The “good things” about Twitter
As mentioned earlier, I’m giving Twitter a real go. I am beginning to understand some of its appeal. Despite the somewhat onomatopoeic naming of Twitter – which to me indicates a certain degree of flippancy and definitely connotes background noise – there appears to be an anxiety among uses of Twitter that Twitter is and needs to be something more serious and consequential.
This anxiety has most recently been expressed in detail by Sasha Frere-Jones (who, indeed, is an interesting person to follow on Twitter) writing in the New Yorker. Frere-Jones argues, in response to Jonathon Franzen’s critique of Twitter, that:
“…citing facts and creating arguments is one of Twitter’s strongest features.”
He goes on to say:
“Twitter is both where the untruth flies first and where it gets shot down. It’s sort of a self-cleaning oven, where the wisdom of the crowd can work out the kinks. A reliable version of events generally emerges because vanity (in the form of a visible number of retweets for the user who posts the canonical version) fuels the process.”
Surely enough, his Tweet linking to this article was popular among users of Twitter. By Frere-Jones’ logic, his article must therefore be correct and represent an unassailable truth.
“Kony is literally killing children at Foxconn’s factories – pls RT”
The evidence against Frere-Jones view of Twitter as a “self-cleaning oven” is conveniently demonstrated by two recent, but not unique examples, of Twitter’s inability to deal with complex arguments.
Anyone who even dabbles in Twitter would have found it hard to ignore the #StopKONY campaign and the viral reaction to the airing of the This American Life episode “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory “.
Both of these issues, always were, and have clearly been shown to be, more complex and nuanced than could ever possibly be contained in a 140 character Tweet. The reaction to the #StopKony campaign by the very people whom it is meant to be advocating on behalf of, has been mixed to say the least. Similarly, even before the Retraction, the issue of labour standards in China raised a number of questions that are difficult to resolve in a binary “Apple = Bad, Daisey = Good” manner, or even now, in a “Daisey = Bad, Apple = Good” way.
However, in using Twitter as the medium for spreading a message, a significant amount of complexity and nuance must be removed to create a simple message that can be ”retweeted” countless times. Arguably, this simplification may be justified in the pursuit of “awareness raising” and publicity, however where a mouse click or two is all that is required to engage with an issue, the awareness raised must, for the most part, be illusory or even be harmful. Likewise, in the case of Mike Daisey, when a simplified narrative of a complex problem is partially debunked, many of the real, but complex, underlying and persisting problems will be, for the purposes of the Internet, will be thrown out with the bathwater.
Longform and blogging
Despite my doubts about Twitter, I truly believe that the Internet is a glorious place for journalism and has given a platform to many people to express their opinions and mount interesting and unique arguments. Here are just a few examples of relevant and thoughtful longform online journalism on the topics of #StopKONY and Mike Daisey:
- Thar be dragons;
- The Decline of American Nationalism: Why We Love to Hate Kony 2012;
- Mike Daisey and Apple: Theatrical Hubris;
- The Jimmy McNulty Gambit;
- Apple, China, and the Truth; and
- Pushing up the Daiseys: Can a lie tell a greater truth?.
Each of these articles, and the articles and posts linked to above, present a much more detailed analysis, differing and less straightforward take than could ever be presented through Twitter. However, according to Frere Jones, Twitter is due some credit for longform journalism as well! He suggests that “[o]ne of the most felicitous uses of Twitter is to promote long-form nonfiction by circulating a blurb leading to the full text”. Really? The same could be said of countless ways to obtain longform journalism (stamps, envelopes, RSS feeds…). Surely, the rise of longform journalism has more to do with the rise of apps like Instapaper and mobile devices like iPhones, iPads and Kindles – which make longform reading something that you can do easily at any time and in any place - than Twitter. Sheesh. I wonder how he accounts for the spread of the Abrahamic religions without the revolutionary technology of Twitter.
I do agree with Frere-Jones that Twitter is a great way to find out about information as it happens. Indeed, I must admit that I did find out on Twitter about the co-founder of Invisible Children being arrested for masturbating in public. And, arguably, that is all Twitter is good for.