Quick! What’s the most important issue you are following this week? Obama’s Supreme Court nomination? GM’s impending bankruptcy? Pakistani nukes falling into the hands of the Taliban?
Well if you are a devotee of the rapidly growing social networking and micro-blogging site Twitter, it’s more likely that what tops your list is Star Trek movie reviews, the latest topless photos of Miss California or the most imaginative fake porn star names you can use to spice up your online accounts.
Be brief. Be bright. Be gone. Such is the mantra of Twitter, the service that allows users to instantaneously send and read updates known as ‘tweets.” With a maximum of 140 characters per tweet, Twitter might even have the Ritalin crowd wondering “is that all?”
The well-funded site is in the midst of a heavy media blitz that has organizations like CNN and The New York Times singing its praises. Where there is smoke there is fire. Where there is hype surrounding a new technology… well, I’ve been an IT consultant for 15 years and unfortunately high tech hype usually means a PR firm just snagged a big retainer.
But not wanting to judge too harshly, I decided to sign up for a free Twitter account (the company has yet to monetize its site) and give it a go. With three email accounts, a cell phone, a Blackberry, a LinkedIn account, a FaceBook account, a Tagged account, a subscription to The Wall Street Journal Online and monthly subscriptions to Audible and Jigsaw I was a bit reluctant to sign on for yet another techno-distraction. But sign on I did and I boy was I ever under whelmed.
The gist of the site is that you can follow other Twitter account holders who post short answers to the question of what are they doing right now. I signed on to follow everyone from The New York Times, a handful of celebrities, ESPN, and anyone in my Yahoo contact list that happened to be signed up as well.
Following just 19 accounts, the to do list of tweets demanding my attention filled up quickly. What was I doing? I already have 1116 lower priority work emails dating back months that I have yet to open and another 2119 on Yahoo and 514 on Gmail that will likely never see the light of day. On a good week, I am only four days late on responding to messages on FaceBook--and I haven’t had a good week in some time. I have long since given up monitoring my RSS newsreader that tracks my favorite blogs and news sources.
But I trudged forward. As I scanned through the tweets, ranging from news headlines with imbedded hyperlinks to the full story to the inane “Hi, I just flew in from DC and the flight seemed longer than usual” all I could think of if the was a book I read back in ’92 by Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.
Postman’s contention is that in a Technopoly, technology is god. If it is newer, flashier or faster it’s undoubtedly better. Questioning the techno-god is heresy. The result, Postman contends, is a glut of quickly delivered information that loses its usefulness and becomes “a source of confusion rather than coherence.”
The Twitter press spin is that tweets matter. They allow members pose important questions and track important events. Examples floated in The New York Times, for example, depict Twitterers (“twits” for short?) asking followers if they know of any research related to a particular topic or allowing them to follow the removal of a brain tumor by asking important questions of the surgeon such as “what music are you listening to?” Heady stuff.
In my area of specialization--PeopleSoft HR/Payroll systems--multiple forums, user groups and bulletin boards have existed for years. These resources allow me to solicit feedback from my peers… and allow for responses in full sentences, and, dare I say, paragraphs. A witty micro-blurb might not prove too useful when 15,000 employees are waiting for me to debug their payroll system.
Though I appreciated how easy Twitter made it to follow news sources and blogs, I already have online tools for this. Different isn’t necessarily better.
What’s more, there is the question of whether society benefits from being deluged with yet more information that may or may not do much real informing. The UK’s Daily Mail, for example, recently reported on a study at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California that indicates that the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have a long-term damaging effect on the emotional development of younger people’s brains.
Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, coauthor of the best selling book on attention deficit disorder (ADD), Delivered from Distraction, also question the impact of such technologies. “Raised on a diet of sound bites and electronic stimulation, children can lose the ability to carry on extended conversations or listen to one,” Hallowell notes. He goes on to raise the concern that the onslaught of new technologies may actually be “training” our children to develop ADD.
Questioning new technology is not all together new. In Plato’s Phaedus, King Thalmus questioned the god Theuth as to whether the invention of writing would create a vast population of readers with declining memory skills. Readers filled with the “conceit of wisdom” instead of real wisdom as they were doing little more than regurgitating someone else’s words.
In hindsight, most of us agree that society has benefited from the written word, especially since the advent of the printing press. This is true even though not all that is written is beneficial. Books, newspapers and websites are awash with written garbage. And, more relevant, much that is published is little more than a form pop culture cotton candy for the brain.
Does it matter that Twitter’s primary use is little more than a delivery source for pop candy? One can not live on steak and potatoes alone. There is nothing wrong with the occasional sweet treat in an otherwise balanced diet. Like the concern over the advent of writing, I’ll leave the final verdict on Twitter for a later date. But on first glimpse, the concern should be raised that the more we use technology to deliver pop candy fixes, the more we risk losing our appetite for more substantive fare and degrading our ability to tackle challenging mental tasks.