“Remarks are not literature.” (27 characters) Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933
Percentage of Americans under 35 who say they text, tweet or check their Facebook pages right after sex: 36. Harper’s Index, Feb. 2010
It is not too surprising that Twitter-hating has grown as fast as Twitter itself. I got over 450,000 hits for “I hate Twitter.” A shot at www.ihatetwitter.com produced not a full-blown website, but just a screen that said “So do I.”
Somebody must have bought the domain and, instead of building a website where Twitter-haters could focus their wrath, concluded that there are already plenty of ways for them to do so and simply put up an eloquent three-word-statement: You are not alone. And that is enough.
“There are things which don‘t deserve to be said briefly.” (55 characters) Jean Rostand, de la Vanite, 1925
Why do we hate Twitter? More particularly, why does a skeptical secular humanist hate it?
First, there’s the sheep-ishness. The world is divided into Leaders, Followers and Questioners. The Leaders (10%) decide what’s cool, what to think and believe, and the Followers (85%) follow.
Twitter-haters, at least some of them, are Questioners. Astonishingly, many who profess to hate it really wish it would work differently. They’re Twitter-lovers who wish their love-object would change.
Not me. My “Jesus Fucking Christ!!” point occurred when I heard that news of Oscar candidates conducting cyber-PR war via Twitter. Fluff about fluff. And the story itself is fluff about fluff about fluff.
On that day, I began to wish the paper would publish another, parallel edition, with no Twitter and more news. But no such luck. The very next day, I learned that Bank of America “now has six staffers responding sympathetically to customer complaints via Twitter.”
SIX staffers! Why not 60? Why not hundreds?
After all, if the point is to convince people, with soothing electronic, faux-personal messages, that even if the bank did screw up, make stupid loans and engage in dubious financial practices that helped derail the world’s economy, it’s really, really, sorry…if the bank believes it can mollify angry customers with tweets – as opposed, to, say, sending bundles of cash to the people who’ve been screwed – then let’s put some real effort into it.
With hundreds of bank employees Twittering their customers’ cares away, the whole problem should disappear in a couple of weeks.
“The man who follows the crowd will wind up standing at the end of a very long line for hours, staring at the back of somebody’s head.” (132 characters)
Twitter seems to be an extremely accurate litmus test that distinguishes Followers from Questioners. One Hater who is also a Questioner is Ben Tao. Ben still seems to harbor a grudging affection for the cyber-affliction, but he is right on when he says,
“Things always worry me when people act super crazy about them. I take a very cynical view of mankind. I think once everyone starts doing something there is cause to worry. It’s like how Spider Man has Spidey Senses when danger is around, when everyone starts doing something or talking about it alarms go off in my head…to stay away. I’ll call this power Lemmy Senses (named in honor of those adorable Lemmings).”
I too have always had that power, and it tends to cut you off from the other 95%. I have always been made wary by the mere fact that everybody’s flocking to something. I need to take a good look before I act like them, if indeed I’m going to.
What I had for lunch
The second, equally odious quality that makes Twitter-haters want to vomit is the stifling, all-pervasive narcissism.
In “Twitter Nation: Nobody cares what you’re doing,” Helen A.S. Popkin provides a plausible explanation: “Blame their parents, those touchy-feely post boomers who piled on the praise and positive reinforcement, lest they bruise little Dylan or Madison’s budding self esteem. It’s Mom and Dad who awarded gold stars and iMacs every time their precious progeny engaged in the most mundane of child development. Why should they or the rest of us gape in horror at the next generation posting itself naked on the Internet (both literally and metaphorically)? Twitter is just the latest development in the biggest generation gap since rock n’ roll invented teenagers.”
But there’s more at work here than thoughtless flocking of narcissistic sheep, as discouraging as that is to those of us who mourn the marginalization of critical thinking and skepticism.
You are NOT a Gadget.
Don’t you get it, Twitterers? This is all a set-up for MARKETING. The social media provide ever finer ways to slice and dice humans into groups which can be the targets of ever-more-precise marketing and advertising.
As Jaron Lanier writes in his manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget” (Harper’s Feb. 2010, and book of same title), “the customers of social networks are not the members of those networks. The real customer is the advertiser of the future, but this creature has yet to appear in any significant way.”
Using the group structures into which Twitterers obediently divide themselves, “an advertiser might be able to target all the members of a peer group just as they are forming their habits, opinions about brands, and so on” and thus design ads that leverage “peer pressure biases in a population of real people who would then be primed to buy whatever the advertiser is selling for their whole lives.”
So you see, Twitterers, there is more at stake than millions of strangers knowing what you had for lunch. MUCH more.
It goes even deeper than that. Twitter is one aspect of a broader assault by the machines, a creeping effort to make us more like them. As Lanier points out, the underlying stealth-premise is that “the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves.”
Thus, as Lanier notes, we're stuck with adapting to locked-in technologies like the MIDI sound-wave or the Windows file. Couldn't imagine a world without them.
He also says that “people degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart.” They program Microsoft Word so that it starts outlining for you, even if you didn’t intend to create a numbered list. Teachers teach to standardized tests. Bankers use “supposedly intelligent” algorithms to calculate credit risks.
In my experience, the most egregious example is the dubious and newly-emerged art of writing for search enginge optimization. As a teacher of English composition, I spent many years showing students how to avoid unnecessary repetition. Along comes SEO, which dictates that we write prose in which certain key words appear with mind-numbing repetition just so that machines can find us.
And, of course, social media cloyingly put you in touch with people from your past. I’ve exchanged one or two emails, but holy shit, would you believe it, these people’s lives have long ago bifurcated from mine, and we have little to talk about, even though Facebook or some other idiot-in-the-machine thinks we do.
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books – what other men do not say in whole books.” (121 characters)
Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
As a linguist and writer, I come down to the most offensive, degrading, dehumanizing characteristic of Twitter: the machine decides that you, a human being, must express yourself in 140 characters. No fucking machine is going to tell me how long my communications shall be.
You don’t need 140 characters to say something worth remembering. But sometimes you may need more, e.g., this quote on how to construct a pithy aphorism (Twitterers, take note):
“For aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of order and connexion are cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorism but some good quality of observation.” (343 characters) (Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)
You can say something good in 140 or less too. Here’s one more example:
“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.” (107 characters)
The point, and perhaps it’s lost on the self-esteem, get-a-trophy-just-for-showing-up generation, is that in thought and expression, quality is more important than quantity. The harsh truth may be that 99% of Tweeters couldn’t say something worthwhile in 140 or 1400 or 14,000 characters. But technology allows them the illusion that they can.
The humanist’s eternal question: what makes us human? Hundreds of works of sci-fi explore the question, some pitting us against intelligent machines (Terminator; I, Robot), some joining us with machines (Robocop, Ironman).
But is there a science fiction story that’s predicated on a gradual takeover, a subtle sedition, where our very humanity is enmeshed with machines, and we struggle to make THEM seem clever? That’s the reality that’s unfolding today.
“I can’t afford the Twitter”
“I can’t afford the Twitter” is David Letterman’s response to Kevin Spacey’s raising the matter on Letterman’s show. “I can’t afford” is the knee-jerk comedic reaction to anything new, a blanket rejection. Letterman can’t afford it. But of course he can. It’s free.
As to why he chose to call it “the Twitter,” I’m not sure. The definite article is used with proper nouns (The Grand Canyon, The Washington Monument) which exist in one tangible version. Twitter doesn’t fit this description; it’s a zero-article proper noun.
Later, after Spacey explained more about Twitter, Letterman said, “Isn’t that…what’s the word I’m thinking of…a waste of time?”
That’s more to the point. Young people don’t have a good grasp of the concept of “wasting time,” just as little kids find it hard to understand “exercise” (they’re always exercising). They have LOTS of time.
So the original assessment was correct too. I can’t afford the delusion that my every thought is of interest to everybody. I can’t afford to waste time. I can’t afford being told by a machine how to communicate.
I can’t afford the Twitter.
ADDENDUM: However, I can be paid to tweet, occasionally, The latest victory of machine over human is the twitterization of that most hoary and honorable mode of communication: the speech. From Pericles to Cicero to Churchilll to Obama (who doesn’t say much but sounds great), the art of rhetoric was honed and perfected in the setting of one person talking to, holding the attention of, and in some way benefitting, an attentive (hopefully) audience.
This takes time — several minutes, at least, maybe more. Maybe a half-hour (you start to lose them after 20 min.). I still don’t know how Fidel could go on for hours. But then, his audiences had no choice.
Now the structured formality of a speech, with its narrative arc, its movement from, say, problem to solution to motivation…it’s all been twitterized.
I know: I just wrote a speech for Twitter. Twelve tweets, over and out. No attention-grabbing intro., no stories, no examination of a subject, no inspirational close. Just twelve tweets. I took the gig because I wanted to see if I could do it. And I got paid.
I hope this isn’t the start of a trend. It’s like seeing newspapers lose out to the Internet, year after year. The speech should survive, because whether al fresco or accompanied by elaborate videos or PowerPoint, there is no form of communication more powerful. Look at what oratory has accomplished (bad and good). It’d be a shame to see it go.
It probably will continue to be a standard form of communication in politics and diplomacy.
People will continue to get awards in every field and must say the right things.
Corporate execs will continue to make speeches. They represent the company and its POV; they humanize it. And if you've got a great new product...well, some of Steve Jobs' product intros/paeans to technology are state-of-the art oratory.
But maybe it's gone from many settings already.
From the audience’s side, hand-held gadgets have completely wrecked the concept of “mass attention”; practically everyone is somewhere else.