Reflections on the religion of Twitter

In the 21st century, technology comes and goes at lightning speed.

Take the flipcam, the cheap, easy, point-and-shoot video camera. Its most popular version, the Flip Ultra, came out in fall 2007, and took the market by such storm that New York Times technology writer David Pogue found himself writing this apologetic review six months late:

Well, this is a little embarrassing. One of the most significant electronics products of the year slipped into the market, became a mega-hit, changed its industry — and I haven’t reviewed it yet.

About a year after his review, Cisco Systems bought the flipcam’s manufacturer for a reported $590 million in stock. Earlier this month, less than two years after Cisco’s purchase, the company announced it would stop production: Who, after all, needs a standalone video camera when more and more phones can do the trick between calls, texting and Tweeting?

Perhaps the story of the flipcam should serve as a lesson to those proselytizers preaching the religion of Twitter in 2011.   If you haven’t seen it, the Bible of Twitter and the broader Social Media revolution can be found in a series of highly caffeinated multimedia presentations like this one on YouTube. (You may notice a lack of attribution of the facts.)

The message is clear: The world is flying past and you can either leap on or get left behind.  And so, on aging knees, since I teach the rapidly morphing profession of journalism, I am again trying to make that leap.  But I can’t help but believe that like my flipcam, which I bought last spring for about $180, this latest breathless manifestation of news and information will have been jilted for the Next Big Thing about the time I begin to master it.

It’s not that Twitter doesn’t have value, journalistically and beyond:

  • It forces users to be succinct, a good thing as news, or what passes for it, careens around like subatomic particles in a supercollider.
  • It provides instantaneous alerts to breaking news around the world.
  • It broadens the potential for finding and contacting sources.
  • It allows non-news users to find people with similar interests across the globe.
  • It pushes news and information out to adept users, who can rely on the wise men and women they “follow” to identify what really matters rather than having to look for it themselves.

But therein lies Twitter’s weakness as well. Who can provide the perfect list of news stories to follow? And what do we give up when we leave our news in the hands of individuals rather than respected news organizations whose business is to sort and make sense of the news?  Just how many sages do we need to follow to fill the gaps, anyway?

As a friend of mine put it, Twitter, like Facebook, easily becomes “an endless time suck,” filled with links, alerts, clever asides and mini-rants that do little to further my knowledge of or my pleasure in life.

Yes, Twitter is fast, frenetic and full of sights and sounds. But it’s exhausting, too. And I’ve seen the way it fragments the attention of my most-hooked students, who cling to it like the addicted gambler does the arm of the casino slot machine.

No question.  If I committed my time to Twitter more fully, I might find some fascinating videos, articles and ideas.  I might successfully “retweet” them to a growing band of “followers,” who in turn would further spread the word.  I might ……  But so what?

In the meantime, I also might miss the song of the Cardinal in my back yard, marking the arrival of spring. I might, as I stare at my phone or computer, not notice the willows in first bloom. I might forget to acknowledge my neighbors passing by as I walk my dog, leash in one hand, cellphone in the other.  I might never get around to signing off.

And — as blasphemous as this undoubtedly sounds to the high priests of Twitter — I just might learn more elsewhere.

Back in the Middle Ages of slow news, when people read newspapers and waited a day for many of their headlines, one of my graduate school professors noted that younger readers turn to headlines and older readers turn to editorials and oped pieces. Today, I’m one of those older readers, and I understand why.  I’m a lot more interested in making sense of the news rather than simply knowing its fleeting headlines first.

So, when a young colleague announced at a meeting recently, that “anyone not on Twitter today is a caveman,” I chalked it up to the eagerness of relative youth and tried not to take it too personally.

Despite his admonition, I will take a tempered approach to this new Nirvana. For one thing, I suspect, in five years Twitter will be sputtering in the same  exhaust fumes that real-time chat, Myspace, the flipcam and, yes, text blogging occupy today. It will find itself forced to paddle upstream as the next mind-bending communication breakthrough pushes it aside.

For another, I’ve learned over the years to look a bit skeptically at the things others say I must know. There is a great deal to choose from.

More than three decades ago, during my first year of teaching, a colleague at New York University announced to me that “anyone who hasn’t read Tolstoy’s War and Peace is uneducated.”  I said nothing, far too embarrassed to admit I was among the uneducated.  Alas, I still am.

But there’s time to change that, if I choose wisely. Age and the obituary columns remind me daily that I won’t accomplish everything I’d like in life.  This much I can safely say:   If it comes down to a choice of being an educated cavemen to spending yet another hour a day mastering Twitter, I’ll choose the former.

I’ll take War and Peace, or perhaps a different book of my choosing, into the garden, leaving my buzzing, beeping and Tweeting cellphone on the bureau inside.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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