Bigwig editor Evan Smith says he has a reputation for transforming “from a hater to a zealot.” Three examples of things that he went from dismissing to embracing? College football, crab cakes and Twitter. This, at any rate, is what he told a forum full of journalism students when visiting MU last week to talk about his “intentionally non-profit" news venture, the Texas Tribune.
Fascinating though his business model is, I left thinking instead about his Twitter conversion — because he, a person I newly but greatly respect, articulated part of the reason I look dubiously on that bandwagon, despite constant proselytizing from pretty much every direction.
Twitter, for those of you who have been held captive in a well for the past few years, is a tool people use to send out short personal messages, which are often quotidian updates about what they’re doing or thinking. Before Smith’s revelation, he said he boycotted that type of social networking because it is “the height of narcissism.” Amen.
As those words came out of his mouth, there also came a wave of sweet validation, the kind one can only experience after long holding an unpopular belief and finally hearing it echoed by an authority figure in a room full of people who disagree with you. Sure, people have the potential to churn out revelatory haikus, but your average “Tweeter” is more likely to broadcast feelings he or she had following the latest installment of "I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant."
(Certainly this is a point for some self-recognition, given that I’m here publishing my thoughts and feelings in 800 words instead of 140 characters, the Twitter limit. But there is a line — that I hope I’m on the right side of — between offering up some form of substance and telling people that you went to the dentist.)
Twitter also (inadvertently) promotes poor grammatical habits. Magazines reprint and therefore validate tweets from Demi Moore and other “idols” wherein proper capitalization, punctuation and spelling are largely ignored. Those habits then filter out into the ether, where they become an informal-chic trend that permits the hoi polloi to be similarly sloppy.
Eventually we end up with a stylistic norm along the lines of the tweets from Mizzou football players that were reprinted in Vox last week. “Torn ACL & just engaged 2 the best girl in the world!!!!” tweeted junior linebacker Jeff Gettys. Yes, it's sweet, but the linguistic snob inside me doesn’t know where to start, other than to repeat the mantra of a similarly snobby friend: “Almost all uses of exclamation points, other than in reported speech, should be punished by death, administered with broadsword.” If it weren’t for Twitter, there’s no way a sentence like that would have ever been allowed in the magazine.
The more immature reason I bristle when people start to talk of tweeting — aside from the verb itself being rather ostentatious — is that Twitter gets more attention than it deserves. Sure there’s merit in the Pew Research Center’s study revealing that one in five Americans is on Twitter; it’s a social phenomenon, and we should examine that on a broad scale. But my eyeballs will march out of my head in protest if I read one more story that is simply about someone having or using a Twitter account.
Take the following headlines from the Missourian Web site: “Missouri Tigers Take on Twitter”; “For some worshipers, a Tweet just can’t wait”; “Twitter working for Rams running back.” If only I could get updates on the operational statuses of the running back's email account and microwave oven or bulletins on how he feels about the iPhone. Such stories are awfully hard to distinguish from straight Twitter PR.
What is most frustrating about all my frustrations is that I want to love Twitter; I want to have the conversion Evan Smith did. Why? For starters, when a journalist speaks poorly of Twitter, it’s considered absolute blasphemy. I might as well be a devout Muslim drawing caricatures of the prophet enjoying a pulled-pork sandwich — while in the full swing of a Daytona Beach spring break.
Imminent black-balling from all jobs I apply to aside, I want to love Twitter because there are, buried in those seas of textual drudge, truly enlightening, credible and funny messages going out. Moments in time, as when people tweeted about the Mumbai attacks, can be frozen and information can be spread in useful, unique ways. Journalists can use Twitter for sourcing, and clearly there’s fun to be had. Refusing to be part of Twitter seems like being one of those people who scoffs haughtily at Dan Brown and misses out on the utter joy of reading "The Da Vinci Code" to the tune of no real benefit.
But then Time prints an article in which Ashton Kutcher compares the inventors of Twitter to Alexander Graham Bell, who not only invented the telephone but helped make flight and air-conditioning possible, and I just want to punch people in the face. Perhaps I’m best off praying for patience and guidance. If I can’t get on board the bandwagon that 20 percent of America is riding, I might well get left behind.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist for the Missourian and an editor for Vox Magazine. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has been published by a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Businessweek.com. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.