Monday, December 30, 2013

Why Tweet?

So, several weeks ago I was interviewed by Tom Stoelker, who writes for Fordham University's newsletter, Inside Fordham.  He was doing a piece about Twitter, and wanted quotes from Fordham faculty who use that social network. 

So I spoke to him on the phone for a bit, and he pulled out some of my comments, wrote them up and included them in the article entitled, Six Faculty and Why They Tweet. Apart from myself, the six include my colleagues in the Department of Communication and Media Studies, Paul Levinson, Beth Knobel, Mike Plugh, and Bob Blechman, as well as a Theology professor, Christiana Peppard. And he introduced the article with the following:

From Russian politics, to basketball, to philosophy, to a murder mystery or two, a sampling of Fordham professors demonstrate that their Twitter approaches are as varied as their interests.

The University’s more active Twitter users spring from the communication and media studies department, though faculty in other disciplines are delving in as well. 
All regular faculty users interviewed have one thing in common: they warily tested the waters before finding their comfort zone. 
To a non-digital native, Twitter can seem like an unwieldy, hungry beast, or worse, a massive party where you can’t find your friends. Interviews with six professors demonstrate how they manage to both find friends and feed the beast.

And you can click on the link to read what the other five had to say, I'll just share my own remarks here on Blog Time Passing, but first, here's how Tom introduced me (my quote came after Paul's, who was introduced as "a direct disciple of the late media ecology theorist Neil Postman":

Strate got onto Twitter in the very early days. Another disciple of Postman, Strate’s Twitter circle includes scholars and practitioners of media ecology. Though he uses the medium proficiently for specific interests, he remains acutely aware of Twitter’s pitfalls.

Now then, here are the words attributed to me. I say attributed, because we had a long telephone conversation, I have no record of what I actually said, and this is what Tom selected out of a much larger volume of remarks, the text of which of course I had a chance to review and approve.

From a critical point of view, Twitter raises a lot of questions. What is the point of this medium? What is it doing? What is it undoing? I see it as abbreviated telegraphic discourse. Electronic media in general undermines the concept and practice of literacy as we’ve known it. It discourages engagement in long, measured discourse and deep reading, and it’s not about following a train of coherent thought. It often trivializes what you’re dealing with. And while it’s common to hear complaints about the ‘What-I-had-for-lunch’ tweets, more importantly, Twitter turns political discourse into slogans, quips, and sound bites. We lose the capacity for careful reasoning and clear thought. That naturally leads to more conflict-oriented communication. So, how do you evaluate that? We evaluate a tweet by how clever and economical it is, how many people it goes out to, and how often it gets re-tweeted. None of that speaks to how well it informs us, educates us, or uplifts us. You know something’s wrong when every television show has a ‘like us on Facebook’ and a ‘follow us on Twitter.’

Now, just to clarify, I did say quite a bit on the positive side about Twitter as well, but Tom said that I was the only one to have anything really critical to say about the medium, so he wanted to feature that part of my remarks.

And I'll add that part of my criticism that he left out was the typical it's not what it used to be kind of commentary. That is, Twitter was a lot more enjoyable when relatively few people were on it, and I was able to actively engage with a small group of folks who I followed and followed me back. It's lost much of its appeal for me as it's become more of a mass medium in many ways, dominated by celebrities, and folks trying to get noticed with all those hashtags and such, rather than just take part in a conversation with others.

The last sentence in my quote actually refers to that point, the perils of becoming so popular that Twitter accounts, along with Facebook pages, are promoted on just about every TV show.

And then there's the story of Justine Sacco's tweet heard 'round the world, how a PR professional made a dumb joke on an account with only 200 followers, which exploded into a firestorm of outrage that she was unable to deal with being offline on a long flight overseas, leading to an extraordinary degree of vituperation, and her losing her job even before she landed. If you don't know what I'm talking about, BuzzFeed provides a pretty good summary: This Is How A Woman’s Offensive Tweet Became The World’s Top Story; I found this piece by someone familiar wth Sacco particularly revealing: Acquaintance Reveals Justine Sacco's Fateful Ideas About Twitter; and you can just Google "Justine Sacco" to read a wide variety of opinion on what happened to her.

If nothing else, her story illustrates the potential danger of Twitter, and all social media. The lesson certainly is, think before you tweet. And the question it raises is why get involved in such activities in the first place. Twitter is pretty amazing after all, but to invoke the title of my forthcoming book, are we in danger of amazing ourselves to death? Why tweet?, indeed!

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