The Magazine

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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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.