NY Times Editor Claims Twitter Killing Conversation, While His Tweets Spawn Conversation

from the compartmentalism-in-140-characters dept

There’s been some buzz about NYTimes Editor Bill Keller’s recent column, in which — in true curmudgeon fashion — he posits that Twitter and such are a problem because they are killing deep conversation:

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

He then compares this to claims heard in yesteryear about how calculators meant people weren’t good at doing math in their head any more, and how future generations with their brains and retinal displays jacked directly into the network would make people bad at remembering stuff. We’ve heard such claims before, but I think it misses the point. Yes, it’s important for people to be able to understand the basic building blocks of things like mathematics, but is it really such a horrible thing if you can free up that part of your brain and let it work on other tasks?

As for the claims about the lack of deep conversations on Twitter, I think that’s unnecessarily compartmentalizing communication. Twitter isn’t designed for deep conversations, so asking it to do deep conversations and mocking it for not doing so seems sort of silly, doesn’t it? And, yet, I know first hand that short bursts of conversations on Twitter have resulted in much deeper conversations outside of Twitter for me, as well as all sorts of connections to people and conversations I never would have had otherwise. That those didn’t all happen directly on Twitter seems entirely besides the point. In many cases they happened because of Twitter, and that seems a lot more interesting and powerful than worrying about how some people sound “stupid” on Twitter. Some people sound stupid off Twitter too. Perhaps the problem isn’t Twitter.

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Comments on “NY Times Editor Claims Twitter Killing Conversation, While His Tweets Spawn Conversation”

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17 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

The problem is certainly not Twitter, though I’ve been caught and have witnessed character limits turning otherwise well spoken folks into gibbering goofballs (auto correct has some blame here too).

Twenty years ago, babysitting my niece after school, I was shocked that her particular school wasn’t teaching simple phonics – sounding out words – but was sending home lists of vocabulary to memorize. No teaching on the basics of how words are formed, just rote spelling. After changing schools it became apparent she had a slight learning disability, but dammit, learning the very reasons for language translating from written to spoken and back again would’ve gone a long way to help her in the beginning.

I’m digressing, but Twitter, like the internet in general, is only serving to start conversations, as Mike said. Forums, articles, and blogs help to continue it, it then spills over into actual face to face conversation. Might as well blame news headlines for the same thing Keller is blaming on Twitter.

I’m a dope in person, stuttering, forgetting, but when I write I can organize my thoughts, edit, clarify, choose. I’m glad the internet works for me in that way. Keller’s continuing the conversational damning of Twitter by writing a damn editorial that sprung from one Tweet, for crying out loud. Does he not get the irony there?

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Well, there's your problem...

If you start with a “forgone” conclusion, it’s pretty easy to find the results you want. If your feeling is that Twitter is useless for holding a longform conversation, you’ll find that it is exactly like that.

If you sign up for Facebook with the impression that it’s loaded with superficial navel-gazers, you’ll find exactly that.

If you think the internet makes people stupid, you’ll find no shortage of stupid internet users.

And once you find your conclusion, there’s really no reason to look further, is there?

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

but is it really such a horrible thing if you can free up that part of your brain and let it work on other tasks?

Apparently, to a lot of people, yes. I’ve been having this kind of debate a lot lately (most recently it was about letting kids use spellcheck in school – which many people are apparently against, just like calculators), and the vast majority of people I talk to react with absolute horror when I suggest that it’s okay for some skills to become less important while others take their place.

Several times I have tried pointing out that once the most important skill was hunting, and then for thousands of years it was farming for about 90% of people on the planet, but we don’t teach those things anymore. Usually they just laugh and say that is silly and has nothing to do with anything. Cognitive dissonance at work.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I find the calculator idea particularly absurd. Doing math on paper especially is nothing more than the rote application of an algorithm using a few memorized rules and a few memorized tables. To the extent your IQ represents your ability to blindly apply simple rules and memorize tables of numbers, nothing could be more useless. In life, almost nothing of importance can be solved by blindly following an algorithm. Inventing an algorithm and using creative new ways to apply old algorithms, those are skills that can get you very far. But I suppose the current state of journalism shows it does it not? Most pieces are nothing more than a brain-dead application of a few simple rules. Look up the two “sides” of the topic. Call up representatives from both sides for a sound-bite. Put a bit of fluff to fill the rest. O(3). I guess you can do it in O(1): copy paste press release. This seems to explain why “journalism” is doing so poorly. It’s done by people who think memorizing multiplication tables is the height of human creativity and ingenuity.

No offense meant to the actual journalists out there who actually report in intelligent manners and sometimes in very dangerous circumstances.

abc gum says:

Re: Re:

“our generation’s collective IQ suffered from calculators,”

Sounds like opinion unsubstantiated by factual data.

“Solving increasingly challenging captchas every day gives our IQs unprecedented boost!”

This too is highly doubtful, got any data in support of this conjecture?

Ikarushka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“our generation’s collective IQ suffered from calculators,”

Sounds like opinion unsubstantiated by factual data.

Fact: your comment I’m replying to.

“Solving increasingly challenging captchas every day gives our IQs unprecedented boost!”

This too is highly doubtful, got any data in support of this conjecture?

Yes, my comment you replied.

Sorry, did not want to offend, just couldn’t help. Peace.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

He is making the same point as those who say blogs are destroying spelling, grammar, good writing and puppies. If there was no Twitter, the people who responded “Um, wrong.” or “Nuh-uh!!” would not have sparred with him as the pamphleteers of yore. They would not have attempted to match his wit through the ancient art of Socratic debate. Those people would have never heard of him and if they did, they would have gone back to their daily activities never mentioning this event to anyone. If conversation did happen, it would have happened with their family or friends out of Mr. Keller’s earshot. And guess what? There is nothing that tells us that such deep conversation did not actually happen today.

Mr. Keller is simply embracing a most pedestrian fallacy. The pre-Twitter data at which he looks is a body of literature composed by the highly selected group who were able to access the traditional media + his family and friends. That group is most likely composed of people whom he finds to be “not stupid” and most likely did not respond without carefully considering what they were saying/writing. (I can hardly imagine anyone remaining friends with Mr Keller for long if they did not display intelligence he would find of an acceptable level) However, his Twitter response must have elicited responses from a very large group of people who because of the lower barrier to entry are not up to the high standards of Mr. Keller. This says nothing about what Twitter does to your intelligence. All it says is that more of us can be heard by Mr. Keller and many of us might be inferior half-wits.

This experimental flaw is otherwise known in the sciences are mucking things up. In fact, given the obvious way Mr. Keller is simply trying to confirm his biases by deliberately creating a flawed experiment, it would probably give rise to an ethical violation. Thankfully, he is not a scientist but merely a scrivener of whom one could expect no better.

This of course all ignores the fact that if it was not for Twitter, Mr. Keller would have looked positively foolish when trying to discuss Twitter. One could quite probably have described him as a twit.

Fletcher Wortmann (user link) says:

There's kind of a contradiction here, isn't there?

Mr. Keller complains about the quality of a discussion that he started with name-calling and accusations: “Twitter makes you stupid.” It isn’t fair to complain about the absence of civil conversation if you yourself don’t try to uphold it. You don’t get to whine about the quality of responses when you present your entire argument in the form of a hashtag.

I don’t even really like Twitter… but this is just foolishness.

Johnny Quest (profile) says:

Completely missing the point

Twitter isn’t designed for deep conversations

That’s exactly the point Mr Keller has failed to realise. Or does realise but has chosen to ignore to try make his point seem slightly less absurd.

Twitter is status updates. Twitter is very short, one to many, broadcasts. For a long time there wasn’t even the functionality within the main Twitter interface to allow you to take part in a discussion based on one Tweet. That’s changed recently with the new Twitter interface, enabling people to follow a “conversation”, but the functionality is naturally clunky, as that just isn’t what Twitter is for.

One of the most infuriating examples of Twitter use is when someone has a story to tell, and they split it out over 5-10 sequential messages. That’s just not what Twitter is designed for.

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