As much as I admire columnist David Warren, I must disagree with this column.
I called up a Twitter search yesterday, on the word “tsunami.” My screen immediately filled with tweets logged “10 seconds ago,” with a few at the bottom logged “20 seconds ago.” Within a few more seconds, a message flashed: “44 more tweets since you started searching.” After reading the top 10, and observing that each was pointless, I returned to the BBC.
And this is the big truth here: that we are, collectively, descending through layer under layer of fatuity, or as it were, mining our way to Hell. Look around in street, office, and bus, at all the people plugged into small devices, “linked,” as if in some stupendous electronic chain gang. Rigidly held, by short spans of attention.
First of all, this kind of complaint — short attention span, youth plugged in — has become common for people of a certain age. Well, people of my age and older, I’m embarrassed to say. Because young people behave differently than we did at that age, we knee-jerk that they’re behaving badly. It’s the old “lock down Elvis’ hips” argument. Different is not inherently wrong, as I’m sure Warren would agree. However, this argument comes so easily to older people’s lips that I wish thoughtful commentators would reject it for its banality, at least.
Secondly, Warren (unknowingly) describes his own problem in the first paragraph. Bluntly said, he doesn’t know jack about using Twitter. Searching on a trending hashtag (“tsunami”) days, or even hours, after an event has occurred is asking for inanity and spam. Twitter is at its best within a half hour or less time frame for breaking news. You will literally not find information faster than via Twitter. Once the breaking news is over, though, you must look elsewhere for thoughtful commentary. You ask Twitter to be something it’s not if you look there for insight.
Also, as Warren’s first paragraph demonstrates, Twitter is information coming faster than you can consume it. Just looking at Twitter’s feed in this impersonal, unfiltered way will give you nothing useful. You must follow people. You must build a list of people from different businesses and perspectives so that the information you read is useful for you. Building a great Twitter follow list is a work of art. Humor, politics, news, sports — you personalize whom you follow. Then, when breaking news hits, you read your follow list for the updates but also the immediate commentary that means something to you. The Japanese astronauts, whom I follow, are prolific every day; however, since the quake they have been silent. Their tweeting absence tells me much about the state of emotions in Japan.
Quite possibly Warren is right about the state of “info debris” and our hellish relationship with it. Certainly the odds of him being right are better than the odds that I am. I object to the form of his argument, though. He demonstrates that he is ignorant about the subject. Let him educate himself and then comment. From my perspective, Twitter is a wonderful tool. Like all other technology, Twitter used wisely is an asset; Twitter used poorly is an offense.