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Twits on Parade

Twittering is the newest of the new media. And the worst.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Maybe you've noticed: These political blogs can be so gabby. Yap yap yap. You go to some website--democretin.com, republicreep.net, whatever--and there will be a new post for you to read, and the blogger goes on for one, two, sometimes three paragraphs, and each paragraph is a huge heap of sentences, two sentences long or even more, and you just want them to get to the point. This is a blog post, not Middlemarch, is what you want to say.

That's why God invented Twitter--God or whoever. Twitter is for people who find the pace of blogs too sleepy, the content too wordy, the whole blog thing way, way too 2005. It's an Internet service and a new form of communication that's about to transform political commentary in much the way blogs have, just as decisively, just as permanently. That's what I hear, anyway. CNET News, a respectable source of news about the Internet, if you can imagine such a thing, says this:

If the 2004 elections hailed the debut of bloggers and the 2006 mid-term elections were when YouTube popped onto the scene, it's looking like 2008 will be the election cycle where Twitter sped to the forefront of the political Web. .  .  . The microblogging site has proven to be a must-use tool for opinionated news junkies and aspiring pundits.

"Micro" is the key to Twitter blogging. Twitter is based on the tiny. Communication on Twitter happens in real time, instantaneously, without that an-noying lag time between the moment when the blogger thinks of something to write and the moment when the reader reads it. On traditional blogs this can often take as much as a minute--an eternity. More important, each post on Twitter can be no longer than 140 characters. Try writing Middlemarch in 140 characters.

Here's how it happens. Let's say you're an aspiring twit. You go to www.Twitter.com and create an account. This gives you your own Twitter homepage. You now have access to the 2.5 million people who also have Twitter accounts and who, in turn, now have access to yours. You type your microblog item on either the keypad of your cell phone or the keyboard of your computer. The item is called a "tweet," in keeping with the Romper Room vernacular of the Internet. The tweet appears instantly on your Twitter page. It will also appear on the Twitter page of everyone who's signed up to have your tweets appear on their Twitter page. At the same time, you get to read the tweets of all the twits whose messages you have signed up to read. Those tweets show up on your Twitter page too. There can be hundreds of these if you want, scrolling across your computer or cell phone screen as your messages are endlessly updated, a lava flow of one-sentence messages.

It's an ingenious way of keeping in touch, particularly for people who need to expose as much of their lives to public scrutiny as possible. The number of such people is very large, as you may have noticed. Sometimes blogs are just too cumbersome. Suppose you need to go to the bathroom. Is it really worth the trouble of posting this information on your regular blog? Maybe .  . .  but maybe not. With Twitter, you can just tap your bladder's condition into your cell phone--"got to hit the head"--and everyone you know, and many whom you don't know, can read about it instantly.

The same goes for every event in your life. When written up and broadcast as a tweet, each insignificant brain burp, your mildest reaction to events, every minor piece of news, takes on a kind of importance that it wouldn't have otherwise; suddenly, thanks to the power of Twitter, it seems to be more consequential than it would ever have been thought to be in any earlier age in human history. That delicious falafel you just ate; the chunk of chick pea that got caught in your teeth; your curiosity about that awesome tattoo on the cute counterguy who took your order--all can now pass through your consciousness and be placed on public display nearly simultaneously. It's like you're being turned inside out. The fulfillment of a dream.

The Twitter service is only two years old, but it didn't take long for people to figure out its political uses. Everybody has political opinions--you may have noticed this, too--and it's now become an article of faith that everyone's political opinions are of equal value and equally worthy of attention, at least so long as they're similar to yours. Twitter has become a roiling stream of political commentary, unimaginably quick and .  .  . well, pithy isn't the right word. Tweets are extremely short but seldom pithy. Blunt, maybe. Uncomplicated always.

A number of political reporters and commentators have begun using Twitter, including some for Time magazine, the Internet magazine Slate, National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. And lots of bloggers use it, too, of course--though some of them have become squeamish about Twitter after an incident earlier this year. A liberal blogger named Ezra Klein, of the American Prospect magazine, got caught Twittering as he watched the late Tim Russert on TV. "f-- tim russert," Klein opined to his Twitter page, without the demure dash. "f-- him with a spiky acid-tipped d--." What the heck--he was just a blogger tweeting away in his pjs on a drowsy Sunday morning. But then Klein's post was published beyond his intended audience of fellow twits. He was forced to apologize in embarrassment.

A blogger--embarrassed. Twitter is a technology of unprecedented power.

I signed up for Twitter out of a clinical interest. I decided to experience last week's presidential debate by reading the tweets that came across my Twitter page. Many twits had announced they would be "Twittering the debate," writing up their reactions as they happened, in bursts of 140 characters or fewer, and I figured reading these couldn't be any less painful, or more boring, than watching the debate on television, slumped in my Barcalounger and shouting at the TV screen like Ezra Klein. I arranged to have as many twits sending their tweets to my page as I could think of. Many of them were personally unfamiliar to me and known only by their Twitter onscreen aliases. As in chat rooms and blogs, people in the Twitter universe assign themselves screen names. And as in chat rooms and blogs, the names are either too cute, revolting, or inadvertently self-demeaning. The use of screen names shows one way in which the real world differs from the Internet. In the real world you can either have me take your political opinions seriously, or you can call yourself "dogmeat69." You can't do both.

But on the Internet anything goes. I chose to use my given name as my screen name, to throw people off. By early afternoon on the day of the debate, my page was a-Twitter with tweets from all over. A reporter for the Washington Post who was covering Barack Obama complained of being trapped in his hotel by Obama's security arrangements. "Feel very second-class citizen," he told his Twitter audience. (With only 140 characters, there's no room for personal pronouns.) Another Post reporter who calls himself "TheFix" recommended a restaurant he and wife had eaten in the night before. The randomness of Twitter takes some getting used to.

A large number of Twitterers seemed to be watching television and were content merely to describe what they saw, even the commercials before the debate. "Oliver Stone is advertising on FoxNews," announced one (using only 38 characters). Another complained about the number of guests on a panel on CNN. A third commented on the crawl MSNBC runs at the bottom of the screen. The TV reportage continued even after the debate began. Some of my fellow twits restricted themselves to summarizing, every 30 seconds or so, the previous 30 seconds of televised debate. "I'm confident about the American economy," I heard McCain say from the television in the other room. And instantly the tweet came from NPR: "McCain: confident about American economy." "I think you can work on all three at once, Tom," McCain told the moderator Tom Brokaw. NPR was on the case: "McCain: I think you can work on all three at once, Tom."

The implication of this technological echo chamber puzzled me. Why bother? Who's the audience? Is it possible that there are people so disadvantaged that they don't have access to a television or radio to watch or listen to a presidential debate but they do carry a BlackBerry to receive Twitter messages about the debate they can't watch or listen to?

I'm not complaining, really I'm not, because the brief factual summaries I was receiving were far superior to the other tweets that were spilling into my laptop. By one reliable count, Obama supporters on Twitter outnumber McCain supporters nine to one, and the imbalance was reflected in the comments scrolling down my screen. Sarcasm was big, as it generally is with people who are too mad to be funny. "Ooooh, eliminating bureaucracy!" sneered SARDO. "A bold and original suggestion from McCain!"

The deadpan, affectless humor of the millennial generation was also in evidence. "How come McCain's bald spot doesn't shine?" Suzannekart pretended to wonder. "My dad's bald spot shines."

"could mccain be an evil little hobbit?" tweeted someone calling himself Shaddock.

But mostly I enjoyed reading the wordslingers of the press corps. On Twitter, there are fewer words to sling, but some of the journalists were chattier than others. I got to like an earnest woman named Kate Phillips from the New York Times, who, considering she works for the Times, was remarkably level-headed. Every four or five minutes she'd chime in with a comment that was as inoffensive as it was pointless: "will the economy get worse?" she wondered. "the candidates need to be careful not to cause more market and fear."

"McCain's now in town hall mode--where he's been a natural--as he talks about his tax plans," Kate reported. "Obama wants to respond."

And then she offered a little of that analysis that the Times is famous for: "their differences on health care may be the singlemost voter touchstone, aside from mortgages."

It was a bit like watching a baseball game with a dotty uncle. "Oh, he's swinging now, hits the ball with the bat, there he goes, better slide   "

The New Yorker's pop music critic was Twittering too. "That small business jack was lame," wrote an outraged Sasha Frere-Jones, after one exchange about the economy. "McCain is the Kanye of politicians and Obama is Daft Punk. Also, Obama knows how to walk."

Sasha wasn't the only one to enrich his tweets with cultural allusions. My hours with Twitter demonstrated yet again that baby boomer journalists and their younger colleagues can effortlessly summon references from what must be, for them, the entire spectrum of Western culture: from Lost in Space to the Dave Matthews Band, from the New Frontier to Get Smart, you name it. They didn't take all those "American Studies" classes for nothing.

TheFix from the Washington Post offered stage criticism--"McCain is doing a weird stand/sit on his stool when Obama is answering questions. Looks odd"--and was particularly fond of quoting Bruce Springsteen lyrics. The tweets from the staff of Slate made the obligatory Seinfeld allusion ("When did McCain become such a close talker?") before opening up their can of snark: "There appears to be a correlation between being an undecided voter and wearing a goatee. Which actually sort of makes sense."

The unanimity was more than a matter of style. Tweeting journalists experience the same mind-meld that makes their non-tweeting colleagues so uninteresting and predictable. Even a revolutionary technology like Twitter can't change that. At the end of the debate, no fewer than four of the reporters chose the same insta-cliché to describe the debate. It had not, they announced, been a "game changer." Almost all complained that the "town hall" format wasn't really a town hall. And when McCain made a clumsy reference to the telegraph, the mirth was widely shared. Everyone sophisticated enough to tweet knows that McCain is really, really old and out-of-it. Time magazine's twinkly Twitterer tweeted, with nearly 70 characters to spare: "The 'telegraph,' of course, is the form of telecommunications that McCain is most familiar with"

Maybe that's so. If it is, I hope the old fellow knows how lucky he's been.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.