Tweeters or Twits?

2011 April 14
by Ando Arike

Have people ever been so willing to embrace their own trivialization? So eager to trade their dignity for the cheapest of trinkets? What I’m talking about is the rise of Twitter as a mass communications platform, and the way so many otherwise serious journalists and commentators have so readily adopted it into their media toolkit. One can imagine the allure, of course, among the Hollywood celebrity set—the Twitterati, whose every bowel movement attracts attention—but for those of us with more serious axes to grind,  broadcasting anything of import on Twitter is like being published in People Magazine.

Perhaps I’m being a stodgy Luddite—or worse, an English professor elitist. But this morning, while reading a heart-wrenching Amy Goodman article on the status of the democratic uprising in Bahrain, I came across a line that set my teeth to gnashing.

In her report, Goodman quotes Zainab al-Khawaja, a young Bahraini woman, and her horrifying eyewitness description of her father’s beating and abduction at the hands of security forces; Goodman then goes on say:

Human Rights Watch has called for the immediate release of al-Khawaja. Zainab’s husband and brother-in-law also have been arrested. Tweeting as “angryarabiya,” she has commenced a water-only fast in protest. She also has written a letter to President Barack Obama…

“Tweeting”? Has it come to this? When people’s fathers and husbands are beaten bloody and dragged away to jail they “tweet”?

Now, let me make clear that I respect Amy Goodman immensely—her efforts for the cause of truth and justice are nothing short of heroic. But how is it that we’ve let what I would call the “language of trivialization” slip so easily into our public discourse?

The customary thing now would be to invoke the name of George Orwell and to mention his essay “Politics and the English Language” and the Newspeak Dictionary of his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And, of course, this is all entirely relevant. But there is something pernicious here that goes beyond anything Orwell, writing in the 1940s, could have known—something that goes to the root of our fascination with mass communications and so-called “social media,” and to the strange new cybernetic forces that shape our collective consciousness and collective action.

Consider this account, given by Jack Dorsey, the developer of Twitter, of the meeting which gave this media product its name:

We came across the word ‘twitter‘, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

That’s exactly what the product was. A short burst of inconsequential information. Chirps from birds. The buzz of flies to be swatted. The promise of cybernetics to the ruling class now realized, in spades.

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