How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter

With the caveat that this post doesn't have much to do with architecture, but with the further caveat that I will be speaking about media – specifically online media – next week at the Australian National Architecture Conference, I thought I'd offer a few thoughts here about Twitter.

Inspired in this specific instance by Maureen Dowd's brain-dead editorial in yesterday's New York Times, but also by the obvious glee with which so many people have denigrated the note-taking value of Twitter, it seemed like time to address the subject. Ever since a friend of mine once claimed – very late and after many drinks – that "Twitter is the death of humanism," I've been regularly thinking about how a simple note-taking technology could inspire such apparent dread in so many people.
First, on the most obvious level, Twitter needs to be differentiated from what people write on Twitter. The fact that so many people now use Twitter as a public email system, or as a way to instant-message their friends in front of other people, is immaterial; Twitter is a note-taking technology, end of story. You take short-form notes with it, limited to 140 characters.
The clichéd analogy here has been with Japanese haiku, but perhaps we might even reference the Oulipo: in other words, Twitter means that you are writing, but you are writing within constraints.
Second, the comparison I often make here is with ball-point pens.
Imagine a world where everyone uses typewriters: they write novels, manifestos, historical surveys, and so on, but they do it all using typewriters.
Now the ball-point pen comes along. People use it to write down grocery lists and street addresses and recipes and love notes. What is this awful new technology? the literary users of typewriters say. Ball-point pens are the death of humanism.
Nevermind, of course, that you can use ball-point pens to write whatever you want: a novel, a screenplay, epic poems, religious prophecy, architectural theory, ransom notes. You can draw astronomical diagrams, sketch impossible machines for your Tuesday night art class, or even work on new patent applications for a hydrogen-powered automobile – it doesn't matter. You can draw penises on your coworker's paycheck stub.
It's a note-taking technology.

Who cares if people use ball-point pens for writing down phone numbers and movie times, or even drawing little hearts on someone else's notebook in the middle of English class? It doesn't mean that they hate literature.
Similarly, who cares if someone uses Twitter to say that they're bored, or to list what they ate last night? It doesn't mean the barbarians are at the gates.
This leads to a third point, which is that, according to Dowd's own absurd logic – she describes Twitter as something "for bored celebrities and high-school girls" – well, first of all, who says high-school girls aren't supposed to write? And why is it anyone else's business if a bored person, who happens also to be famous, decides to share random thoughts with the world?
However, what very much bothers me about this attitude toward Twitter is something else: if you were to go around the United States reading the handwritten diaries of, say, high-school girls or adolescent boys or even well-read college students, you would find equally inane chattering: "I feel fat today." "Can't wait for summer in Boca! But I need new shorts." "My history professor is HOT." "I hate holidays. Christmas at home is so boring."
Are you really going to tell me that the average contemporary, hand-written diary is any more interesting than that? In fact, one could easily argue that private, paper-based journals would be volumetrically much worse than Twitter in their sheer scale of self-obsession.
Yet the anti-Twitter crowd doesn't appear to oppose the use of personal journals during adolescence. For instance, will Dowd soon also be writing an editorial that excoriates lonely teenagers for writing down their thoughts on paper? After all, she bizarrely implies, "high-school girls" shouldn't be allowed access to new forms of writing technology, so she must have been apoplectic when cheap pens and affordable notebooks first arrived in the office supply store: suddenly anyone, even blonde girls, could be writers.

This strange and somewhat disturbing resistance to seeing other people writing was encapsulated quite well, I'd suggest, in a question submitted last month to ForYourArt, referring to the fact that people were using Twitter during Postopolis! LA.
A concerned reader wrote in:
    Can you please explain to me why people sitting next to each other twittering into cyberspace is SO much more important than sharing ideas with the people beside them??? Does twittering really expand, engage ideas and other opinions – or does it further isolate people from the communities right next to them???
The only way these questions would make any sense at all is if this person also hates people who use notebooks in public – indeed, if this person looks down upon public note-taking of any kind. Does she also have a problem with someone taking photographs – or producing other, non-textual forms of event documentation – or is there just something particularly inexcusable about the desire to make textual records of a live event?
If I attend a public lecture but I start to jot things down in a Moleskine, it would seem that only a particularly virulent form of social fascism would ask me to put that notebook down and begin "sharing ideas" with the people next to me.
No thanks – I'd rather write, actually.

Again, I fail to see any clear distinction between someone's boring Twitter feed – considered only semi-literate and very much bad – and someone else's equally boring, paper-based diary – considered both pro-humanist and unquestionably good.
Kafka would have had a Twitter feed! And so would have Hemingway, and so would have Virgil, and so would have Sappho. It's a tool for writing. Heraclitus would have had a f***ing Twitter feed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, now that the other half writes – all the jocks and high-school girls and video store employees and D-list celebrities – it seems comparable only to a kind of police action that the people who once thought they were the chosen writers, that they were this generation's idea-smiths, are now so up in arms.
Those other people – those everyday people who weren't supposed to have thoughts, who aren't known for reading David Foster Wallace or Dostoevsky or James Joyce, those overlooked people from whom we buy groceries, who fix our cars, clean our houses, and vote differently than we do – weren't supposed to become writers.
Now that suburban housewives in Missouri are letting their thoughts be known via Twitter, it's as if writing itself is thought to be under attack, invaded from all sides by the unwashed masses whose thoughts have not been sanctioned as Literature™.
In many ways, I'm reminded of Truman Capote's infamous put-down of Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing, it's typing."
So there seem to be quite a lot of assumptions at work here, with so many class, political, and even gender implications for who is allowed to speak, who we are meant to listen to, who can write, how they are permitted to do so, in what social contexts writing is meant to occur, and what topics can be legitimately addressed by others, that I'd hope a much longer discussion about this might someday take place. Until then, we get Maureen Dowd.
So Twitter is very obviously not the answer to everything, and it never should have been portrayed that way; but it also very obviously is not the death of humanism.
Twitter is just another option for people to use when they want to take notes – and it's no more exciting than that, either, to be frank. It's a ball-point pen.
Get over it.

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Blogger Brian said...

Kudos.

April 22, 2009 5:12 PM  
Blogger shadowminister said...

Probably the best argument for Twitter I've read.

I'm curious about the picture of the collaged notebook used in the article. Are those National Park stickers, or some kind of stamp? Fascinating.

April 22, 2009 5:16 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Spot on. I like your pen analogy. Is Dodd an obscure, and presumably disparaging, nickname for Dowd (who never has a constructive thing to say about anything)?

April 22, 2009 5:18 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Oooh. I've just read the Dowd column. She was totally upstaged by Evan and Biz. Particularly Biz. Very witty.

April 22, 2009 5:25 PM  
Blogger Kaseido said...

This is a thing of beauty. On behalf of the un-anointed, thank you.

April 22, 2009 5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. More venomous than your usual content. I appreciate it as much as the light-hearted geo-musings I normally find here. I have gone to the twitter site, feeling a bit like a luddite with no myspace, facebook, blog or otherwise- but I couldn't tell what the hell it was for. All this ranting makes me want to try it- but not in place of the Moleskine. Thanks for another fantastic post. BLDGBLOG is pretty much unstoppable.

April 22, 2009 5:28 PM  
Blogger John Jones said...

You hit the nail on the head. Your critique of Dowd's argument--that some people shouldn't be allowed to write--reminded me of Deborah Brandt's Literacy in American Lives. In that book, Brandt does a study of reading and writing habits for a cross-section of Americans, along with their attitudes towards those activities. What Brandt discovered that while reading is almost uniformly encouraged by the subjects and their families, all of whom associate it with success and learning, writing is an activity that the subjects tend to hide from each other. While many of the subjects actively wrote (in diaries or personal journals, for example) they tended to hide the very existence of this writing from friends and family members, and they associated the act of writing with shame and fear.

In short, there is strong evidence to suggest that many American's share Dowd's belief about who should and should not be a writer. As you point out, Twitter is a note-taking medium, and that makes it more beneficial to writer's than to readers. However, since Americans tend to privilege reading but are ashamed of their writing, it makes perfect sense that many people would reject a system that is so heavily biased against readers toward writers.

April 22, 2009 5:31 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Hilarious - I typo'd Dowd's name throughout this entire post. Oops!

It's Maureen Dowd.

Ah, writing online...

April 22, 2009 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Nicola Twilley said...

Great post - I agree 100%. You could just as easily say that Twitter is a form of blogging (it was introduced to me as micro-blogging), and that like blogs, some twitter feeds are incredibly literate and insightful, while others are purely personal and social, and others still are self-obsessed and excruciatingly badly-written. As with all tools, it's in how you use it.

April 22, 2009 5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tru dat. My argument to people who bring up this stuff is that Twitter is INFRASTRUCTURE - it's a tool. You are right to call attention to the difference between what twitter is and what people write on twitter.

I just started a little experiment (@mretwt) that uses twitter as infrastructure in order to create an anonymous bulletin board.

@mretwt is a robotic twitter user that retweets the DMs sent to him as anonymously signed posts... and anyone can privately reply to a post via a DM to @mretwt that includes the ~name (a 4 letter code) at the end of each post that @mretwt retweets. Replies are sent privately as DMs from @mretwt, rather than being retweeted publicly on @mretwt account. To use it, just follow it and it will automatically follow you back, and then you can send it a DM.

April 22, 2009 5:46 PM  
Anonymous John Coulthart said...

I've been amused recently seeing a number of high-profile bloggers trot out the same disapproving opprobrium towards Twitter as was levelled against blogs by print journalists years ago. You'd think they'd know better by now.

Re: ball-point pens, I've often used them to create finished pieces of artwork. The Bic Medium Biro is a great drawing tool.

April 22, 2009 5:57 PM  
Blogger gregorios pharmakis said...

the idea about a lost humanism in twitter is so stupid as a hymn of twitter as well

April 22, 2009 6:00 PM  
Anonymous Adrian Giddings said...

Spot on as ever Geoff.

I remember when I first tried Twitter it seemed rather pointless. After a while and having increased the number of people I was following it finally made sense until the point where there were enough people to require filtering and it has now become indispensable to me.

Particularly so during Postopolis when I had a list of quite a few Postopolitans together. Being able to have all those different viewpoints in real time and being able to read them back after the event was brilliant.

Biz and Evan in that piece were very funny - more power to them they've made something simple and elegant that can be used in numerous ways - a digital post-it note.

April 22, 2009 6:13 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

I would add that in addition to a note-taking tool it's an observation-making tool, and in the same way we love poring over photo essays or travel writing or just plain poetry——for the eyes it gives us to see places in the world where we can't be at any given moment——there is value to be found in the distributed observation mechanism that Twitter places in the hand of anyone who chooses to participate.

April 22, 2009 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that twitter is the loss of humanism but to write that comment off as complete absurdity, perhaps, is a mistake. Check out this interesting TED talk by Kevin Kelly about the future of the web. Post Humanist indeed!
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/kevin_kelly_on_the_next_5_000_days_of_the_web.html

April 22, 2009 6:28 PM  
Blogger Randall said...

I have forwarded this to Alain de Botton. Well done. http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article5747308.ece

April 22, 2009 6:42 PM  
Blogger blightyboy said...

Probably the most facile and rhetorically weak theorization of Twitter I've read. Actually, probably the most sophisticated defense of Twitter I've read, which says something about Twitter enthusiasts.

First of all, writing in a journal is a private affair. Sure, some journal writers expect that one day their memoirs will be published, but most journal writers are engaging in a form of therapeutic or generative exercise to promote proper cognitive functioning.

Second, and I will probably proven wrong about this by a terrible piece of literature to be released within the next few months, you can't use Twitter to write a novel, poem or treatise that would be comparable to any of the literary exemplars cited in this article.

Finally, you can't use Twitter to "draw a penis on your coworker's paystub" (if only). More importantly, the majority of folks who use Twitter probably don't get "pay stubs." They get automatic deposits into their regularly padded bank accounts. And they certainly don't "fix cars" or "clean houses."

Twitter, as we know it at this moment, is primarily a narcissistic toy for the financially well-to-do and lonely people of the Western world. At least, that's how those people are using this tool, which is really just a good disaster alert device.

It's enlightening to read such virulent defenses of Twitter. What's at stake here? Maybe Twitter is an existential touchstone for a whole bunch of lonely people who are desperate to affirm their existence and gain the sense that they are people of value in a world of meaning. Or something like that.

Tweet on, my friends. We're out there. And we accept you. It's ok.

m.

April 22, 2009 6:43 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Blighty, absolutely nothing you've said in your comment addresses the fact that Twitter can, in fact, be used as "a form of therapeutic or generative exercise to promote proper cognitive functioning." Just because you don't use it that way shows that your own critical stance here is informed by the very narcissism you're accusing Twitter users of suffering from.

Twitter, as we know it at this moment, is primarily a narcissistic toy, you write - but so is leaving self-congratulatory comments on other people's blogs.

Finally, you can't use Twitter to "draw a penis on your coworker's paystub" - no kidding. Try re-reading the post, my friend. But it just feels so good to disagree with someone else in public, doesn't it? You're almost a Twitterer at heart...

Which leads to something else you wrote: Maybe Twitter is an existential touchstone for a whole bunch of lonely people who are desperate to affirm their existence and gain the sense that they are people of value in a world of meaning. It's unfortunate that you reduce other people to stating the obvious, Blighty, but perhaps you should rethink your own tactic of leaving drive-by comments scattered here and there throughout the internet - or are you just desperate to affirm your existence and gain a sense that you are a person of value in a world of meaning?

I'm sure your inarticulate negativity will continue to work for you, emotionally, the way you want so badly to believe that Twitter works for everyone else.

April 22, 2009 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Steve Silberman said...

Beautifully written and smart as usual, Geoff. Curiously, you've focused on something that I think of as only the secondary virtue of Twitter -- its role as a medium to "take" or "give" notes.

I think of Twitter mostly as a tool exchange or potlatch. Most of those tools can be links to useful websites, but aphorisms and brief observations can also be thought of as tools for clearer thinking. Most of my tweets have links in them, and most of the people I follow either provide links or very compressed insights.

My least favorite kind of tweet-stream looks like this:

@web2guru On social media panel with @scobleizer and @davewiner tomorrow at 3.

@web2guru Headed to Paris for conf on integrating Drupal and Tweetdeck beta functionality.

If I wanted to read your calendar, sir, I'd ask. Unfollow!

Granted, a good panel can be a tool of a kind. But the people I enjoy following are not just broadcasting news about themselves. They're finding useful things and offering them to the common pool.

April 22, 2009 7:20 PM  
Anonymous loci said...

Liking it to a personal journal doesn't work in the fact that it's "personal".
You would never find your "high school girl" waving her banal thoughts from her journal for all to see.
Nor would you find the twitter cattle following her around., eager to find out if she feels fat today.

Why the cattle like to know such banality on the internet for...well, that is a mystery i can not answer.

It's the dawning of 'the age of the idiot'.

April 22, 2009 7:41 PM  
Blogger Ari Herzog said...

Bravo, Geoff! I have used Twitter for many months now, nearly a year, and I never ever thought to compare a tweet to a penmanship class, yet you nailed it perfect. Bravo!

One typo, I'd suggest, if I can escape out political correctedness: Would Heraclitus truly have had a "f***ing Twitter feed," in your words, or a fu.....?

April 22, 2009 7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Twitter, as we know it at this moment, is primarily a narcissistic toy for the financially well-to-do and lonely people of the Western world. At least, that's how those people are using this tool, which is really just a good disaster alert device."

unlike your blogs, right?

April 22, 2009 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

You've convinced me.
I'm not going to get a twitter. But you've convinced me that they're not evil.

April 22, 2009 8:02 PM  
Blogger muthacourage said...

if you're at an event and have a computer handy to take notes aren't you already part of the elite? pressing twitter as some value free neutral tool of pure utility seems a bit disingenuous, it's like insisting that the internet is still really all about DARPA. the internet has reshaped our way of thinking, just as blogging can reshape our consciousness, twitter will no doubt do the same - all tools condition their users. arguing for its benevolence and possibilities "for the other half" seems to be jumping the gun when popular evidence suggests it's settled down very comfortably in those traditional markets of middle class narcissism.

April 22, 2009 8:13 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Geoff -- and all those who agreed with his post -- I think you will enjoy this piece by the wonderful blogger Nancy Friedman "Ms Dowd Interviews the Inventor of the Telephone":http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2009/04/ms-dowd-interviews-the-inventor-of-the-telephone.html

April 22, 2009 8:41 PM  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

Nice one, Geoff.

April 22, 2009 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Jimmy said...

Great post Geoff. I couldn't agree more with your criticisms of Dowd's inane commentary but I feel like labeling Twitter as a note-taking app is a bit myopic. One of the greatest things about it is that there is no recommended or required use for it and people are finding new ways to use it everyday. Entire Twitter subcultures are forming based around uses that the founders probably never even imagined. It has become a great outlet for writers and comics - both professional and amateur. Hell, one of the first books about twitter is going to be a collection of witticisms and bon mots. Sure it's a notebook, but its also a user-edited information kiosk, a soapbox, a reality show, a link dump, an im service, a survey, a hive mind, an exquisite corpse ...whatever. It Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver - a go-to tool that can be used in any manner you need. if people don't like how someone uses it, simply unfollow.

Personally, among other uses, I've enjoyed using twitter as something between an instant messenger and a blog comment. A sort of stuttering conversation. A place to exchange ideas (and jokes) with writers and architects whose work I enjoy. A place to develop and build on each other's thoughts. A way to strengthen relationships. god that sounds nerdy. But it also sounds a lot more exciting than "just another option for people to use when they want to take notes."

April 22, 2009 9:04 PM  
Blogger blightyboy said...

Geoff, first of all, how do you know that I don't use Twitter? And what's this nonsense about "drive-by comments"? Is this not a public forum? Isn't that what makes it so powerful. And finally, I expect better from you than ad hominem. Inarticulate? Come on, now.

Ah, writing online...

April 22, 2009 9:05 PM  
Blogger Carrie-Lee said...

I enjoy Twitter very much and love reading little snippets from friends & news media around the world. Especially as I listen to music or look out the window on my daily commute.

Thank you for this wonderful, and perhaps most compelling twitter argument I've ever heard.

Carrie-Lee

April 22, 2009 9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

She's just scared of the eventual death of the format of her publication that has given her whatever power she thinks she has.

Also, the class comment makes perfect sense - she is obviously threatened by the possibility of someone else upstaging her point of view. She will fade into obscurity, or get with the times.

April 22, 2009 9:37 PM  
Blogger The Taco Traveler said...

I agree on a certain level with your drunk friend that Twitter and the death of humanism are somehow related, but from my perspective it has more to do with how technology constrains our real interactions with real people. But that's a separate subject somewhere in the neo-luddite area.

As it relates to its importance in social media today... I see Twitter as more than a "note-taking" technology and more of a low-level communication apparatus, but with the potential to become more important as it's refined and the noise filters are more expertly applied by 3rd party tools or by Twitter itself.

My take on the subject: http://bit.ly/wTOrj

April 22, 2009 9:40 PM  
Blogger Jordan M said...

Here's a fun video about twitter:

http://www.dailymotion.com/swf/x8puil

Yeah, a large share of folks on twitter talk about mundane things but so it goes. There's also a lot of interesting uses for it. I rarely use it but know -how- it can be used. I think the detractors are just embarrassed by the banality of the content but when you think about it, the majority of anything mass-produced is typically middling, be it tweets, blogs, tv shows, or movies. No one forces you to sign up so why worry?

April 22, 2009 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Robert Hughes said...

Great article but I think you've over-simplified it as well.

Dare I say I agree with BlightyBoy on a couple points in that; you've compared it to note-taking which IS a "private affair". Twitter is the complete opposite... and in fact is a entire CONVERSATION!

At least that's what I've found more recently and especially during conferences where Twitter is prevalent. Instead of sitting listening to a presenter and taking my own personal notes wondering this and considering that... entire conversations are taking place ABOUT the presentation WHILE it takes place - INCREDIBLE!

How can this be a bad thing???!

It's taken me a month or so to really see the value - but I continue to think of it as Matt Cutts described it ... (paraphrase) "Twitter is a river of information - it's flowing fast - you can take what you want, pick it up, read it [learn from it!!], or you can let it float on by ... and that's okay"

April 22, 2009 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Ryan A said...

In concept, I enjoy the idea of "twitter" but I feel larger issues with all this are the centralization of such a mass of information, the inefficiency which stems from being such a general use service, and these 3rd party apps constantly raeping the API.

It's a great idea.

One of the things I find lacking with it is on the contextual-meta side of these micro-updates. Everything must be packed into the message (context, titles, topics, categories), but it kills the message. Designating categorical-context outside the message would be advantageous and alleviate much of the search frenzy. From my own perspective, searching is not efficient or completely accurate, since the various uses of abbreviations and synonyms is not something standard.

In retrospect, it's a great personal tool and "friend" tool, but it's not very useful for finding complete, organized information about something. It's great, fun, but I think the hype exceeds it's capabilities, and I don't see any reason web-users should limit themselves or stop looking towards the horizon for bigger things.

April 22, 2009 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Jon Brouchoud said...

I think this post is about architecture.

Architects might soon be feeling a similar 'dread' now that its almost as easy to publish and share a 3D design idea in Second Life or SketchUp as it is to publish a blog.

In fact, a group of 40 contributors, most of whom were not architects, recently used Second Life as a collaboration platform to design an entry in the 'Open Architecture Challenge' sponsored by Architecture for Humanity. They won 3rd place and the Founder's Award from over 500 entries. Wikitecture, ftw.

What will happen now that suburban housewives in Missouri are designing buildings, or Second Life is being used to design real-world medical clinics? What happens when these things start getting built? The same questions posed about Twitter might apply: What will the people think who once thought they were the 'chosen architects,' and that they were this 'generation's design-smiths?'

Unfortunately, the general public can't simply 'unsubscribe' or decide to ignore a bad or inefficient building - we're stuck with it, and it effects everyone. Conversely, the architectural equivalent of 'my history professor is HOT,' doesn't belong in the built environment either, or does it?

One way or another, the day will come when architecture will be 'invaded from all sides by the unwashed masses whose thoughts have not been sanctioned as Architecture™. I think this topic could soon become quite a bit more potent than the Twitter vs. Literature™ debate. The 2D web is becoming a 3D web. Architecture is next.

April 22, 2009 10:13 PM  
Blogger Er-H said...

Lost train of thought after 140 characters. Sorry. Joke. Writing is writing; you are right about that. Hemingway would have hated Twitter but would have excelled at it. Saki absolutely. Wilde, certainly. John Wilmot would have cataloged his tarts in verse, but would have run out of space. I love the short form. It requires discipline. Back to my driving.

April 22, 2009 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Roxana said...

Thank you for an excellent defense of Twitter. I live in the Ivory towers and thought Twitter was silly as well for a good year and a half until I finally opened an account last week. I am now one of the biggest advocates of T for the potential it has to transform the field of education. There is a large community of social activists, scholars, and educators who are using it for the greater good. Put aside all stereotypes, what you will find on Twitter is nothing like what you might expect. For educators following this post, here are some ideas that you might enjoy http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/socialmedia/twitterrl.html (of course this is a link I never would have learned about had it not been for Twitter! @Rocxana

April 22, 2009 10:22 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Because twitter is both note-taking and a conversation, it actually increases the efficiency of the information being shared.

Your notes are crowdsourced and commented upon and reach out to people who aren't in the room within seconds - and the possibilities there, for making us all not only better writers but also better listeners and even just a little bit smarter are only limited by what you decide to share.

Thanks for this insightful article. Follow me at http://www.twitter.com/glossolaliac

April 22, 2009 10:31 PM  
Blogger tlg847 said...

That was great. The Dowd piece was so tonedeaf. Your critique nailed what her prejudices prevented her from seeing.

April 22, 2009 11:01 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Blighty, with all due respect, if you think that referring to my writing as "facile and rhetorically weak" is not an ad hominem attack, whilst my saying that your comment is "inarticulate" is; and that your saying that I am, and everyone who uses Twitter is, both "desperate" and "narcissistic" is not an ad hominem attack, whilst my saying that you reduce other people to stating the obvious is, then I would very strongly recommend that you rethink how your comments might be read by others online. And what I meant by "drive-by comments" is that, unless I'm wrong, you've never left a comment on BLDGBLOG before; so now you bob in, drop the "facile and rhetorically weak" bomb and then disappear off into your multitude of blogs elsewhere. That's what I meant by "drive-by." Also, again with all due respect, if you do not know or haven't read the parables of Kafka, the aphorisms of Heraclitus, or the fragmentary nature of Sappho's surviving poetry, then perhaps that would explain why you think they have no possible literary connection to Twitter; but if you are, in fact, aware of their writing, and if you still insist that Twitter's short-form nature is alien to the quality of their work, then I might suggest that you are letting the personality quirk of cynicism stand in for actual critical thought.

Otherwise, thanks for the comments! Some amazing things to think about here, especially the comment by John Jones at 2:31pm. Also, Jimmy, I'd say that I agree with you about the myopia of my argument, but I would add in my defense that I am deliberately trying to point out the mundanity of Twitter - saying, more than once, that it's just a note-taking device - in order to highlight how irrational I think many of its detractors have been.

Meanwhile, this is probably a larger discussion than the space here allows, but I think the pseudo-Marxist argument that only the elite have access to personal computers, and thus to blogs, and thus to Twitter, is simply not at all supported by the actual demographics of computer ownership or by the actual market numbers behind who has access to the internet. It feels good, and even slightly insurrectionary, to say that only the rich and privileged blog, but I'd suggest that the numbers simply do not back that statement up. And I don't mean this in a genuinely global sense; however, if you want to expand your argument that widely, to the slums and favelas and shantytowns of the world, then even living past the age of 35 is something only the elite and privileged now do – and I don't see many Marxists attacking 40 year-olds for being oppressive members of a First World elite. Having said that, though, it's a very interesting discussion worth expanding here or elsewhere...

April 22, 2009 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from a webcomic, Penny-Arcade:

I can't keep up with things like Twitter or Facebook for some reason. I know that I would hate Gardening, and so I don't begin one, and I think there's a similar force at work here. It could constitute the creation, by me, of a system - a dependent system. I know for a fact that I will only devote myself to it long enough to disappoint people when I quit. That's why I never announced it when I started using Twitter, and I'm glad, because I've stopped already. I just installed Twitterific, a perfect expression of the service, and the gardening analogy holds. It's all the precision instruments that line the home and garden aisle compressed into a single coordinate: beautiful tools to manage someone else's life.

It's not that I don't get it. I do. I didn't understand the allure until I truly grasped what Twitter's deep intimacy with SMS allowed - a universally available thought machine, my own Ixian dictatel. And this with a built in editor, a hundred and forty character cage to excise my worst propensities. I tried to include them there, in that very sentence: unnecessary poetry and an addiction to verbiage. A need to analyze my own writing, in writing, while I am writing it, makes up the third sin.

I may also have a problem with italics.

The last "tweet" I ever did really explains it all, for me. I was up in Vancouver, and I put up a message saying so, and what kinds of activities I was engaged in. After I did it, I heard a voice - my own voice - saying, "Who the fuck do you think you are? Who are you that you can force your Goddamned minutia on other people, your stupid bullshit, your stone-ground artisanal condiments? How dare you. You should be ashamed." And I was.

April 23, 2009 12:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Webcomic, it's true, nobody cared that you were in Vancouver. Unless your message would have been received by people who care about you or had some sort of kind regard for you, which means to receive it they too would need to be on the service. Since that wasn't the case, and it sounds like your message was just going out into vanity space, you did the right thing by leaving twitter. It's too bad more people like you don't follow suit.

April 23, 2009 1:45 AM  
Blogger CASEY said...

While I agree with your general sentiment (the analogy with the typewriters and ball-point pens is pretty good) I do find one fault with your argument: the comparison between twitter and traditionally-kept diaries.

The statement "Twitter needs to be differentiated from what people write on Twitter. The fact that so many people now use Twitter as a public email system, or as a way to instant-message their friends in front of other people, is immaterial; Twitter is a note-taking technology, end of story" is valid. I had never thought of Twitter in that way. Twitter as a note-taking technology is - I have to say - a great idea. If I used it, it would be for that. The fact is, however, that its not used in that way by the majority of people who "tweet." In order to evaluate something on more than a theoretical level you have to evaluate its FUNCTION, it's ACTUAL function, not just its intended use.

That said, Twitter has to be evaluated for the way it's practically used. You state, in response to claims that twitter messages are inane and shallow: "one could easily argue that private, paper-based journals would be volumetrically much worse than Twitter in their sheer scale of self-obsession." You then go on to say: "I fail to see any clear distinction between someone's boring Twitter feed – considered only semi-literate and very much bad – and someone else's equally boring, paper-based diary – considered both pro-humanist and unquestionably good."

There is a MAJOR distinction, in that one is wholly private (barring unforeseen events) and the other is notably public, INTENDED in many cases to be read by others. The "volumetrically much worse" traditional journal does not serve some sort of naturally human desire to be loved and appreciated by others. It is not a cry for attention and a desire to be seen and heard by others - even random strangers. All of these sites are the same, from myspace to livejournal to facebook to twitter. People post things about themselves for OTHERS to see. That's the whole point. That's why people use Twitter and all of these other websites.

A personal diary is just that - personal. It is NOT a note-taking device (usually) and while it can be used as such and may be intrinsically more inane than Twitter, I don't think it can be classified as more shallow. It is one thing to be so self-absorbed that you write about your daily trials in a notebook that you can read when you're fifty and laugh at. It's another thing to post 140 character tidbits on the internet and expect other people to love you for them.

April 23, 2009 2:22 AM  
Blogger Ms Unreliable said...

Oh my. I'm blonde AND female, does that mean I shouldn't use Twitter OR write anything, ever?! Why didn't Maureen tell me?!

Meanwhile, this has just made me really disappointed that I didn't sign up for the AIA conference this year...let's hope someone Tweets it for me!

April 23, 2009 2:38 AM  
Blogger Isaac said...

Wonderful writeup, Geoff. Are you familiar with the writing of Daniil Kharms? I read a great collection, "Today I Wrote Nothing" over Christmas last year and think his work is a great tie-in to this discussion. I'm not very familiar with the OBERIU movement he founded, but it seems like a Russian Futurist embrace of many sentiments similar to OULIPO. (oh, btw you can get it at Amazon for $2.44! http://www.amazon.com/Today-Wrote-Nothing-Selected-Writing/dp/1585677434)

thanks for the ballpoint pen analogy in particular... I'd been trying to talk with friends about Twitter by using a faulty analogy from visual art: that just because we have cameras doesn't mean that people don't paint anymore.

The space of the notebook in infinitely permeable and recombinatory. It is the place that I lay down in next to writing; a sister-site, and I'll be damned if anyone is going to define the form of that site for me.

anyway, thanks again- I'm following you @postsilence and personally loved getting the postopolis tweets because... yes, as strange and far out as it may sound, I like being informed about events and thought that is happening that I can't be physically present at! ;)

April 23, 2009 3:00 AM  
Anonymous Fabrizio Gallanti said...

Hi Geoff, I haven't your most recent updated e-mail at home. This only to say that I twittered your twitter post on Abitare website. Only one doubt. The interview by ms Dodd is so strange that it might be a total joke, don't you think? I almost assume that she was playing the conservative, rather than believing what she was asking.
Ciao Fabrizio.

April 23, 2009 3:14 AM  
Anonymous m ss ng v w l said...

Great post!

First thing that came to my mind was the use of twitter etc during the mumbai terrorist attacks late last year.

The ability for people to communicate effectively and instantly update others did much more than just share new and information. Sounds like a rather humanist occurence to me and not that narcissistic.. (blightyboy??)

P.s. Looking forward to seeing Geoff @ parallax!

April 23, 2009 5:25 AM  
Blogger Sandip Gangakhedkar said...

First of all, Twitter is NOT a note-taking tool. How many times have you tweeted with the intention of 'inking' down your thoughts for a later date? There is an inherently personal and utility-driven aspect to note-taking - it helps you remember important things. So is Twitter social note-taking? The very term is paradoxical. I have not heard Ms Dowd's argument against twitter, but your analysis is SO misleading I could not help stepping in. In order to understand what twitter is, one needs to see how and why people use it - it makes people feel connected, wanted and heard amongst the global community. It gives every layman an audience, an always-open channel to share your thoughts, data and opinions. True, it lowers the barriers of 'writing', but that is just a consequence of the way people use it. So if people began to use twitter only to share resources (and not inane drivel), it would evolve into a morphed version of say..del.icio.us - a social note-taking app. But its not: Twitter is so open-ended that people can use it the way they please, which is why pigeon-holing its identity without considering the way people use it is quite naive.

April 23, 2009 5:27 AM  
Blogger blightyboy said...

Dear Geoff and others.

I've come to realize that what my post reveals, besides my own tactlessness, is one of the risks inherent in a communications system that permits mass publication without editorial filters or any necessary reflection on the part of the authors.

Dangerous. But only for the egos involved. Not nearly as dangerous as walking to the local town hall meeting, stopping to insult a pedestrian along the way, and then relentlessly interrupting the meeting with offhand remarks about the Mayor's tie. Too much at stake there.

I look forward to reading the BLDG BLOG book.

April 23, 2009 6:09 AM  
Blogger Moomin said...

What no one seems to have noticed is how valuable Twitter is to people like me, aging, physically disabled, but mentally eager for new understandings and growth. I have only been Twittering for a couple of months, but I have made a wide variety of new friends, who are expanding my world exponentially. I am learning about fields previously incomprehensible, and expanding my knowledge and skills in areas that have been part of my life since childhood.

My family are widely scattered across the world, and Twitter seems to me the best way we have found of maintaining everyday contact, in the casual, brief utterances that form the backbone of normal family life. I don't ASK people to follow me, that is entirely up to them, but i have been astonished by the number that have chosen to do so, and have become supportive and empowering cyber- friends.

At 62, and unable to earn a living, dependent on a loving and generous husband, I am far from being part of a wealthy elite - get that chip off your shoulder, Blighty!

April 23, 2009 8:22 AM  
Blogger CHICAGOandPointsNorth said...

Trying to differentiate between the author and the tool has always been difficult. However, we need to recognize that the scrawlings made with a ball point pen are affected by the ball. Just as postings can be affected by the Twit. Each has its merits, of course. But we must recognize that some tools, in the end, are just better than others. And some, as you say, simply don't matter.

Thanks for another well spoken post, BLDGBLOG. Hoping you'll take the subject again after the Conference.

April 23, 2009 9:54 AM  
Blogger Seth said...

while i agree with your statements regarding the potential applications and benefits of twitter as a tool, i do have to say that i enjoyed dowd's interview, and believe she was more self-effacing than you give her credit for. i think the exchange between her character (the established columnist who realizes her own difficulty with the rapid changes in communication technology) and the defensively but wryly poised inventors is actually pretty cute.

as a new reader of your blog, though, i have to say, great stuff, and keep it up. hopefully next time you're lecturing my rsvp won't be rejected, as it was last week at SVA.

April 23, 2009 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is ridiculous. The whole point of twitter is that someone actually cares what the heck somebody else is doing. I don't. The author compares the content of twitter to reading some adolescent girls diary. The point of a diary is that is is PRIVATE. I get enough information that is actually useful. I don't need more information that is totally useless.

April 23, 2009 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Steve Silberman said...

Headline deja vu -- this morning:

http://www.kottke.org/09/04/in-defense-of-twitter

April 23, 2009 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i hate twitter. but a great article. really great. i am reconsidering my hatred.

April 23, 2009 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Ryan M said...

Can we ignore the fact that people like Dowd made similar arguments against 'blogging' [I'm not sure that she did specifically - but 'traditional' media as a whole]? Blogging has subsequently contributed to radical shifts in media, and has created HUGE demand for change in the way our newspapers and other 'traditional' media function. I feel as if the vitriol directed at Twitter is partially a delayed-reaction to the blogging world as a whole.

As the writer of a blog - now an 'older' form of online media and expression - I don't feel somehow threatened by Twitter users. This 'new thing' is exactly what you've described - a new tool. Nothing more, nothing less. To elevate it to something that is going to destroy civilization as we know it is ludicrous.

The heart of the issue here seems to be hubris - the idea that journalists and writers by trade are somehow more invested in 'news' and information, and that they're somehow better suited to deliver it. Especially Dowd - who writes OP-EDs. Aren't opinion pieces in the newspaper just pre-internet blogs? And how many newspapers sell based on 4 word headlines, that all too often misrepresent a story just to sell a paper? Sounds similar to Twittering to me, sadly.

Oh, and just to toss this out there: she actually brought up Shakespeare? If that's her basis for judging media, then isn't she suggesting that the man would be riveted by her column? Personally, I oftentimes enjoy reading Dowd's column - but there's a lot of false-pride in her attack on Twitter.

April 23, 2009 11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on, dude. This post is sooo long and boring and off topic.

I think what really bugs people (me, anyway) about Twitter is how much attention it gets from the media.

There must be something more interesting than this to post on your blog.

April 23, 2009 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Drew said...

It's almost pointless to complain about Twitter because the format makes it so easy to ignore anything/anyone that doesn't interest you. That, it seems to me, is the whole point of Twitter.

Networks like Facebook have so many functions that one must put up with a lot of noise along with the useful features. But Twitter has just one function, and if you don't like it, then don't use Twitter!

April 23, 2009 12:52 PM  
Blogger Pete V said...

haha - comment explosion! i am unfamiliar with the workings of twitter, but here's my synthesis:

technology like twitter is but a blank canvass.... if the culture paints an ugly picture it's not twitter's fault, and blaming the tech is diversionary.

do better, twitter better

April 23, 2009 12:52 PM  
Blogger muthacourage said...

how many people have actually read the maureen dowd article rather than just reacting off of what geoff's written? for the record the only mention of females by dowd is when she asks if biz and co realise that they've "created a toy for bored celebrities and high school girls", surely a point to be recognised if everyone is so emphatic about twitter's neutrality and potential? extrapolating from that to harsh on blonds is purely geoff's embroidery. incidentally, the founder's reply is "We definitely didn’t design it for that. If they want to use it for that, it’s great." which sounds a lot more balanced than all the reactionary comments to this post.

there's a giant contradiction in the earnest assertion that twitter is just a tool and the equally strident assertion that twitter is full of beautiful artistic/social possibilities. if it's "just a tool", why would you get so worked up about its potential for vulgarity and mediocrity? no one who used a biro would cry such a river if they were told they couldn't make beautiful things with biros - they'd just carry on drawing cocks on the cubicle wall - so why the gnashing when people insist that's all twitter's good for? certainly the creator's seem to have no problem with that idea. calling the mediocrity out on twitter doesn't have to involve the death of humanism, it just means calling a spade a spade - and spade's shovel a lot more shit than gold.

April 23, 2009 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I have a bit of admittedly anecdotal evidence that defends against the "pseudo-Marxist" argument that only the rich use twitter. I went to Uganda over the summer to do social work and I now follow my Ugandan coworker on twitter who is right at the World Bank poverty line of $1 a day. He posts infrequently - perhaps once a week - but it still lets me know what is going on in his life over there.

April 23, 2009 1:16 PM  
Blogger muthacourage said...

that would be the shovel belonging to the spade then....

April 23, 2009 1:18 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Scott said...

Well said. If you don't like twitter, don't use it. Isn't there more important things to complain about or pretend will be the downfall of humanity?

April 23, 2009 1:23 PM  
Anonymous sievetronix said...

I had a long rambling post planned but fuck it it is a nice day.

So I ask a few questions.

Why is it we feel the need to blindingly defend new technologies without being aware that it might acknowledging potential flaws, or at least narcissism? Is Twitter that indispensable to your lives already?

I mean yea the pretension meter on both sides of this debate is incredible.

Twitter is just code written on some computer somewhere, I don't have use for it personally(Ashton Kutcher seems to be doing fine without me knowing all of his deep thoughts) You can use it and enjoy it, but it seems you feel the need to love (or hate it) and need to defend it (or destroy it).

Is this stupid piece of code go important?

Holler away y'all
Sievetronix@gmail.com

hey look someone beat me to it.

April 23, 2009 2:09 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

muthacourage, I think one of the reasons someone's teeth might gnash here is because anti-Twitter arguments tend to be based in sheer irrationality; they are emotional, and often arrogant, responses to other people's content, not reasoned assessments of a new writing tool. If ball-point pens were stigmatized as only and forever able to produce grocery lists, I hate to disappoint my readers but I might very well have posted an equally long defense of ball-point pens.

Also, I simply do not agree with you that "there's a giant contradiction in the earnest assertion that twitter is just a tool and the equally strident assertion that twitter is full of beautiful artistic/social possibilities." There's literally no contradiction there at all! A hammer is just a tool, but it comes with beautiful artistic and architectural possibilities; a chisel is just a tool, but it comes with beautiful sculptural and form-shaping possibilities; a pen is just a tool, but it comes with incredible literary, poetic, and mythological possibilities. How is any of that a contradiction?

In any case, thanks for all the comments, whether you enjoyed the post or not, are a writer or not, or use Twitter or not. And, Blighty, no worries; I apologize for my previous replies to you coming across as slightly aggressive.

Finally, Sandip, you asked: "How many times have you tweeted with the intention of 'inking' down your thoughts for a later date?" More times than not.

April 23, 2009 2:13 PM  
Blogger Meaghan said...

just a reminder as to some of the flaws of placing proof in analogy:

while twitter does share some parallels to previous forms of note-taking, it must be admitted that the publicizing aspect of it gives it an absurdity that previous note taking lacked. notebooks full of teenage dribble were not meant to be published to the world. they were private note takings, hid away in dresser drawers, some diaries with locks, meant for few eyes only (and maybe parents if they were sneaky enough to find them.) Grocery lists served their purpose and were thrown away. novel notes led to a finished product, refined thinking that was only then shared with the world.

the sharing aspect of twitter allows for a distanced sort of voyeurism in note-taking that has a tendency to slip into the inane and redundant.

that being said, just as much as a pen can create crap just as much as beauty, twitter may indeed hold that potential as well. the voyeur just has to dig through quite a bit more of the sewage to discern something of value.

April 23, 2009 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears that it all boils down to who you follow, and whether you find what they have to say interesting. I have been using twitter for a while because I see its potential, but frankly it has not yet caught my interest. I must not be following the right people. Any tips on how to find the interesting ones?

April 23, 2009 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Casi said...

I love this blog post. The end.

April 23, 2009 5:33 PM  
Blogger palinode said...

Twitter. Long enough to get your pithy ideas out, not long enough for a convincing Nigerian scam. I say win-win.

April 23, 2009 6:58 PM  
Blogger richie said...

In 1811, when the culture of people known as the Luddites physically attacked textile machines in defense of the quality of their own craftsmanship and their jobs, a similar argument could have been made: This was an attack for the defense of Humanism. Humanism has always been an ambiguous and subjective ideal formed around the collective notion of what “human beings” should or should not be.

However, The argument is broader than the defense of Humanism or Twitter. Twitter is by no means in need of defense. It will survive, and will now effect more than the pen or the typewriter will. The issue is concerning the adoption of new technologies and their appropriation and use into culture.

At any moment, an individual could decide when to use any technological processes for any given purpose: To write with a pen, to scan the writing, to email that scanned image, and then twitter about what they have sent.

To say that twitter is the same as writing on a typewriter, or using a pen in a diary is wrong. It is similar on a purely textual basis of words being assembled in the form of language, but they are very different processes, and have different outputs.

There is always a point in a generation where they will adopt new innovations and finds old ones not useful or obsolete. There will always be a point where the advocates of the older forms will criticize the new. Any degree of loss or difference critics will conclude as negative progress.

None of the older forms, such as notebook writing, typewriter writing, or even engraving text, is diametrically comparable to twitter. Only in the possible future where there are user-bought technologies that re- materializes physical objects for networked viewing, such a technology that could physically manifest identical handwritten text on pink post-it notes to a thousand personal hand held machines, then the two processes could be pulled closer to similarity. Otherwise, twitter is just dealing with how culture can use text in a reduced digital form.

It is easy to blame technology or specific outputs of technology, but at any time period,
every culture was filled with trivial thoughts, and trivial things written, Twitter just exposes culture. Criticism might arise from the projected assumption that the culture will be incapable of remembering the previous form of writing, due to the rampant popularity of all these ultra efficient communication methods. But under humanist ideals, no one should force another person to remember by restricting the popularity of a new communication method.
Thus comes the freedom of choice,
I could carve this into a log and mail it to you,
But I didn’t.

April 23, 2009 7:15 PM  
Anonymous Rory Williams said...

A small point on the 'elitist technology' issue: If Twitter and its medium, the web, are only used on laptops and PCs, then it does have limited penetration worldwide. However, in countries like South Africa, where I live, the explosion in internet access will be via mobile phones, which enjoy much greater use among poorer communities. Twitter obviously is well suited to mobile use, and could therefore be considered much more accessible than other social spaces on the internet.

April 23, 2009 7:59 PM  
Blogger Lorin said...

I do not use Twitter, but I agree that Dowd's column was asinine.

Jon Brouchoud was right, I think - this is about architecture. I can't even begin to count how many conversations I had about Maya and 3d software when I was in grad school. There were some who thought it was the best thing ever and some who thought it was a sign of the apocalypse. In the end, my conclusion was simple - it is a tool, just like a pencil and mayline are tools. What you do with these tools is more important than the tool itself. And I can dislike the result of that tool (be it an Ashton Kucher tweet or some swirly blob) without disliking the tool itself.

That said, a tool is going to direct what the result will look like - you'd have to fight against Maya to design a box, just like you'd have to work against Twitter to write a novel.

April 23, 2009 8:03 PM  
Blogger klamath democracy laboratory said...

I haven't used twitter, but Geoff, you make a good case for it. And apparently, Tom Scharpling, who does the comedy show, "The Best Show on WFMU"on WFMU [dj/rupture's station], is writing a novel on twitter.

April 23, 2009 8:58 PM  
Blogger Dave Conabree said...

Well said. I see it as jus a way to think out loud and maybe strike up a conversation as a result.

Www.Twitter.com/The_Pub_Debates

April 23, 2009 9:59 PM  
Blogger muthacourage said...

i think the contradiction is between neutral tools which are whatever you make of them and tools with special capacities. in the first you argue that the tool is just a conduit so don't blame the tool, and in the second you are saying specific qualities demand to be explored and followed through - that's the contradiction, not that the mundane and the beautiful are possible together, but that you've gone from arguing that a tool is valueless to saying it has potentials we *should* explore.

i'm not sure the twitter/diary comparison holds up as people upthread have mentioned, twitter is a subscription based broadcast whilst a diary is relatively private, moreover i think there's something to be said for thinking twitter and blogging on an oral rather than literary model, both have a responsiveness and immediacy that resembles conversational dialogue rather than elaborately structured literary arguments or narratives and the creators seem well aware that the tool is oriented to "short trivial bursts of information that birds do". so i find it strange that the defense of twitter aims to "save" it from triviality, either by stressing its plain jane usefulness or by saying it has some hidden beauty. dowd is clearly right to point out how it panders to narcissistic tendencies, but i think we have to be aware of how twitter's broadcast/subscription model changes the terms of that narcissism from private, journal-driven interior self obsession, to crafting appearances and personas in front of an audience. what does it mean when someone's "river of information" is judged not in terms of what is happening in their life, but by a filter that edits it to make it continuously "interesting" and "pithy"? have we not in fact lost the right to boring interiority? i'm overstating the point only to illustrate that it's narcissism, but not as we know it.

April 24, 2009 7:14 AM  
Blogger 5chw4r7z said...

Signal vs. Noise
People who don't understand twitter fixate on the noise instead of the signal. The beauty of twitter is an event that expands beyond its physical boundaries and includes everyone in the world.
The Hudson River plane crash for instance.

April 24, 2009 9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good post, but the only thing I have to say is that Maureen Dowd writes op-eds, not editorials.

Op-eds are quite literally a portmanteau meaning Opposite of Editorial.

That's all.

April 24, 2009 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Hating Twitter is as peculiar to me as someone claiming not to understand it. I hear it everyday "I don't even know what a Twitter is!" People say it with pride as if they are better than those in the know.

The silliest part of someone claiming not to understand Twitter is the fact that it is such a simple concept.

April 24, 2009 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Geoff you are purposely evading the twitter-haters' point about context (the perverse joy and over-sharing of information) in which it is being used.

If you think it is not perverse or even pornographic (informationally speaking) for someone to be broadcasting what most twitterers are broadcasting, then .. well, you dont; you simply ignore that this is what's mainly happening with twitter's gleeful assistance.

April 24, 2009 6:18 PM  
Anonymous mrpommer said...

Anonymous said: Op-eds are quite literally a portmanteau meaning Opposite of Editorial.Op-Ed is short for "opposite the editorial page". Strictly speaking, an Op-Ed is just like an editorial (i.e. an opinion piece), just from someone who isn't on the editorial board. A portmanteau is something borrowing from multiple sources to say many things at once. An Op-Ed typically makes one argument (e.g. Newspaper, good. Twitter, bad.).

April 24, 2009 7:23 PM  
Anonymous mrpommer said...

Geoff:

An eloquent argument, as ever. I especially want to go to A concerned reader's next lecture and, rather than tweeting (or note-taking) start speaking loudly to my neighbour in order to share my ideas then and there.

Note-taking (or tweeting) does not dispense with the sharing of ideas with your neighbour. In fact, the act of distilling a thought to 140 characters can help to sharpen an argument. Every concert playbill I have from the last 30 years is covered in notes, and they've only led to more conversation at the intermission.

And now, others can whisper back without invoking the ire of the conductor.

April 24, 2009 9:32 PM  
Anonymous Dalani said...

Geocities was once a hot estate on the net...then blogs were hot..but looked back water when myspace and facebook came along..now twitter is hot

Recent news item: Geocities is folding up and gigaytes of personal webpages, knowledge thoughts and information will vanish...

Don't compare twitter to a ball point.:
If Bic(TM) goes bankrupt tomorrow, the personal diaries of teen age girls will not vanish ..

You do the math:
Geocities entire webpages of text/photos content
Blogs same but less creative and intermittent
Facebook/Myspace= sporadic and even less content
twitter= just text messages on steroids
tomorrow maybe less

April 24, 2009 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read one guy's Twitter feed. He has been reading 30s and 50s issues of the New York Times and posting the weird ones (along with posts about the other usual work/family stuff). I don't subscribe to his feed, so I go to the web page and work my way backwards.

One thing that annoys me about Twitter is that it assumes you're going to be reading updates in real-time. The conversational indicator "@whomever" will helpfully direct you to the feed of the target, but only takes you to the top of that person's feed. If you are reading in real-time, then I guess you can follow a thread by looking in the first couple of the target's entries. If you see part of a conversation that's three days old, good luck trying to follow it. Twitter is geared for the conversational wavefront.

This suggests that thinking about Twitter as a weblog or a "micro-blog" is an incorrect premise, and it will lead you to the wrong conclusions. Twitter is a decentralized IRC: it has no explicit channels, and the conversation logs are tied to a their users.

So people who keep fifteen IM sessions open on their computer will probably love Twitter. People who keep zero IM sessions open probably won't.

April 24, 2009 11:31 PM  
Anonymous Paul C. Shirley said...

Really enjoyed this article!

I've been on Twitter for a couple of months now and have come across a number of the "twitter types" mentioned in the article and the comments.

It occured to me early on that Twitter is all things to all people, rather than one tool for one job. It's an outlet for thoughts and opinions, a tool for sharing information, a way of communicating with others and making friends, a marketing tool, and a medium for narcicism.

Yes, there are a LOT of banal and inane tweets out there (I really don't need to know that someone is standing in a fast-food queue, just had a latte, ridiing a taxi to an airport, or whatever), but there are many very useful tweets out there too.

Sadly, there are also far too many twitters who are only interested in how many followers they have, and/or think they are special because they follow some famous celebrity.

The trick is finding twitters who offer things that you are interested in and, for me, that is those who twit links to relevant and/or interesting articles, like this one.

April 25, 2009 1:51 AM  
Anonymous mark said...

I find the whole twitter thing both hilarious and sad.
It's like everyone has become a really crap town crier.

"Oyez Oyez Oyez, lost is really good"

"Oyez Oyez Oyez, my cat is hungry"

April 25, 2009 6:58 AM  
Blogger Chantelle said...

This is the bossest analysis of Twitter all year!

April 25, 2009 9:54 AM  
Blogger j.m. said...

While Twitter-as-notetaking-technology is a nice idea, and your plea to ignore the crappy uses of Twitter, this is not what Twitter itself wants. The very first page of Twitter itself says "Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?"

Twitter itself encourages the mundane "im going 2 supermarket" and "im buying peanut butter" posts.

This is just one of many problems with it (no threaded conversations? encouragement of URL shortners?), but this is a very big problem. Twitter does not merely enable mundanity, it encourages it.

April 25, 2009 12:10 PM  
Blogger KB said...

You must really like that columnist, you linked her TWICE.

BTW, people do often get nervous when I take the Moleskine out of my pocket.

April 25, 2009 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people who view Twitter with suspicion are more concerned with the fact that the inane notes are made public, not the fact that that the notes are inane. Twitter, myspace and facebook with their status updates have become the equivalent of internet graffiti. Personally I don't mind what people twitter about or how mundane their status updates are, it's a convenient way to keep in some form of contact with people you don't see every day, however, on the rare occasion that their update is creative, amusing or provocative, the comments are like seeing a full wall mural after miles of tags.

April 25, 2009 6:41 PM  
Blogger xian said...

the same complaint about publicizing the banal was leveled at blogging (now treated as a mature, complex writing form), based on the same mistaken idea that blogs, microblogs, etc. are meant to be read at random.

The subscription (follow) model in twitter gives each reader the ability to tune their feed until they personally find it satisfying or useful. This will never be visible the same way to an external person trying to understand the appeal.

"This is ridiculous. The whole point of twitter is that someone actually cares what the heck somebody else is doing. I don't."

Right, so you don't follow that "somebody else" (or anyone). Problem solved.

"The author compares the content of twitter to reading some adolescent girls diary. The point of a diary is that is is PRIVATE. I get enough information that is actually useful. I don't need more information that is totally useless."

No one's making you read it. Making something public doesn't make it mandatory or unavoidable.

April 25, 2009 7:03 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Another thing being consistently overlooked by some people here is the fact that you can make your Twitter feed private.

Inasmuch as you can also publish your diary – or quote from your diary in a blog post, or use material from your diary for later published writings, or even read from your diary at a coffeeshop open mic night (believe me, I've seen my fair share of people reading from their journals in public) – you can also make your Twitter feed accessible to no one but yourself.

So any argument based on the de facto public nature of Twitter - and there are many such arguments being made here in this comment thread - is, by definition, misguided.

Also, muthacourage, I think your distinction between oral and literary communication here is extremely interesting - but I'm still unaware of how your other arguments refer to my original post. For instance, I wrote that "Twitter is just another option for people to use when they want to take notes – and it's no more exciting than that, either, to be frank." That is, you can use Twitter to instant-message your friends in public or you can use it to write epic poetry or to take lecture notes or to report what you ate last night - and I simply do not see how there is a contradiction there. Your further comments have not clarified to me where exactly in my original post you are finding these things to disagree with; I have never claimed that all Twitter touches turns to gold.

For instance, you write: "i think the contradiction is between neutral tools which are whatever you make of them and tools with special capacities." But, to me, this post only makes the former argument: Twitter is a tool for note-taking, and it can be incredibly banal - but it shouldn't be rejected on that basis, because you can also do interesting things with it. That seems like a very straightforward argument to me.

Finally, I would very much suggest that self-shaping also occurs in private diaries - in other words, you write what you want to write in order to make yourself sound a certain way (cynical, angry, overlooked, intelligent, destined for greatness, enthusiastic, suicidal, quirky, whatever), even if you're writing for yourself in a diary. It's not just in "public" writing that we selectively represent ourselves, so these further attempts to differentiate between Twitter feeds and "private" diaries on the basis of self-presentation sound extremely disingenuous to me.

April 25, 2009 7:28 PM  
Blogger Evan Waters said...

J.M.:

This is a problem? I mean, "I'm going 2 supermarket" can be useful information to some people, as mundane as it may be.

April 25, 2009 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If someone needs to feel more important than they actually are, should technology not be used to cradle their fragile egos?

People are people and they are forever changing and adapting in the light (or darkness, depending) of technology. Though I personally see no value in taking public notes - as there is always a napkin or piece of paper around if you need it bad enough - not everyone likes their thoughts and ideas private. If your friend has a gripe about people not sharing inane babble with him, I suggest he move to a small town, take up alcohol and buy a trans am, rather than intellectually masturbating like an "adult".

April 25, 2009 10:13 PM  
Blogger J D Plourde said...

The difference between Twitter and Notepad is that Twitter is in the public sphere. So the analogy that it's a mere ball point pen doesn't really work. It's more akin to graffiti written on the bathroom wall. Most of it's worthless but sometimes you get something entertaining to read while your in there. The lesson is that the delivery method of information doesn't really matter as much as the content being delivered. Being a blogger, I'm sure the 'issue' of Twitter strikes close ot your heart, but I dont think it's really worthy of a 900 word post.

April 26, 2009 6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dowd's witty. You're not. She controls language. You rely on italics. She has imagination. You fluff up PC straw men.

What are you waiting for? Get thee to a Twittery.

April 26, 2009 7:21 AM  
Blogger Mister said...

I think the bıg dıfference here ıs that note taking technology ıs for personal use, and personal reference. As you mentioned, people often use twitter to say things to each other ın front of other people. Twitter ıs public. It ıs meant for everyone to see what you are sayıng. That ıs why ıts so awful. Its not for notes, but for ıncessant, lımıted communication that ıs meant to grab everyones attention ın order to see what you are doing. It would work ıf everyone in the world had an Iphone and only communicated vıa ınternet. But thankfully, the world ıs not lıke that. Yet.

April 26, 2009 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Dalani said...

No one here is realizing the degree of exposure and data volatility there is out there. If Twitter is graffiti on public washroom walls then what happens to all those profound and mundane scribbles a decade from now?? When the washroom gets remodeled or the building torn down?


Hook line and sinker you are all been taken in by the flashing pretty lights of yet another 'new' technology . Facebook was yersterday's Twitter. Once the news cycles plays itself out, Twitter will be so 2008 and we'll be discussing the merits of portable personal newscasting PPN(tm).

April 26, 2009 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Dalani said...

But wait, I am wrong too because, like Dowd and Geoff, I was looking at Twitter from the Journalism /webcontent paradigm which values knowledge and information. The real value and appeal of Twitter may well exist within its ability to connect people together with information updates that relate to action and real time updates. It's really the web equivalent of walkie talkies or wideband communications. After all, Twitter roots lie in the texting features prevalent in cell phones but with the added web connectivity and depth.

April 26, 2009 4:20 PM  
Blogger Jazmeister said...

I concur. I've particularly enjoyed listening to the various DJs on BBC Radio 1 offering their opinions on it - the night-time, eclectic DJs with names like Mix Master Jamz and Rob de Bank seem to take it or leave it, adopting it as useful or deciding quite simply not to use it. The day DJs, running a playlist and trying to think of things to fill up links with, often go into lengthy twitter-bashing just because it's, essentially, easy to update.

It must be fun creating something like Twitter or Omegle and then sitting back to see what the world makes of it as it becomes accessible to every demographic at once.

April 26, 2009 6:17 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Now make the argument in 140 characters or less

April 26, 2009 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. But if you look at it from within a communication theory framework, then you generally need to distinguish the technology from the medium, and when you do that you realize twitter is not in fact the ballpoint pen. The technology is the basic tool, delivery format, technical constraints etc. The medium is how that technology is actually used in the culture, including all the customs, audiences, unspoken rules and expectations, and even secondary apps etc etc etc. Based on that idea, twitter instantly becomes something far more than a note-taking technology, even if that was its original intent/format, and it's very unlike the ball point pen in that way, where there's a sort of blank canvas, so to speak. Twitter is generally far more like a bulletin board, except that it's far less conversational and far more individualistically performative (my twitter feed is starting to look like a talent show). And like most technologies/media it has its advantages and disadvantages - it both connects us and disconnects us from people, it allows us to engage politically (or feel we can) at the same time as it encourages habits of insularity and disconnection... I could go on but my 140 characters were up ages ago. In short, every time there's a new technology or medium, you get the technological utopians insisting uncritically (and in the end they're ultimately small-c conservatives) that it's going to create the best global village we've ever had, and a bunch of fuddy-duddies on the other end of the polarity claiming it's harbinging the death of culture (and usually they're small-c conservatives too). The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, where we can exploit the new technology for our own useful purposes. Or waste 4 hours a day in front of the screen hitting Refresh and reading comedy one-liners.

April 27, 2009 2:25 PM  
Anonymous pedro gadanho said...

The fact that this discussion quickly gathered 100 contributions is most enlightening. Twitter seems to be one of these phenomena that show how much people like to join in with the crowd. It feels safer like that. As such, it is also revealing of the fact that even if the techonology/medium is totally open and apparently democratic it is still capable of producing the same old effects: anyone who shows any different view about it must be crushed by the mob. Two months ago I had my own reactions on Twiter. They were just a personal consideration. But now I realize that just producing those thoughts against the tide may have been a profoundly subversive act.

April 29, 2009 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Morgan said...

Geoff - you've put out a great case for twitter, but I just don't agree that it's a note-taking system. It's a broadcast system, more akin to a 15 second PSA than a longform journal. For good or for bad, tweets are for public consumption, not private journaling. That's a foundational difference I think. Whatever Dowd's views are on who tweets and for why, Twitters basic function is to broadcast short messages. That's it does. Like any piece of software, its intended use can vary greatly from its actual use. If you want to use it as a note-taking system, that's great, but its core functionality is something different than that.

May 01, 2009 11:01 AM  
Anonymous James Vellas said...

Dowd certainly went into her interview with misconceptions. Evan and Biz, for their part, decided to be hostile rather than try and bridge a gap. So once again, the modern approach to communication has gotten us nothing.

I wish I could say this blog entry was different, but it's not. People rarely (if ever) object to Twitter itself -- they object to how it is used. Whether it is a note-taking technology or not, then, is entirely irrelevant: even if one were to agree with the points made above, that wouldn't change the fact that the entire argument operates with a straw man as its target.

May 03, 2009 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Robert Bundy said...

True, Twitter is merely a tool. My problem lies with its implementation, where people remove themselves from an experience or a dialogue to comment on it while it is still going on. People who use the tool in this way are no different from those who babble in the middle of a movie, missing the current scene in order to offer their opinion of the scene that just concluded. You can't chatter and listen at the same time. The Congressmen who were Twittering about their crap seats during Obama's state of the Union speech, or anyone else that stops listening in order to start burbling (electronically or otherwise) have stopped being present in the moment in order to comment on that moment. There is nothing inherently wrong with Twitter, but the way in which it is routinely employed fatally compromises the value of their reports. Twitter often offers the thoughts of people that are only intermittently paying attention to their subjects. http://twitter.com/itsrobertbundy

May 04, 2009 12:47 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

... anyone else that stops listening in order to start burbling (electronically or otherwise) have stopped being present in the moment in order to comment on that moment.Robert, I'll try to remember that anytime I decide to write down anything, anywhere. So much for taking notes in class, while traveling, while reading books, while drinking coffee, etc. etc. etc.

May 04, 2009 12:54 PM  
OpenID smashadv said...

Could you imagine if Dickinson had a twitter feed. My Gawd.

May 04, 2009 11:53 PM  
Anonymous mas2124 said...

I think we all know that Maureen Dowd is full of herself, and I am disappointed in the Times for printing that piece of dreck interview (not that I'm surprised). I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece, but there is one part that I think took the argument slightly too far: of course everyone knows that a teenager's diary is self-involved and quotidian, but no one cares because a diary is the compilation of a writer's thoughts and emotions. Twitter, however, is a public forum. I'm an avid user and I'm still put-off by people who want to share funerals, breakups, pregnancies and other extremely personal events in such a public forum. Twitter is great. Sharing news is great. But isn't there such a thing as too private to be public anymore?

May 05, 2009 3:04 AM  
Blogger honora said...

maureen dowd might be a bit of a twit (no pun intended?). but in response to this post: 200 people aren't reading my grocery lists, post-it reminders, and I certainly hope not my diary. major difference, in my opinion. it IS note-taking technology, but it's also broadcasting technology. that said, nice writing!

May 06, 2009 10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just like "guns are only dangerous when someone picks them up" Twitter is fine as long as people use it responsibly. I tried to keep up with a few individual's ramblings minute by minute and quite frankly discovered a boredom threshold that I didn't know I had. It's like that quote about the use of the split infinitive that goes: "It's not so much the split infinitive I mind, it is the table manners of those who use it". So feel free to Twitter all you like, just don't expect:

a) An awed world audience

b) Many invites to go down the pub

May 07, 2009 11:29 AM  
Anonymous Tommy Manuel said...

Well articulated response.

May 12, 2009 2:19 PM  
Blogger Grant said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 27, 2009 12:11 PM  
Blogger Brian Yaeger said...

Jeez, kudos on creating such a maelstrom of comments.

Up front, I do tweet (@yaeger). So what I'm about to knock should be taken with fewer than 140 characters of salt.

Geoff, your In Defense of Twitter is over 1,300 words long. It is 8,000 characters. This should be your biggest problem with Twitter. It would've taken you over 57 tweets to have posted your entire diatribe (and a few pictweets).

The worst thing I can say about Twitter is that it caters to our ADD-nation (or ADHD, or...). It doesn't just make it acceptable to have so little to say, it mandates it.

As for your line of thought about comparing tweeting to writing, I always appreciate an out-there analogy as I think in those ways myself, but Twitter IS about the application, not the ability. First of all, a haiku once tweeted will have many more readers than one written using a pen or typewriter. But this isn't about the technology of the pen. Shoot, you can use a pen to shotgun a beer. But that's not what it was designed for. Twitter truly seems to have been designed to keep our collective thoughts--self involved actors and high school hotties alike--dumbed down to the LCD for easy ingestion.

My biggest beef with just about everything written on the internet, be it blogged, tweeted, or otherwise, is that there are no 5th grade teachers to review posts. Dodd? C'mon. I'm glad you went back and corrected Dowd's spelling, but it does you a disservice to blog venomously against her and then misspell her name throughout. But then again, I'm one of those ivory tower dwellers because I studied English.

In short, I'm in favor of everyone "writing," but doubt those housewives from Missouri consider Twitter to be writing. Maybe I'm wrong. But from one published author to another (congrats, btw), I think we can agree that in the case of books and tweets and everything written online, you get what you pay for.

May 28, 2009 2:06 AM  
Blogger McWong said...

Dead right. Dowd's an idiot.

And yes, as another pointed out, the Twitter guys wipe up the floor with her. As they should.

Idiot.

July 26, 2009 9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i recommend listening to brian unger's take on twittering.

check out the podcast.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101619832

and his take on facebook.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99249666

after reading your post, my thoughts are that you're comparing apples to oranges when you liken twittering and blogging to a pen and diary. the few people that have published their own diaries had a purpose, and most of it was to gain fame, pity or celebrity status. diaries are not usually written for the purpose of becoming a published piece. it's for self-consumption, not mass consumption.

in comparison, behind the reasoning for blogging and twittering is a narcissistic idealism that everyone wants to know what a person doing b/c he or she is so interesting. most of the time, they're flattering themselves. 'everybody can be their own celebrity' is an absurdist logic that only works if one thinks too highly of oneself.

January 28, 2010 1:27 AM  

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