New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote a column on Wednesday discussing what he feels are the shortcomings of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
To be fair, Keller wasn’t completely anti-social media, like most critics of such come across as. He just views them more as aggregators of information than mediums of real conversation. But his key argument is a concept of “trade-off.” For every new technology that comes along, society trades off a way of thinking and living. He goes so far as to argue it changes how our minds work.
Here’s the passages I felt were the crux of his arguments:
My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect…
…The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.
What is this really going to boil down to is a social media version of a gun control debate. Instead of saying “Guns don’t kill people, people do” it’s “Facebook doesn’t kill real conversation, people do.”
Keller’s argument does not hold up, for a few reasons.
No man lives by Twitter alone: Humans primarily communicate three ways – reading, hearing, seeing. (Provided you were born with the ability of the latter two and learned the former) But just because the printing press was invented didn’t automatically mean everybody learned how to read. Just because the television was invented meant people forgot how to hear without seeing. Just because Twitter and Facebook becomes popular doesn’t mean everybody abandons other forms of conversation and just tweets the rest of their lives.
“140 characters are a novel when you’re being shot at”: This was a tweet that came out during the post-election uprising in Iran two years ago. It touches on something Mr. Keller should know as a newspaper editor and something way too many people in newspapers have forgotten: The importance of tight writing. You can fit a lot into 140 characters if you really try. It just takes practice, like good writing in general.
It’s not a one-and-done: Just because you only fit 140 characters in a tweet doesn’t mean you only get one tweet to say what you have to say. If you link together, say, five tweets, you’re getting 700 characters, or around 100 words. That should be enough to form a salient point. For example, let’s take my last point and make it a string of tweets:
Re: @nytkeller, Twitter and “real conversation” Keller should recall that good writing is tight, and tweets should be also. (123 characters)
You can fit a lot into 140 characters with practice @nytkeller. But like all types of writing, it takes practice. (113 characters)
I’m sure @nytkeller is aware of journalism concept of tight writing. Hard to get much tighter with writing than Twitter. (120 characters)
Ta-da. Post those one right after the other, and it’s a multi-facted argument, and each tweet is an individual part of the argument.
Displacement of conversation is dictated by the individual, not the medium: Sure, a person could spend their entire life posting on Facebook to the detriment of other forms of conversation. But a person could just as easily lock themselves in a library, read books all day, and never say a word about them to anyone else. Or put themselves in a radio booth, talk into a microphone all day, and never listen to what anyone else has to say (cynicism alert – maybe that’s talk radio now!) A person ultimately controls how they choose to communicate and they control its depth and complexity, no matter how many characters or Like buttons they have along the way. It also feeds a myth that conversation was greater in the past. Really? By whose standards? I’m not willing to assume it actually was better before.
Keller’s not wrong in saying Twitter and Facebook are great aggregators. They are. But to abandon them as genuine conversation and discussion mediums because you’re not getting to type as much as you would like to isn’t correct. A single device or invention does not automatically create a trade-off. Society isn’t the same as economics. Sometimes there really can be a free lunch.
Now, how to conclude my argument, Hey, I got it…
@nytkeller Social media won’t displace real conversation if users choose not to abandon it. Life doesn’t always have to have a trade-off.