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I really liked this post from Steve Coll on the moral characteristics of communications mediums:

At the Washington Post, I became responsible for thinking about new media. When the World Wide Web exploded in the late nineteen-nineties, some of its possibilities seemed immediately attractive, such as the accessibility of new global audiences and the democratization of documentary video. However, as new social media arose during the Web’s second generation -- blogging, Facebook, Twitter -- I was put off. Because these technologies had qualities that I found unattractive -- loss of privacy, pervasive triviality, the sense of participating like an insect in a pulsing, indiscriminate, conflict-ridden electronic hive -- I assumed initially that the technologies would fail or become marginal. The opposite proved to be the case; if anything, my skepticism or repulsion at the emergence of a new form of social media was a reliable indicator that it would succeed.[...]

In what way do technological systems have moral characteristics? We value books as a technological system (at least, at The New Yorker, we do), but why? In the history of publishing, book writers and readers surely have engaged in as much mendacity, manipulation, triviality, confusion, and wasted time -- as a proportion of the whole endeavor -- as bloggers and tweeters do today. A technological system is as indifferent to the character of its user as dice are to the character of the craps player. And yet the qualities of excellence in a great book do seem specific to the book’s form, and what it requires of its human partner. The book’s disappearance might well herald the diminishment of those qualities in culture.

It took me a long time to warm up to Twitter as a means of public communication. I now count that as one of the serious mistakes I've made as a journalist. If I'd been more open-minded toward the medium at the beginning, I would have had more of a first-mover advantage as it began to grow.

Plus, it turns out that I like Twitter. A lot. My early resistance to the site was because I already used it for private communication and had trouble thinking of it as a public forum. But the best part of Twitter is that it gives you the option of making private or semi-private experiences -- being trapped inside during a snowstorm, or watching Super Bowl commercials -- decidedly public. It's like being able to talk with your friends in a bar, only you don't have to be at the bar, and the range of voices isn't limited to your friends. And then, when you're done, you just turn it off.

The final point worth making is that I can't be the only writer who's really fascinated by the 140 character limit. The amount of mental energy I've sunk into cramming complex thoughts into that paltry text field is considerable, and has always struck me as a real lesson in the powers of concision.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter here.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 8, 2010; 2:25 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The budget in boxes
Next: The Senate's problem is not disagreement. It's elections.


most young tech savvy people i know were skeptical of twitter. unlike google, which the first time most people i know who used it in the late 1990s never used another browser again.

Posted by: razibk | February 8, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Color me unconvinced. Ezra, you say that a social media tool like Twitter "gives you the option of making private or semi-private experiences -- being trapped inside during a snowstorm, or watching Super Bowl commercials -- decidedly public."

What makes you think anyone should be interested in your private or semi-private experiences? Except, possibly, maybe a partner or family member or close friend. Certainly not 1,300 of your friends or followers. "Wow, the snow's really coming down now" is hardly a written communication that stands on an equivalent footing with, say, Faulkner. Or even the briefest Talk of the Town squib.

I've lived through every iteration of the Internet, though I was raised in the Guttenberg era (and, for purposes of disclosure, make a paltry income from working with written language in book form). But I have to agree with Steve Coll. This second-generation of the Web is profoundly disappointing. Those of us old enough to remember the grand claims made for cable television in its infancy see a comparable degeneration in the technological promise of the Internet. Cable was going to revolutionize and democratize media. It would be all Paper Tiger Television and community-based production and a flowering of independent film and video. It turned out to be infomercials and diners-and-drive-in pap and the acne system channel.

I'm not a Luddite. But I do predict that the 140-character comminqué will not have the lasting power of Shakespeare. Form really does dictate content. And in this case less is, well, less.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 8, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

JJenkins2, comparisons to Shakespeare are always unfair. We won't know what things are going to have the lasting power of Shakespeare until we're all dead and gone. Furthermore, not everything has to stand next to Shakespeare to be worthwhile.

As to who would be interested in reading Ezra's tweets, well, I'm pretty sure the most easy way to deduce that is to see how many followers he's got. As it's blocked here at work I can't check it myself, but I'm going to assume it's a number greater than zero. That's who would want to read Ezra's private and, semi-private, or public messages. That you're not interested in Ezra's short-form messages doesn't mean that it's an invalid form of communication.

And cable television *has* revolutionized TV. The Emmys have been dominated by cable programing for years now, and it's allowed the creation of niche shows that would never last on a network. Again, The Wire, Dexter, or The Colbert Report may not be Shakespeare, but they're pretty great.

Frankly, I still haven't gotten onto the Twitter bandwagon. That's not too surprising though, despite being a huge nerd, I've fought against lifestyle devices and services (personal cell phone, texting, Facebook, etc.) long after they became the thing to do. Then, inevitably, I start out doing them and they become indispensible. It's also probably something of a collective action problem, since I don't have any friends that Twitter, and thus have no need to check it and no audience for my own tweets.

The 140 character limit may indeed change. It's an arbitary limit chosen for technological and stylistic reasons. When Twitted fades into obscurity (as these sites always do, see Friendster) some other company will surely take its place with their own rules and perks. But what Twitter has shown is that short bursts of instant communication are a valued means ot staying in touch for many people. Whether it's a celebrity you find amusing or a friend that has a wry sense of humor, people like to stay connected in each other's lives beyond formal methods of communication like phone calls, letters, and yes, long for blog posting.

Posted by: MosBen | February 8, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Twitter as a moral system? I shudder these days when I hear human elements attributed to technological systems and other man-made objects/entities. God only knows what privileges the Supreme Court 5 will bestow upon them.

Posted by: Ami_Blue1 | February 8, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what Steve's point is. Steve sez:

"In the history of publishing, book writers and readers surely have engaged in as much mendacity, manipulation, triviality, confusion, and wasted time -- as a proportion of the whole endeavor -- as bloggers and tweeters do today."

That's ridiculous. I'm sure if publishing a book had been as cheap as tweeting is, you'd have an equal amount of trash, but as it is, books have a higher ratio of good material because they're damned hard to produce. They have editors, fact-checkers, bottom lines, etc. The fact that, as Steve says, "the qualities of excellence in a great book do seem specific to the book’s form" should surprise exactly no one. Because the reasons behind this disparity in quality are so obvious, this is neither a compelling endorsement of books, nor a sharp rebuke to the social tools of the internet. They're just different.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | February 8, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

You didn't need the ironic link to your twitter feed to be ironic. Coll classifies blogs with facebook and twitter. He just said your life's work was worthless.

I have a problem with people who don't know what the hell they are talking about. He wouldn't have written that about blogs if he read the blogs I read (including this one).

In contrast, while I'm sure that much of value has been published in the New Yorker other than the cartoons and S. Hersh, I have no idea what it might be (I don't read The New Yorker). I'd say that I have as much right to say that everything else in the New Yorker is worthless crap as he has do dismiss all blogs simultaneously.

Posted by: rjw88 | February 8, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

When in France, Hemingway was fascinated with the compression needed to file news via transatlantic cable. George Seldes reports:

"...the Genoa Conference was Hemingway's first experience with filing cable news, with writing "cablese" and ... this encounter affected the famous Hemingway style and made him a world-known writer.... "Cablese" was more than cutting down on words, or skeletonizing ... It meant not only removing all the surplus fat, yet including all the facts, using simple and direct words, new word combinations, word inventions, condensations--everything to save words and therefore money for the paper...."

Posted by: DeliciousPundit | February 8, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

"What makes you think anyone should be interested in your private or semi-private experiences?"

Well, the fact that they follow my Twitter feed, and keep following it, and keep retweeting and answering and telling their friends to follow. Twitter is a marketplace. No one is forced to follow what I say, and it's pretty clear to me whether people are adding my tweets to their list or removing them.

In Twitter, unlike so much else in life, it's pretty easy to tell if people are interested.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 9, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

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