Q: What are you doing? A: Delivering news, vapidity in 140 characters or less
Of all the online social networking sites blasted by critics for promoting self-absorption and narcissism as virtues, Twitter has to be the most targeted.
The hatred centers on Twitter's premise, which is to tell friends, or "followers," what you're doing in 140 characters or less. These updates, or "tweets," can be sent from cellphone or computer via the Twitter Web site or any number of spin-off applications.
Many call these 140-character tweets micro-blogging. Twitter touts this revolutionary act as "the antidote to information overload."
It's a brazen claim given that most tweets tell us things we probably don't need, or want, to know ("Just flossed. Who knew corn was so stubborn? LOL").
Despite the obvious tendency for Twitter to become a haven for all things insipid, the site claims more than 6 million users. According to several reports, users grew by 900 percent last year.
Not surprisingly, celebrities and politicians have caught on, which Twitter haters – "Twaters" – say is indicative of the service's inherent pimping for narcissists.
Seventy-five percent of Maine's congressional delegation is on Twitter, with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe the lone holdout. (I would have guessed Rep. Mike Michaud, but it turns out Michaud rivals Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree for serial tweeting.)
Lance Armstrong uses Twitter ("At the doc's office. I guess it wasn't such a 'clean' fracture after all. Bummer."), so does Shaquille O'Neal ("Stay tuned-prepare for SHAQ to 'enlyten' you!!!").
Britney Spears and rapper 50 Cent have profiles, but a recent story in The New York Time revealed that both employ ghostwriters to write their 140-character tweets, which come to think of it, is probably a good idea.
For Twaters, Twitter's popularity only reinforces fears that society is careening toward me-first oblivion.
Alexander Zaitchik, a 30-something columnist for Sacramento's News & Review, penned one of the more hilarious critiques of Twitter, although I'm not sure he was trying to be funny.
In his column, "Why Twitter Sucks", Zaitchik wrote that Twitter "brings us within sight of an apotheosis of those aspects of American culture that have become all too familiar in recent years: look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity. When 140 characters is the ascendant standard size for communication and debate, what comes next? Seventy characters? Twenty? The disappearance of words altogether, replaced by smiley-face and cranky-crab emoticons?"
This seems like the appropriate time to tell you that many newspapers have fallen for Twitter. The origins of this love affair are unclear, but theories abound: Trying to reach a younger audience? An innovative reporting tool? A desperate attempt at relevance after years of arrogantly dismissing the Internet as journalism's equivalent of the DeLorean?
None of us were exactly sure what to do with Twitter when it was first introduced to the newsroom. The tech guys tried to give us pointers, but honestly, I often get distracted when tech people speak. Their strange vernacular and religious-like devotion to technology always remind me of the agents in "The Matrix," who make sure all the humans obey the rules in the massive computer program that enslaves them.
Anyway, some newspapers have discovered Twitter can broaden their audiences. It's also been lauded as a way to send real-time updates of breaking news. Tweets sent during last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, had Twitter fans claiming a breakthrough in modern-day journalism.
Zaitchik, however, disagrees, arguing that nobody ever talked about "AT&T journalism" because reporters began using phones to call in stories.
Twaters are correct in saying that Twitter is a black hole
for every vapid, inconsequential thought man can conjure. Typically such
thoughts die before anyone has to read or hear them. But Twitter
somehow transforms them into ill-advised keystrokes, often in some
hipster code. The result is something like what user RossSanty tweeted on Monday:
"Chilaxin with some strongbow and bulmers. The sun is shinin, sharin it
with the best girl in the world. Gd times :)"
Even the self-aware can be lured into Twitter's realm of egoism. Users
often feel compelled to tweet, even when they have nothing meaningful
As a reporting tool, Twitter does have benefits. Twitter can essentially be a news wire, depending on who you're following. In addition to using tweets to link to stories and columns, I've started using my iPod to send live updates from meetings or news events.
Overall, my Twitter experience probably falls somewhere between the service's legion of fanatical devotees and Zaitchik's,
which is to say, I applaud its usefulness, but acknowledge that
utilitarianism probably isn't what's made Twitter so popular.