[Originally published Dec. 16, 2010.]
It wasn’t that long ago, you’ll recall, that Twitter was derided as an exercise in vanity for famous people to feed their comically-obsessed fans a glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle, no matter how mundane the details. (“No way. Kelly Ripa likes pear slices in her salad? So do I!”)
But in the last two years or so, the comedy industry’s opinion of Twitter did a complete 180. There’s been a wave of comedians, writers, performers and producers joining the early adopters and utilizing Twitter as a platform to tell 140-character jokes and reach new fans.
It’s easy to see why. Twitter is in a way a virtual writer’s room where, at your leisure, you can have an immediate audience with comedy legends, professionals and the occasional undiscovered talent as they deliver jokes, witty observations and other miscellany. And it’s free. You won’t have much luck asking Lebron James to come over and entertain you with some free basketball, but on any given day you can observe the next comedy superstar test out a joke on Twitter before making it part of his act.
Yeah, that’s great and all, and I’m sure it’s been a boon to haiku poets as well. (Was it really all that difficult to find bon mots, witticisms, zingers and one-liners before? Anyway.) But for the non-early adopters among us, those who dropped Twitter off in a basket on the front steps of the orphanage in the first place, whether or not it has any useful function at all is a peripheral issue.
When people complain about the cold, impersonal nature of online communication, I feel that what they’re mainly reacting to is the fact that most people are, quite simply, shitty writers. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid; it just means that they find it difficult to turn their thoughts into nuanced sentences that do a good job of capturing enough of the full flavor of their personality. It’s all they can do to convey basic information without burying it under a mound of misspellings, typos and bad grammar. I know enough people who are smart and capable of intelligent conversation, but their emails (or handwritten letters) are brief and utilitarian to a fault.
Now, you may find this hard to believe, but I was not always the finely honed, chiseled, sculpted wordsmith you see before you, no indeed! When I first started writing online oh-so-many years ago, I was undisciplined and unformed. My pacing had no stamina and was easily winded, my metaphors were flabby and sagging, my ideas themselves were paunchy, and my overall coherence and paragraph structure was pockmarked with quirks and irregularities like dimples of cellulite. My ability to spew hot air was more like a hairdryer on medium setting than a blast furnace.
I did not spring onto the Internet fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, is what I’m saying. I reeked (and I trust you’ll politely overlook my repeated use of the past tense here), but I learned by constantly being exposed to better writers, especially once I discovered blogs. I read so many people who said what I wanted to say, only more clearly and concisely, and I shaped my own writing accordingly to reflect their styles. And as I’ve said before, the more I did it, the more fun it became.
So for me, the biggest problem with the inexorable trend toward social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook postings and the ubiquity of texting as opposed to email is that it solidifies online writing around the absolute lowest common denominator. Instead of challenging themselves to exploit the potential of a largely text-based medium like the Internet, people are reshaping the medium to suit their limitations. Instead of trying to become better at expressing themselves through writing, they’re settling for banding together around mediocrity, where the goal is to express yourself with as little effort as possible. Fine, Twitter is great for delivering stand-alone lines and simplistic expressions of agreement or disagreement. But trying to follow an actual debate or back-and-forth conversation one or two sparse sentences at a time is utterly maddening, and as I keep complaining about, that unfortunately seems to be the only type of conversation a lot of people want to have anymore.