A couple times a year I pack up my bags and head to journalism conferences in various parts of the country. There are very few portions of each conference during which all the delegates are manageably sober, and during such times the organizers try to squeeze in workshops from famous members of the media.
When these workshops don’t begin with a grandiose statement about “the death of print journalism,” how “print journalism isn’t dead”, or “how to save print journalism,” they begin with Twitter.
Twitter handles. Twitter transactions. Twitter feuds. Only a few short years ago, Twitter was non-existent, now it’s the lifeblood of the profession. News breaks on Twitter before any other news medium, journalists give opinions on Twitter they would never share in print. hopeful student wannabe’s treasure the occasional reply from one of their idols and check anxiously (and incessantly) for new followers.
When I tell fellow conference attendees that (officially) I’m not on Twitter, they stare at me with the expression of the Sicilian in The Princess Bride every time he screams “Inconceivable!” It’s been implied to all of us, and sometimes even stated outright, that a journalist without Twitter is a journalist with no hope of gainful employment. Twitter, even more than email, is the medium of the press and the preferred method of communication with the masses. A large portion of my profession, for better or for worse, has become restricted to 140 characters and a ridiculous symbol reinvented as a “hashtag.”
“The world is changing,” Galadriel famously warns, and there are moments when I wish I had a Nenya of my own to prevent the relentless transformations accelerating our professional and personal lives. Twitter is not necessarily tedious in itself, but it allows a form of narcissistic self-promotion that both enables, and exploits the enabler. After all, it is (even more than Facebook), an endless race to entertain, to inform, and to amuse via bite-sized packets of witticism and trite commentary. The genius of Twitter is its lack of limitation — any twit can broadcast any twit into the stratosphere for instance accessibility by the Twittering masses.
What journalist, what individual, can resist the allure of a captive global audience?
Yes, I do realize that it is “Tweet” not “Twit,” and that I’m making myself sound like an old fart in the process. The merits of Twitter have been argued to death, and the forward thinking will hint that I should simply accept the changing mediums and learn to manipulate them for my own career. This isn’t half-bad advice, and the fact that I have a Twitter widget in the sidebar of Eucatastrophic hopefully shows that I’m not some sort of card-carrying Luddite. Simply stated, what I do have a problem with, is the way many of my peers and colleagues use Twitter, and what it inevitably says about them.
Twitter fulfills several purposes terrifically well. First of all, it is a news aggregate par excellence. Reddit pales in comparison to the engine that (with a few simple ‘follows’) Twitter becomes. Breaking news, obscure facts, quotes, and linked commentary spread across the Twitterverse like doomsday viruses through panicked human populations, and create a data-gathering tool that is almost overwhelming in its sheer breadth. Users can also narrow the channel of flowing information to specific topics (a process generally referred to as ‘ego-casting’) and get information only, say, on the Seahawks, or Lord Of The Rings, or whatever else their fickle heart desires. These two processes, in combination, make Twitter one of the best things that has ever happened to journalism (and perhaps one of the greatest perks of the smartphone as well).
Still, the engine of Twitter is not run by some omniscient super-computer scouring the Internet jungle for interesting tidbits, but instead by millions of people with their separate agendas, egos, interests, and expectations. This means that Twitter is extremely vulnerable to hijackings by twenty-something university students like myself, twitting pictures of their breakfasts, or their feet, or simply rambling incoherently about pop bands while in the throes of gin-induced euphoria.
I’m sounding like an old fart again, aren’t I? I’ll return to the point.
The double-edge of Twitter is that, because of its lack of limitation, it also has a serious lack of privacy. This may not seem important for those of you who are young and carefree enough not to be worrying about applying for internships and employment within the next couple years, but it is a significant stumbling block in an age where companies are perfectly willing to stalk candidates on social media as part of the application (or performance review) process.
To compound this, many media professionals seem to feel that there is little point maintaining separate private and professional accounts on Twitter (a position unique among the various social media platforms). They want to connect directly with their audience without the pretentious layers of image engineering and doublespeak, to be (for lack of a better word) real.
This lack of compartmentalization is in one sense refreshing, but it also highlights the reasons why our culture strictly enforces barriers between personal and professional life. The secular world (unlike the Christian) is not interested in a holistic, vulnerable experience. It demands separation in the same sense that it encourages secrecy and shame. So when Twitter combines both professional and personal spheres into a single, scintillating meteor and hurls it into the public realm…
Bad things happen.
I have a coworker who is a news reporter and uses the same Twitter handle for live-tweeting student government events and twitting drunk at concerts. This means that her feed can include quotes from famous journalists, professional queries for information, thoughtful analysis of student politics, and “F***, F***, Green Day! Oh My F***!!!!!!” all in the same few weeks. I have been asked (despite her otherwise brilliant work) why anyone should take her seriously.
I have another coworker who, when assigned standard news coverage of an event sits at the back of the room and twits his opinion on the subject. This is a massive transgression for a journalist, student or not, and damages his credibility as an impartial cog in the media machine. The sheer openness of Twitter should discourage practices of this sort, but somehow it doesn’t, and those involved (those who are the subject of such coverage) remember.
I hardly need mention the paper executive who keeps a running list of twits cataloguing “things that annoy me about people,” a practice that makes even the less-than-paranoid a little nervous about their job security.
This is not to say that I consider my coworkers the source of my hatred for Twitter. I have a deep respect for my coworkers, even when I’m sometimes mystified by their practices. What I think I have learned is that we (even in the media), have difficulty avoiding the allure presented by the twit, the elusive possibility of personal affirmation presented by the ‘retweet’ and the ‘follow’.
I detest Twitter for what it does to people, for what it claws to the surface from behind the walls of their better nature. I detest the petty squabbling, the narcissism, the trite insults, and the callous skewering of celebrity figures. I detest the lack of scope, of vision, the inability (or unwillingness) to consider the consequences of blasting hate into the stratosphere, and the outrage when it (hate) is hurled back.
I hate the fact that Twitter turns us into children, despite the beautiful possibilities that the medium offers.
Now I realize that radical student journalists choosing risky lifestyles do not use Twitter the way the vast majority of the world may, and I accept this as a valid weakness in my denkschrift (thought-piece). But I speak from my experience as a journalist, and journalists, as a community, have embraced Twitter to a degree that I doubt any other single profession can rival. As I mentioned earlier, most of the speakers at said conferences can’t imagine a journalist who is NOT on Twitter.
We are the twits who twit. The students of media, by media seduced.