Maybe Bill Keller is Just Doing Twitter Wrong

By  |  Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 6:35 pm

So help me, I’m not the kind of person who insists that anyone who doesn’t like the things that I like is a dolt. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions; not everything that’s appealing to me is interesting to everybody. That’s fine. Makes the world a more interesting place, in fact.

But I’m still fascinated by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller’s latest New York Times Magazine column. Keller isn’t a Twitter fan. Actually, he thinks that it–and Facebook–may be bad for humanity. A few tidbits from his piece:

But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

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.

Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

I buy the idea that Keller is describing the Twitter he experiences. One of the defining things about the service is that it’s all kinds of things to all kinds of people. It all depends on who you follow and how you follow them.

(Come to think of it, that quality isn’t unique to Twitter. If you judge dead trees based on their use in The National Enquirer and Hustler, you’ll come to different conclusions than you would if you focus on, say, The New York Times.)

The Twitter I know isn’t a place of deep thinking, it’s true. But  it’s not devoid of thoughtfulness. It’s largely civil. And I learn things from the people I chat with–many of who are smarter than I am, at least on certain subjects–all the time.

I don’t want to make any assumptions about Keller’s understanding of Twitter based entirely on his own Twitter account–I imagine he’s reading the tweets of at least some of the numerous adept twitterers who work for him, such as David Carr, Jenna Wortham, and Nick Bilton. But it’s worth noting that he’s tweeted a total of twenty-one times and doesn’t seem to have engaged in any conversations with anyone–apparently everything has gone in one of his ears and out the other.

And here’s a telling tidbit from this column:

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

Interesting–one of the things I like about Twitter is that it’s not distracting and doesn’t demand my attention. I don’t think that the fact that Keller is using TweetDeck helps matters–it does, indeed, push Twitter in your face. Me, I go to Twitter–usually just by visiting, sometimes via TweetDeck–rather than having Twitter come to me. And I do so only when I have at least a few minutes to give it my undivided attention.

Like many things in life, Twitter has a touch of self-fulfilling prophecy about it. If you like Twitter, you’re more likely to explore it and learn to use it in a way that’s rewarding. If you don’t like Twitter, you’ll probably visit only briefly and stay on the outskirts, where you’re less likely to discover things that might appeal to you. Keller seems to be an outskirt-dweller; that doesn’t make him a dope or a bad person.

But just in case he’s interested in trying to discover the Twitter that some of us love, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t drink from the firehose. If you use TweetDeck or have notifications turned on or spend much time reading random tweets, Twitter may have all the negative qualities that Keller associates with it. Me, I sip from Twitter. I don’t let it intrude into my other computing activities. I don’t have notifications turned on. I follow 2,238 people, but almost always zoom in on specific people, conversations, and/or topics.
  • Don’t hang out with jerks and dummies. If everyone you encounter on Twitter is a jackass, you need to find better friends. Even if only one Twitter user out of a thousand is a solid citizen, that’s still about three hundred thousand people whose company you might enjoy.
  • Tweet unto others as you’d have them tweet unto you. If your goal is to find people who use Twitter in a smart, thoughtful, polite, conversational, interesting way, do your damnedest to be smart, thoughtful, polite, conversational, and interesting. It won’t hurt, and might help.
  • Make Twitter part of a balanced online diet. Especially if you’re a journalist. I throw out ideas on Twitter, then turn them into blog posts where I (and others) can dig in deeper. I begin other conversations on my blog, then continue them on Twitter. I follow links on Twitter that lead to interesting stuff elsewhere.
  • Don’t want Twitter to be the things it isn’t. Sure, it’s usually ephemeral. Of course, it’s no substitute for forging deep relationships with other humans in contexts that aren’t limited to 140 characters. (Although I’ve eventually met plenty of people who I first encountered and liked on Twitter, and find I tend to like them in real life, too.) Every other means of personal and public interaction that predates Twitter still exists, and has things to offer that Twitter doesn’t.

I’m not saying that taking these steps will turn any Twitter doubter into a Twitter enthusiast. But they’ve always worked for me. If you try them and still think that Twitter is eroding the qualities that make us human…well, you just weren’t built to like Twitter. Did I mention yet that I’m okay with that?


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. @jmproffitt Says:

    Thanks for this piece, Harry. Bill Keller is just a man that's losing his kingdom to a rising democracy and resents the unwashed masses. Instead of a news monarchy, we're creating a news meritocracy and he'll be damned if has to prove his value to anyone.

  2. Muay Thai Says:

    I agree, his time has long passed. Muay Thai Combinations | Muay Thai Kick | Martial Arts for Children

  3. @dbobsnodgrass Says:

    #TwitterMakesYouStupid Discuss. My comment didn't show up @nytimes, or my "User Account Banned" – ? @BostonPhoenix

    Thanks to @whet @ The 312 – Chicago and “The New York Times’s Bill Keller comes to bury Twitter…”

    Best of all, @psychcentral – "Psychology and mental health information and support…" and "8 Reasons Why Twitter Can Make You Happy"

    Thank you, @harrymccracken !

    Perhaps, Mr. Keller is just using one of the world's first social networks – gossip!?

    Bill Keller @nytkeller view full profile → 21 Tweets 130 Following 19,413 Followers 872 Listed Executive ((( #Twitter #disabilities ))) Editor – The New York Times.