Cross-posted to Mike’s blog!
Andrew Sullivan recently linked to some bloggers who don’t like Twitter. Now, Twitter is a social networking platform, but, unlike Google and Facebook, I have no problem with Twitter, so I am going to defend it here.
The first blogger lays out two major complaints against Twitter: it degrades thought in an Orwellian sense, and it corrodes interpersonal relations which leads to alienation and depression. The second blogger amplifies these concerns and adds that Twitter is also a privacy concern – “it seems more a way of persuading us to provide a constant stream of information about ourselves to those sureveilling us.” Yes, these are pretty hyperbolic complaints, but I’ll still address them.
The degradation of thought refers to Orwell’s idea of Newspeak, the fictional language in 1984 that lacks words to express antiestablishment ideas. It’s a classic example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis from introductory anthropology, which postulates, as Wikipedia aptly puts it, that a particular language’s nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers. There’s undoubtedly some truth to this hypothesis, but there is also some truth to its opposite, which is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. My opinion is that language does have some effect on individual thought, but this effect is usually completely insignificant next to the bigger effect of culture on thought. So, whatever (minimal) change Twitter’s 140 character limit has brought to our language is not going to matter much to the way we see the world. As an example of this change, both the bloggers (and Andrew Sullivan) cite their decreased attention spans with regard to reading. I’ve also noticed a decreased attention span in myself, but I don’t blame it on Twitter (or its cousin, text messaging, about which more later), since I don’t use the former and rarely use the latter. I do blame the loss on culture, however, and admit that some of that cultural change is driven by technology, but comparing Twitter to Newspeak is ridiculous. The popularity of Twitter and the compression of language are obviously effects here, not causes.
Similarly, it is legitimate to decry (as both bloggers do) the new culture of sound bites, multitasking, and constant impersonal connectivity, but it’s important to realize that the problem is the culture. Again, culture is certainly affected by technology, but the trends have been in place for many decades now and complaining about Twitter is not going to stop them.
Finally, it’s pretty hard to take seriously Twitter as a privacy concern. It’s true that users sometimes post their location to Twitter, but you’re automatically giving your location (and IP address) to Google every time you check your Gmail, and giving it to Facebook every time you log in to that. Twitter does collect information about you for marketing, which is distasteful, but the same 140 character limit to every tweet that restricts your ability to express yourself fully also prevents Twitter from gleaning much useful information about you, especially compared to what you’re giving Google and Facebook when you use them. Also, at the moment, there’s no advertising on Twitter.
I basically see Twitter as the Web 2.0 version of away messages on AIM or GChat. It feeds the same narcissistic impulse as constantly updating your away message with something emo or a random link (I did this all the time in high school and early college) – it’s a cheap and easy way to put yourself out there without actually risking anything. Fundamentally, I guess this blog fills that role as well, but I like to think the stakes are slightly higher here since I can express myself more fully in a blog than I could in Twitter or on away messages. Overall, while Twitter can be obnoxiously self-indulgent at times, people will always find outlets for their narcissism, and Twitter’s as good an outlet as anything else.
I should also say something about the 140 character limit. It’s similar to (but slightly shorter than) the limit for SMS messages, presumably in order to allow people to update their Twitter feeds via text messaging. It’s surprisingly rarely mentioned why text messages have a 160 character limit, however, so here’s a New York Times article that explains it. Basically, even though companies charge 20 cents for a text message, the cost for the companies of transmitting the message is literally zero; the signal that keeps your phone connected to the cell phone network automatically has room for 160 characters worth of data, so text messages are sent in that signal for zero additional cost. Pretty sleazy of them to charge us for it. At least Twitter’s free!
As one final note, I can’t resist mocking Republicans in this post. I presume as a response to the McCain campaign’s embarrassing lack of technology skills, the next generation of Republicans has recently been all atwitter (I can’t believe this pun doesn’t get more use!) about Twitter as a means of regaining relevance and power. They are so earnest about it, and the results are so hilarious. I’ll leave you all with some words of wisdom from former Republican National Committee chair Mike Duncan: “We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today.”