The Magazine

The Twidiocracy

The decline of Western civilization, 140 characters at a time

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By MATT LABASH
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“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. .  .  . [T]he Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.” —E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909)

At the risk of being abrasive, I am about to say something unthinkable, heretical. I am about to say six words you have likely never heard from a working member of the media, and may never hear again: Do not follow me on Twitter.

Steven Chorney

Steven Chorney

You can try, if so inclined. But unlike Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, the pope, the Dalai Lama, and the Church of England (which invited Twitter users to help select the next archbishop of Canterbury), you won’t find me there. I’m not on it, and hope never to be. I say hope, because the clip at which the Twidiocracy has infiltrated itself into every crevice of society might leave me no choice. In the dystopian future—which in the age of Google glasses is starting to feel like the dystopian present—I might be forced to join Twitter in order to, say, collect my Social Security e-check when the time comes. Though the likelihood of there still being Social Security in 25 years is much less than the likelihood of people endlessly tweeting about how there’s no more Social Security. 

If you’re not following this, there’s an outside chance you still have an analog life that unfolds beyond the glow of a screen. That you remember a time, not all that long ago, when the social-media contagion of FacebookTwitterPinterestInstagram hadn’t yet made us wonder how we used to talk to each other. A time when a phone was considered a communication device, not an extra limb. (A Stanford study found 75 percent of iPhone users fall asleep with their phones in their beds, only 2 percent less than the number of spouses who sleep with each other.) More likely, it just means you’ve been in a deep coma since Twitter’s birth in 2006. In which case, I envy you. 

If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m not a Twitter fan. In fact, I outright despise the inescapable microblogging service, which nudges its users to leave no thought unexpressed, except for the fully formed ones (there’s a 140-characters-per-tweet limit). I hate it not just because the Twidiocracy constantly insists I should love it, though that certainly helps. Being in the media profession (if “profession” isn’t overstating things), where everyone flocked en masse to the technology out of curiosity or insecurity or both, I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness. I hate the smugness of it, the way the techno-triumphalists make everyone who hasn’t joined the Borg feel like they’ve been banished to an unpopulated island, when in fact the numbers don’t support that notion. Even after seven years of nonstop media hype, only 16 percent of Internet users tweet, the same as the percentage of 14-49-year-olds who have genital herpes. The difference being that the latter are not proud of their affliction, while the former never shut up about theirs.

I hate the way Twitter transforms the written word into abbreviations and hieroglyphics, the staccato bursts of emptiness that occur when Twidiots who have no business writing for public consumption squeeze themselves into 140-character cement shoes. People used to write more intelligently than they speak. Now, a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet. If that’s a concern—and all evidence suggests it isn’t—you can keep your tweets private, readable only by those you invite. But that reduces your number of “followers,” so almost nobody does it. A private Twitter account cuts against the whole spirit of the enterprise—a bit like showing up at a nude beach in a muumuu. 

There are admittedly pockets of genius on Twitter, as anyone who’s ever visited the Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip page knows. (@GSElevator: “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying. .  .  . Because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.”) But most often, Twitter makes otherwise great writers good, and good writers bad. It’s a format that encourages even the pros to locate the mediocrity within. From @salmanrushdie: “One year today since I joined Twitter. I’m amazed to have 400,000+ of you with me. Thanks for following, everyone. It has been fun.”

I hate the way Twitter turns people into brand managers, their brands being themselves. It’s nearly impossible now to watch television news without an anchor imploring you to “follow me on Twitter,” even as you’re already following him on television. You couldn’t do this much following in the physical world without being slapped with a restraining order. 

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