I HATE TWITTER
BUT IT'S PROBABLY A GOOD THING
Bores blogging about their breakfast in 140 characters. Touchy, vacuous celebs begging an army of morons to magnify their vanity. Smug new-media types basting in their own self-justifying shit. It's easy to sneer at Twitter, and most of the time, correct. But let me remove my irony antlers for a moment, and say something genuine: as much as I hate it, I think Twitter is probably a good thing.
Not all change is progress, but for progress of any sort to happen, some change is necessary. That paradigm has got to shift somehow. We need new things to keep coming, we need new ways of communicating, we need to keep approaching things from different angles. And like it or not, Twitter is something different. It might turn out to be a vector for progress -- scientific, cultural, political -- or it might not. In any case it's too early to dismiss it, or to conclude that since most of Twitter is garbage, it necessarily has to be so.
For prematurely old farts like me, this thought can be hard to take. Like most self-styled intellectuals, I'm wedded to the old ways. I like writing in paragraphs. I like bookending them with bits of glue to make it look like each one flows logically from the last. I like giving my arguments this fake deterministic veneer, as if everything I say follows inexorably from first principles. It helps persuade me and you that I'm not pulling it all out of my arse.
But where have paragraphs got us? They've got us this far, but now maybe they're holding us back. From now on, maybe all untweeted thought is stagnant, ponderous, conservative. Perhaps in the future no one will be moved by big cumbersome blocks of text, and the people pushing them will be increasingly marginalised and irrelevant.
This would not necessarily be a bad thing. Maybe paragraphed prose is just the tool of the bourgeoisie, a tool for power. Maybe what is presently styled as depth and insight and coherence is just that, a style; a shibboleth to distinguish the educated from the plebs, no more than one privileged insider winking at another. And from Twitter, the educated elite have the most to lose. Anti-Twitter complaints from journalists and academics come from interested parties, already undermined by the Web, concerned about losing their influence still further. But fewer and fewer people take notice.
Twitter has already had some cultural and political impact. Tweets are already cultural products, as compelling for some as novels or TV. In Egypt, it seems a political revolution was at least partly Tweeted, though I'd be careful not to overstate the Twitter effect. As far as I know, Twitter has yet to demonstrate its scientific chops, but I could imagine it having an impact in that arena. Maybe in the future, a scientific revolution will be Tweeted. Maybe Twitter will finally bring down the cloistered walls of the Academy, and free its inhabitants from the oppressive rule of jargon and journal papers.
It's hard to tell. Myself, I don't plan to Tweet any time soon. My little part of the Web, with its anachronistic insistence on essays rather than blog entries, has always been self-consciously old-fashioned. But I am aware that I'm writing in a form that's increasingly irrelevant. And I think it's important to be confronted with that every now and then.