Clips, Social Media

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of Twitter

Digital Journal, April 26, 2009.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter said, “Twitter is the side project that took. Now it’s our chance to do something transformative.”

And “transformative,” it certainly is.

A Web 2.0-infant in chronological terms—no more than three years old—Twitter isn’t just growing at a galloping pace—far surpassing Amazon, Google, and eBay in their days—but it’s also impacting society and shaping it in unimaginable ways.

It’s a cultural tsunami sweeping across the fields of literature, religion, marketing, communications, disaster response, even crime.

Technology writer Nicholas Carr has rightly described Twitter as the “telegraph system of Web 2.0.” Its messages, no longer than 140 characters, known as “tweets,” are the 21st century equivalents of the telegrams of yesteryear.

What initially started as a nifty social network tool to keep friends and family posted on the most quotidian thoughts and activities, soon began to take on the role of telegrams—urgent 19th and 20th century communiqués containing vital information, succinctly written, on receipt-like squares of paper.

The Bright Side. In an article in The Times, James Harkin, author of “Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are,” wrote:

Twitter’s coming of age, however, is generally dated to the Mumbai terror attacks at the end of November [2008], when minute-by-minute updates of the unfolding chaos zipped around the world by eye-witnesses armed with Twitter on their laptops and mobile phones.

It was given another fillip on the geopolitical stage in January [2009], when the Israeli Government used Twitter to snipe at the mainstream media and get across its reasons for invading Gaza.

Also, in January, the ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River was captured on Twitter. While you can “follow” the micro-blogging site on Earth, a NASA astronaut has plans to catapult Twitter to a higher place, quite literally, by tweeting from the space shuttle Atlantis.

Earlier this month, Chisinau, the capital of the little-known east European nation of Moldova witnessed what has been dubbed as a “Twitter Revolution.”

To protest against what Natalia Morar, a 25-year-old journalist and her chums, perceived as a rigged election that returned to power the ruling Communist Party, she issued a political call to arms via Twitter.

No sooner than the messages were picked up than a flash mob—an Internet-organized public gathering at a predetermined location for a purpose and quick dispersal—formed.

“It just happened through Twitter, the blogosphere, the Internet, SMS, Web sites, and all this stuff. We just met, we brainstormed for 15 minutes, and decided to make a flash mob,” she told BBC News.

She was arrested, along with 200 others, and placed under house arrest for 10 days, with no access to the Internet. After all, Web 2.0 has made it rather easy to orchestrate seditious activities from the comfort of one’s laptop. She’s has been charged with inciting civil unrest and faces a jail time of 15 years, if convicted.

The Bad Side. While that’s certainly unfortunate, there’re some far more pernicious social side effects of the social media—the creation of a generation of soulless androids obsessed with a 24/7/365 streaming of solipsistic poppycock about “lives (mostly) not worth examining.”

The fact that we’re continually beaming into cyberspace fragments of sentences, seldom exceeding three lines at a time and usually ending in triple exclamation marks, may imperceptibly be changing the way we think, argues Harkin.

Preliminary studies from neuroscientists and psychologists, however, suggest that in the meantime, our brains are likely to become strained and confused if we make too many demands on them.

In other words, beyond a certain point, the productivity bonus that we get from responding to many different streams of information at the same time, levels off and begins to slow us down.

Citing media guru Marshal McLuhan’s hypothetical reaction to the emerging “global electronic village,” Harkin writes that the “never-ending electronic information loop,” where messages are constantly being sent and received, might not give rise to a village-like harmony after all, but precipitate a new kind of voyeurism.

The danger, [McLuhan] once announced, was that we would emerge into “a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony, but an extreme concern with everyone else’s business and much involvement in everybody else’s life”.

On another level, I feel that e–mail too, has also robbed communication of its very heart. People are talking more than ever to each other today, but they’re not saying much. The quantity of information-transmission has surely soared, but that hasn’t translated into quality interaction among people.

Just as the radio and television spelt the end of the 19th century parlor games, the keyboard has (nearly) killed cursive and e-mailing has swallowed letter-writing. Should this trend continue, 50 years down the road, we may totally do away with the use of any kind of writing instrument—pencils and pens.

The realm of literature is already feeling the pinch. The rise of “twitterature”—pico-versions of the great works of English literature and written in street lingo—is a travesty, I say. But more importantly, what’s the reason for the growth of this form of telegraphic literature?

Does it stem from a genuine desire to break down a long text into manageable, if mangled, and unmemorable bits? Or, does this trend—what I’d like to call a hip-hop-style story-telling—cycle back to the days of the Oral Tradition in pre-Classical Greece when yarns spread by word-of-mouth?

The Ugly Side. On April 24, a 52-year-old Oklahoma man was arrested by the F.B.I. after making declarations on Twitter to start a carnage on the steps of the Oklahoma City Capitol building—the venue for that city’s “Tea Party” protests, promoted by the conservative-leaning Fox News.

One of his tweets, published by WIRED magazine, reads thus: START THE KILLING NOW! I am willing to be the FIRST DEATH!”

Invention is a double-edged sword. It can be a boon or a bane. Twitter is no exception. What we choose to tweet about is for us to decide.

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