Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On the Twitterization of, Well, Everything (Briefly)

I’ve resolved to be less pedantic and verbose — in short (since that’s what I’m after), to be less of an insufferable ass. But it’s two weeks into the New Year, and I’m probably losing that battle already. I’m finding all sorts of things I won’t cave on. I won’t, for example, take short-cuts in text-messaging: I refuse to enter the characters “c u l8er” into my phone. And whatever burdens Motorola imposes on me, I will punctuate my sentences, even if it takes me all day to get a message out.

It’s my natural tendency to run long, in pretty much everything I do. My showers are too long. My posts here are too long. I’m told length is one reason my books will never be published. I gave a talk on Monday, and the moderator had to elbow me several times and point at his watch. This is what I do, and I get that there’s a problem here. But here’s the thing: it’s not my problem — it’s everyone else’s.

Everything’s got to be short, snappy, and punchy these days. You’ve got a web article of more than 50 words? We’ll have to scatter it across 10 pages, so there never appear more than three paragraphs at once: we don’t want to scare anybody away. Oh, sure — we’ve got plenty of time to watch Paris Hilton’s My New BFF marathons on MTV, but no time to read the news, except in 45-second spurts.

Consider Obama’s Cabinet appointments. What do we really know about any of these people? The truth is we know very little. The news reduces their characters and careers to blurbs of a half-dozen words, and we draw our conclusions from the blurbs. Or worse, they present the conclusions for us. Eric Holder? Black guy. Clintonite. Mark Rich pardon. Timothy Geithner? Technocrat. Didn’t pay the payroll tax. Arne Duncan? Reformer. Stands up to teacher’s unions. The Cabinet? "Team of Rivals." The sad thing about this is we have 150 24-hour news channels now. Rather than give us an hour’s in-depth coverage about each of these important appointments, we get the same facile two-minute analysis, repeated thirty times.

The thing is, we’ve seen what happens when people don’t pay attention to complexity:

“Look: I don’t know what he’s gonna do when he’s President. But they say he’s a ‘compassionate conservative.’ Sounds like the best of both worlds to me!”

“This paper discloses the bank’s policies on your adjustable rate and prepayment penalties. You need to initial each page and sign and date the last one. I say just sign now and read it later. You’ll want to hurry, if you don't want to miss Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.”

“Look: they all hate the guy and want him out. We’ll be treated as liberators.”

“‘Collateralized debt obligation,’ you call it. Hm. How does it work? Wait — no, never mind — I’ve got a 4:30. I trust you. We’ll take a thousand of ’em.”

And now everyone’s all a-twitter about, well, Twitter. You can see how it would come to this. I get that it can be useful if the Egyptian authorities are hauling you away in chains, and you want to get out a blast-message to the Internet calling for help. Hooray for Twitter. Let’s all hack apart our life’s rich narratives to accommodate some hipster startup’s arbitrary, Procrustean word limits.

No. No no no. There is virtue in exploring complexity, just as there is in the discipline one shows in self-editing. I’m not calling for everyone to go on and on and on ad nauseam. I'll do my best to stick with my resolution. But there is an ideal point of equilibrium here. Somewhere between insufferable asses and ADHD casualties is where we need to be, culturally, to save ourselves. To get there, someone needs to stand up for prolixity, for substance over soundbite, because things are getting way out of whack.

End lecture. Word count: 654. Not bad . . .


Mithridates said...

Ha Ha Ha. There, keeping it short. And in the comment field. So much easier.

Unknown said...

Now I feel first ever comment on this site was a request for you to shorten it up. Now I am responsible for the election of W, the mortgage crisis, the war in Iraq.

For the record, I have never watched a single minute of any reality TV show and even though you don't like internet speak, I have 2 words for you - STFU!

Phutatorius said...

Now see, ONTRI, you yourself doubled up on your word limit. It's not so easy, is it?

And why are you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?

Mithridates said...

You slimeball in a sea of puss!

Ah, now my day is complete.

Phutatorius said...

I'm in the lobby of a Howard Johnson's, and I'm wearing a pink carnation.

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