Since Twitter has hit the media in a big way in the past few months, we've heard a lot of handwringing about how it's the end of western civilization, a canary in the coal mine of literary decline.
It's useless to point out that the same doomsday scenarios were posited for texting, blogging, emoticons, the internet in general -- even, if you go back far enough and ask a professor who was present, word processing (as opposed to typewriters; revising as you go was thought to be antithetical to the writing process). The latest scourge is always uniquely disastrous.
And yet, as a person who Twitters and reads the tweets of many interesting, deep, and witty people, I see a different side. A tweet is a genre. It is a particular set of restrictions and conventions, like all genres. And like all genres, there are good tweets and bad tweets. There are even, dare I say it, great tweets.
If it helps, think of it as a haiku. No one thinks the short, observation character of haiku makes them a breeding ground for terrible writing and thinking. The best tweets have a haiku-like quality, in fact. And speaking from experience and admiration, it's dadblamed difficult to compose a really good tweet -- to fit a novel thought or witty juxtaposition into 140 characters. When I manage it (earning "retweets" by followers I don't even know), I'm justly proud. When I see it done, I'm sometimes in awe.
The immediate prior boogeyman for our horrified betters was Facebook. I've mentioned before that I'm on Facebook, but I'm not a denizen. Facebook does some things very well.
But here's why academia and the intelligentsia should think about Twitter and Facebook differently. Facebook (like MySpace and Friendster before it, only in more interesting and diverse ways) is an identity game. On Facebook, you collect characteristics (favorite media, favorite quotes), affiliations (Wish Ron Paul A Happy Birthday, Sig Eps Who Hate The New New Facebook Layout), and of course, friends. It's all about defining who you are, in an ever-expanding mosaic.
Twitter is a communications game. It takes the idea of a short piece of self-expression, originally tied to one's status or current activities (and pioneered by Facebook in that form), and divorces it from all the identity pieces. On Twitter, you are what you say. Say it better, funnier, more poignantly, to more people who are thought to be smart or entertaining or interesting, and the light you cast onto the Twitterverse brightens.
I think many people are worried about social networking as essentially identity play. To divorce repute from actual accomplishment, they feel, is worrisome. If that's the problem, then Twitter simply doesn't fall into the same category. On Twitter, people are not being or relating or associating. They are writing.
Maybe it's just the people I follow, but that's about as far from a sign of the apocalypse for my traditional academic values as I can imagine.