A Brief Essay on Brevity
By Yoni Wilkenfeld
“Death of the writer.”
“The din of a giant turd-covered silicon apiary.”
These are a few choice examples of the kind words reserved for Twitter by some of today’s cultural critics. Twitter, apparently, is not only “bad for writing” and “bad for journalism,” but also “bad for our brains” and “bad for relationships.” And a personal favorite: “its very existence undermines our otherwise rational and mostly progressive society.”
Few would deny that Twitter can be obnoxious. Until very recently, Justin Bieber could call himself the most popular tweeter of all time. Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen each have more followers than Peggy Noonan, Paul Krugman and the U.S. State Department combined. And, unfortunately, Twitter has given rise to the “crotch shot” as career-ender, as former Congressman Anthony Weiner can attest.
These facts are so grating that one is tempted to join the critics and denounce Twitter as the downfall of civilization. But stupidity is hardly unique to the Internet Age. That the site is home to photos of Jose Canseco dressed as Lady Gaga is no more damning for Twitter than is the existence of The National Enquirer for ink and paper.
The more legitimate criticisms of Twitter fall mainly into three categories: First, that the site’s strict 140-character limit on every tweet has dumbed down our use of language. Second, that the democratic nature of Twitter, which sends popular or “trending” topics and tweets to the top of each user’s feed, appeals to the broad and base tastes of the masses. And third, that the collapse of technological barriers between amateur journalists and their would-be audiences, as accelerated by Twitter, is bad news for the quality of public discourse.
The truth is that these three qualities are the greatest strengths of Twitter— and, together, a boon for journalism, intellectual progress and liberal democracy.
Twitter’s most unique quality, a 140-character maximum for each tweet, is also its most obvious candidate for criticism. Users have developed an ad-hoc vocabulary to cheat the character limit. Entries on Twittonary.com, an online “dictionary” of such lingo, range from the obvious (FYI) to the esoteric (ICYMI: in case you missed it) and the bizarre (OMB: oh my Bieber). These corruptions have been upsetting grammarians since the dawn of the Internet, but Twitter has only increased the worries that e-language is making us incapable of forming coherent thoughts.
Even more worrying is that the 140-character limit might be too stingy to allow for tweets of any depth or seriousness. But there is a rich history in the arts and letters of great wisdom found in small packages. In The Word in a Phrase, journalist James Geary leads a tour of aphorisms through the ages, from their centrality in Buddhism and Confucianism to their aristocratic status in Enlightenment France and England. Twitter’s emphasis on concise witticisms is the just latest in a long legacy of social encouragement towards brevity. Nothing is sweeter, for the tweeter, than a zinging jab or insightful one-liner.
Of course, not all tweets are profound enough for the likes of Lao Tzu or Samuel Johnson. But this is not a necessary consequence of the medium. Constraints in and of themselves do nothing to inhibit thoughtfulness—in fact, they can even encourage it. Twitter’s character limit forces authors and journalists to distill the very heart of their articles into a compelling concentrate, replacing the “lede” of print journalism with a shorter and more accessible form. On January 27, 2012, The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, tweeted the following alongside a link to an article supporting an expensive, controversial new fighter jet: “The F-35 is 1.6% of defense budget. By comparison, 1.6% is half the avg family’s budget share dedicated to clothing.” A provocative teaser on a political controversy of national importance, accompanied by a link to the fully developed argument—all in 97 characters, exposed to millions of new eyeballs who wouldn’t ordinarily pay mind to an academic policy paper. The character limit is the informal version of a scientific journal’s “abstract” section. It is simply good practice, and it forces commentators and opinion-makers to say what they mean, and quickly.
If they can’t, Twitter’s democratic nature ensures they won’t last long. Like every social structure, Twitter has a currency, and wealth in the Twittersphere is measured in “favorites,” “followers” and “retweets.” Users can follow their friends and family, as on Facebook, but also their cultural idols and like-minded thinkers. Since each user’s actions are seen instantaneously by her followers, each user is made mediator between her real-life community and the world of ideas, with a social incentive to retweet and favorite whichever tweets carry the relevant status for her social group. In many groups, though surely not all, this will mean retweeting what strikes them as provocative, insightful, clever or passionate— in short, anything that further cultivates their online persona as an interesting person worthy of “following.” While this might seem a petty vehicle for intellectual discourse, the upshot is that witty, sharp and critical thinking spreads virally in a Darwinian race for social networking cachet.
This social fitness of bright ideas has helped spark a resurgence of long form journalism. In a feature for Adweek last year, Emma Bazilian wrote about the particularly “high-brow connotation” of long form journalism, encouraged by the popularity of websites like Longform.org and Instapaper. The solitary and rarefied nature of traditional book-reading had long encouraged readers to keep their thoughts to themselves; the stereotypical “curling up with a book by the fireplace.” The social nature of electronic reading, on the other hand, has globalized the book club, opening up millions of new readers to each other’s ideas and recommendations.
By forcing journalists to say what they mean and say it quickly, Twitter is good for journalism. By employing a Darwinian model which rewards users for looking smart in front of their friends, Twitter is good for intellectual discourse. But there may be a still nobler role for Twitter in today’s society: the advancement of Millian liberalism. A godfather of liberal democracy, John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty for a radical freedom of opinions. He thought that our beliefs are justified only insofar as we are capable of assessing them, and that our powers of assessment must be constantly practiced against new and controversial ideas. Thus censorship is the enemy of this kind of practice. While Americans have long been repulsed by formal censorship of the media, the traditional press maintains worryingly high barriers to entry. A sales-driven model forces traditional media outlets to choose between the pursuit of a mythical “independent voter” or appeals to the ratings-rich partisan zealot. The result is the very opposite of Mill’s “marketplace of ideas.” Marginal voices—whether in terms of class or ideology—are left out of the conversation in favor of what sells.
Twitter has driven a large bulldozer through the barriers of the traditional press. Like much of online media, Twitter has reduced the cost of entry for new users to near-zero; anyone with an Internet connection can send a tweet. But, unlike much of online media, Twitter has shied away from a reliance on sponsored posts, advertising or expensive tools like “optimization” which many companies use to boost their hits on Google. Twitter is a perfect democracy, where the weak and powerful alike can equally appeal to standards of taste, humor and intellect for success. This is most relevant during the coverage of large-scale, newsworthy events abroad, when it is especially difficult for the traditional press to bring a nuanced account to American audiences. From the the protests in London at the 2009 G-20 Summit to the Arab Spring and the 2012 flooding in Japan, Twitter has time and again supplemented mainstream media coverage with a mosaic of snapshots from active participants. This is especially powerful in war-zones, where journalists face particular difficulties of access and accuracy. During the conflict between Hamas and Israel last November, Israelis and Palestinians used Twitter extensively to report missile launchings, air bombings, casualties, and—most importantly—to correct, often with photographic evidence, inaccurate reports in the media. Breaking the monopoly of traditional media voices includes eyes and ears formerly excluded and enriches our understanding of the world around us.
Like every tool, Twitter will be what we make of it; as the novelist William Gibson once said, “technologies are morally neutral until we apply them.” Left to their own devices, tweeters will no doubt use the site for ignoble, unhelpful or annoying purposes. The character limit will continue to give rise to ungrammatical neologisms, and Kanye West will always have more followers than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But, if we use it wisely, Twitter can help journalism survive the death of print, open our ears to alienated voices and make nerdiness seem cool in the age of social media.