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The Plague

Jonathan V. Last, Twitter-immune

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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I read an essay by a senior editor at the Atlantic recently that began, “I finished up Middle-march two days ago, and had a good debate about it on Twitter.”

Cartoon of The Grim Reaper looming over people who use Twitter

Twitter (for the five people in America still blissfully ignorant of it) is a publishing platform that allows one to fire off bursts of written thought from just about anywhere onto the Internet for all to read. You Twitter on your computer while you fritter away the workday. You Twitter on your iPad while watching American Idol at night. You Twitter on your cell phone while standing in line at the grocery store. Or eating dinner at a Wolfgang Puck’s. Or milling at a party pretending to make conversation.

The goal of Twitter is to make publishing as frictionless as possible. As soon as a thought pops into your head you shunt it out to Twitter before your mind has a chance to edit it, reject it, or simply forget it. Goodness knows how many truly wonderful thoughts went unuttered before Twitter arrived on the scene to preserve them all.

For people who believe that writing should be effortless, Twitter is a boon. Its only downside is that your zipless thought must be expressed in no more than 140 characters. (Note: That’s 140 characters, not 140 words.)

So this poor fellow at the Atlantic made his way through all 900 pages of George Eliot and then within the hour began “debating” it using a medium that limits thoughts to 140 characters. Middlemarch—considered by some the greatest English novel—runs roughly 320,000 words. Concerning the question of Rosamond’s ultimate happiness, for instance, he tweeted, “I thought she was all ‘Gimme the loot, gimme the loot, gimme the loot.’ And she got it.” In another burst he rendered his final verdict on Eliot’s opus: “She has a total handle on language, but I just thought she couldn’t bring it all together, as you say.”

Well.

This is the part where we’re supposed to lament how far a magazine that once published Ernest Hemingway and Henry James has fallen. But the truth is, you can no more blame the Atlantic for succumbing to Twitter than you would scold a Florentine townsman in 1350 for catching the Black Death.

A few weeks earlier the New Yorker’s television critic enlivened her review with the comment: “On Twitter, a sitcom observer pointed out . . .” It’s hardly worth noting that this nameless sitcom observer’s bon mot wasn’t particularly bon. Neither is it worth Twittering that the New Yorker now enlists the critical faculties of anonymous Internet denizens.

What is worth examining, however, is that I suspect it was Twitter that made the remark seem worthy of inclusion at all. If one of the writer’s friends had given her a good line over drinks or dropped her a note, I doubt it ever would have made the cut, because it would have been considered on its merits. But because the line came from Twitter, well, stop the presses and ring Si Newhouse! To journalists, Twitter is San Francisco in late 1967: Everything worth knowing happens there. At least, that’s what everyone says.

You can understand why journalists have approached Twitter like sailors on shore leave: Technology has introduced a great deal of uncertainty into our business, and there is a perception that if journalism doesn’t adapt, then soon we’ll all have to make do earning double our salaries as corporate communications flunkies. And it doesn’t hurt that Twitter enables a general tendency toward exhibitionism and the belief that one’s every thought should be presented to the world at large.

My friend Stanley Kurtz has long held the theory that, at heart, you can only be one kind of reader: You can read books, or newspapers and magazines, or the Internet. There simply isn’t enough time to live in all three of those worlds. And the type of reader you are affects the kind of thinker you become.

I’d propose a corollary: At heart, you can only be one kind of writer. There are rare writers with such overbearing talent that they master many domains. But in general, the strictures of one form limit proficiency in others.

The problem with Twitter isn’t Twitter per se. It’s the habits of mind it fosters. And the way those habits spread through the writing food chain, infecting practitioners and readers of other mediums. Seen in that light, Twitter is less a platform than a disease.

The good news is that, like even the plague, it must eventually run its course.

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