[T]he response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions. If a Luddite is someone who fears and hates all technological change, a Biltonite is someone who celebrates all technological change: because we can, we must. I’d like to think that in 1860 I would have been an early train passenger, but I’d also like to think that in 1960 I’d have urged my wife to go off Thalidomide.
But I don’t buy Packer’s conclusion that “[a]ny journalist who cheerleads uncritically for Twitter is essentially asking for his own destruction.” In fact, I’ve weirdly come to believe that the rise of Twitter — as opposed to the rise of, say, blogs, which ironically enough is the medium in which Packer chose to deliver his broadsides — might actually portend the revival of a more traditional model, rather than its continuing decline.
Yes, that sounds crazy, but let me try to explain.
When people talk about how the Internet is killing the mainstream media, they’re really thinking about blogs, specifically blogs circa 2004. The sudden rise of blogs held out a tantalizing vision of the future, where amateurs would reliably attract an audience to rival that of the mass media. In the Big Blog Dream, there would still be a single media conversation, as it were, but there would be a leveling in that conversation whereby amateurs could join, often as quasi-equals, alongside the professionals.
This is the storyline that still basically dominates discussion of the Internet — and yet the Big Blog Dream has largely died. First, the mainstream media muscled in on it, using their storehouses of experience and talent to launch scores of their own high-traffic blogs. (Where they didn’t build their own, they hired the best amateurs to join their staffs.) Second, the Internet-native media that did survive are now hardly amateur by any definition: they’re places like TPM, Gawker, and the Huffington Post, that have built bare-bones business models that create tons of original content by leveraging young and/or unpaid/low-paid writers. And third, between these two groups (the big-media blogs and the Internet-native blogs), most of the readers no longer have the time or inclination to bother with any actual amateurs. Really, for the past three years or so, there’s been almost no hope for new bloggers who don’t quickly find their way underneath the umbrella of some established site. And so blogging (at least among the non-elderly, as Nick Carr recently pointed out) has come to seem far less vital.
What we now have, instead, are Facebook and Twitter. The contrast between the two is instructive. On Facebook, you can post everything you care most deeply about, and however much of it as you like, so long as you’re satisfied with your audience being restricted to your friends and acquaintances. On Twitter, you can only post 140 characters, but it’s open to everyone, and with searches, hashtags, etc., you can see yourself becoming a part of the giant big conversation. Really, Facebook and Twitter are the bifurcation of the Big Blog Dream. In a Facebook future, everyone is engaging in full creative self-expression, but it’s no longer adding up to one big conversation: we’re all just talking to our small circle. In a Twitter future, what we desperately care about is the survival of that big conversation, even at the expense of full self-expression.
It’s no accident that so many of the most natural uses of Twitter — unlike those of blogs — are not the replacement of long-form media but an augmentation of them. If you blog about a long article, you’ll likely block-quote the best part and bury the link; on Twitter, all you can do is link. If you’re blogging about a TV show, you might summarize the whole damn thing (spoiler alert!), but the Twitter experience of TV is simultaneous watching. And so on.
There’s oh so much to hate about Twitter, and anyone who follows me there will see that I barely use it. But I do think that the Twitter urge — the thing that has brought people over from Facebook, and has kept people from sinking entirely into Facebook — is also the thing that will save the professional media in some form. Twitterers fervently want to believe in some kind of public meaning, to be a part of big public narratives, to watch the big show together; and they’re willing to accept a 140-character limit to do it.
UPDATE: Links fixed.