and filter -- an intravenous Twitter drip.

It takes a feat of dark imagination to look at Twitter and see art, the future of journalism or a gigantic shared-consciousness project. The thing Twitter reminds me of most is Mike Judge's under-appreciated 2006 satiric masterpiece, Idiocracy. The story revolves around an Army private, played by Luke Wilson, who wakes up in the year 2506. This future America is defined by its stupidity: nobody can read, write or think for more than a few seconds at a time. There is a prolonged national drought because a popular power-drink called Brawndo ("It's got electrolytes!") is being used to water the crops.

On his first day exploring this idiotic future, Wilson wanders into a movie theater, where a new film is playing, titled Ass. The movie consists entirely of a stationary shot of a man's ass, which farts at irregular intervals. The audience is laughing hysterically. In Judge's dystopia,Asswins eight Oscars, including Best Screenplay. Idiocracy ends with Wilson as president giving a rousing State of the Union speech:

There was once a time in this country a long time ago, when people wrote books and movies in which you cared whose ass it was—and why it was farting. And I believe that day can come again.

When future generations are watching movies in which it's not clear whose ass is farting, or why, we'll look back at Twitter as a milestone. But we won't be using the word "fart." We'll call them "tweets."

And then we'll giggle like the Japanese schoolgirls we've become.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.
 
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