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If Machiavelli Could Twitter


The big critique of Twitter -- a critique that I, at one point, shared -- is that a human being can't sneeze in under 140 characters. Why should they be able to think at that length? But Gideon Rachman has a witty rejoinder to this:

The power of extreme brevity was brought home to me in another context when I told a friend that I was thinking of writing a book. He said: “It won’t work unless you can summarise the argument in a single sentence that can fit on Twitter.” Initially, I found this a repulsive idea. How stupid, I thought – name me a great book that can be summarised in 140 characters? But when I considered the matter further, I realised that most great works of political philosophy could be summarised on Twitter. Indeed, their very greatness lies in the fact that they can be boiled down to a sentence.

The Communist Manifesto is often summarised by the very twitterable: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” (Marx’s original version was less succinct.) Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, would also have been a natural on Twitter. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is fewer than 50 characters. Kant is a bit more long-winded. But even the categorical imperative makes it under Twitter’s limbo bar: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, is fewer than 140 characters.

There are some great works that have not produced that single killer sentence that encapsulates the whole thing. Still, even they can usually be summarised in a tweet. Machiavelli’s The Prince comes down to “nice guys finish last”. As for the Bible, how about, “God made the world in seven days. Respect”.

Nicely put. But a lot of the garment-rending over Twitter comes from people who haven't quite cottoned on to the idea that though you can't add much value with a thought that comes in under 140 characters, you can add a lot of value with a thought and a link that comes in at under 140 characters. To test this, I just took a look at my Twitter feed. Of the last 10 tweets I've received, all 10 contain links. Of the 10 before that, nine contain links.

When you add links into the equation, a lot of what gets twittered is more akin to a headline than a thought. Spencer Ackerman, for instance, tweets, "why is Gen. McCaffrey still on my TV after this story:" Similarly, Tim Fernholz says, "The Supremes say State AGs can take banks to task for their pernicious lending. Nice!" Like a headline, the description serves the purpose of helping you decide whether you'd like to read more on the subject. Indeed, you can look at Spencer's tweet one of two ways. Either it was 100-or-so characters. Or, if you include the linked article, it was about 5,400 words. And I think we'd all agree that you can say rather a lot in 5,400 words. If Niccolo Machiavelli were twittering, he would have written, “nice guys finish last:”

This gets to a broader trend in journalism. If you look at an institution like The Washington Post, the business model is almost entirely centered around new information and thoughts that are reported, or at least written, by our staffers. If you look at an institution like the HuffingtonPost, the core value is the aggregation of interesting information and thoughts from around the Internet. Some in the media scoff at that approach. I don't. In a world blessed by a superabundance of information, there's real value in finding, sorting, categorizing and publicizing that information. It's not glamorous in the way that journalism has been in recent decades. It doesn't make you seem smart or stealthy. And it's not a replacement for journalism. But if the end goal is informing our audience, it's crucial value that we -- who are paid in part to sit around and sort and evaluate information -- can add.

And, as always, you can follow my twitter feed here.

Photo credit: Screen grab.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 30, 2009; 11:32 AM ET
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Isn't that all journalism is? Aggregation, and contextualizing. Fundamentally, I'm willing to pay for reporting from people with greater access to information than me, and who are able to skillfully put things in context for my simple brain.

Why would anyone scoff at this obvious notion?

Posted by: tbomb | June 30, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if Gideon Rachman has heard of this latest attempt to condense the Great Books into tweets:

Posted by: Noahkgreen | June 30, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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