Liel Leibovitz Wrong in Critique of the Twitter Revolution
Liel Leibovitz' March 18, 2009 critique of microblogging, called "Communication Breakdown" is inaccurate often, but always clueless. Here is my retelling of his article in the form of a recipe:
- Take 10 pounds of: the new-media-will-lead-to-the-end-of-culture doomsday analysis,
- Add a dash of anti-Semitism,
- Sprinkle in a bit of: maybe-the-People-of-the-Book-can-save-us-all triumphalist nostalgia,
- Finally throw in just a dash of venom against the computer "dorks" who got us into this mess.
The result is a disaster of an article. But I must say I've had lot of fun ranting against it. Thanks Liel!
My Summary of Leibovitz
Leibovitz gives us a glib history of media in general and also the rise of the Internet, of blogging, and now of microblogging and the rise of Twitter. Other than a completely out-of-context jab at the the person who coined the term "weblog," who happens to be an anti-Semite, the history focuses on the shortening of the length of texts. Finally, he sees the Jews getting us out of this mess. Our credentials for functioning as saviors of human culture is our love of reading novels and our proclivity for channeling the word of God. Here is a taste, in his own words.
Examining this thinning of language — these starved forms of communications that favor the quick and the inconsequential while remaining unsuited for thoughts that may take space to unfold and time to read — it is easy to succumb to a technologically deterministic depression and declare the end of intelligent civilization near.
As the move to microblogging plagues everyone, plunging society in its entirety toward a collective mindset of subjective drivel communicated in short and syntactically stricken sentences, Jews may do well to step up in defense and preserve not only the ailing medium with which we are associated, the book, but also the sort of thinking this medium shapes, analytical and expansive and exhaustive. And as all around us the world’s atwit with Twitter, let us remember that it is only great things — the word of God, say, or, at the very least, a masterful novel — and not the piffle of everyday life that truly merits comment.
You can read the whole thing for yourself: http://www.forward.com/articles/104050/
What Leibovitz Gets Wrong
History. The biggest influence in the rise of microblogging is the mobile phone equipped with the ability to send a text message. The internationally agreed upon standard for the text message is 140 characters, the exact same limit that Twitter and other microblogging platforms have adhered to. Leibovitz' article never even uses the word "cell phone." To him, this is a phenomenon of the computer. In fact, the microblogging revolution has significantly liberated us from needing a computer in order to send information to and receive information from the World Wide Web of information that is linked together via the Internet.
Impact. Mobile phones in combination with microblogging combat the hoarding of information by people who would abuse power. Coercive regimes take control of mass media in order to keep secrets and shape reality according to a narrow message that serves narrow aims. With the advent of "micro-media," (which lost out to "social-media" as buzzword to describe all this), coercive powers have a much harder time stopping information from flowing.
Utility: Microblogging technology saves lives in times of natural disaster. Note that text messaging from mobile phones goes out over different, and much more efficient, bandwidth than phone calls - even though the signal emanates from the same device. So in an area where phone calls aren't getting through because of network overwhelm, text messages will. And by having services like Twitter that aggregate information, patterns of need can be determined. Texting to a relative will have little effect. Texting to Twitter in a disaster can have a much greater utility. Disaster agencies are aggressively setting up systems to monitor Twitter and train vulnerable populations in its use.
News agencies are jumping on board in droves. They are finally getting it that microblogging can be a source for leads for stories, not for the stories themselves. Old-fashioned reporting is needed as much as ever. But reporters are finally seeing Twitter not as competition but as complement. This is an example of how microblogging so often points to other things.
Goal/purpose. Leibovitz seemed to think that somebody (the boogeyman) was suggesting that microbloggers think they expressing complete ideas in individual tweets. No, no. A tweet can be a lot of things, but rarely a whole idea. A tweet can be a point of connection. A remark on one's own thought or mini-experience may cause someone else to laugh because they can relate to it. A tweet can be the start of an idea. Very often a tweet will point to a complete idea housed elsewhere but linked via a tweet. A tweet, most simply described, is a chunk of data, less than 140 characters. One thing that is exciting about all this is that most of the current uses for tweeting have been thought of by the Tweeters themselves.
Relationship to Conversation. Leibovitz is totally wrong when he said that microblogging is not about conversation. Wow, there is so much conversation going on in Twitter. In fact, that is one of the hardest things to get used to for new people to the medium. In my timeline, I can see (unless I turn it off), the tweets written by people I am "following" in response to others that they are following, but I am not. In those cases, I see just half a conversation. By convention these tweets start with "@" and then the person's username. So someone responding to me would write @sgluskin. If I'm interested in seeing the rest of the conversation, I can click on their user name and, hopefully, find the other part. If I find that person's tweets interesting, I can then click on the "follow" while I'm there.
Dynamism. One of the most exciting things about Twitter right now is how alive and dynamic it is. How Twitter is used will change greatly, influenced most of all by its users. Even though Twitter is part of a for-profit company, it's software architecture has been completely open. This has allowed creative people to think up, literally daily, new ideas of how this simple but powerful way of communicating can be extended for other utilities that people need or desire.
Why it is Popular. Twitter is about what is happening "now." There is no question that "now" has its limits. And I'm certain Twitter will change and become less interesting to a lot of its users as our access to "now" becomes matter-of-fact. But we shouldn't underestimate what a powerful development it is to have access to a "now" that goes beyond oneself. People want to know what others are thinking, individually AND collectively, right now. Throughout history our only access to that information was via gossip or through mass media or government intermediaries. Now we have direct access to it.
My Concerns. I also have my concerns about this revolution, though they don't seem to overlap at all with Leibovitz'. I'm concerned about people looking at screens for too many hours (me). I worry about neurological affects, specifically attention, but possibly in other ways as well. Participating can also become addictive. These should be given much attention.
Long-ish Rants Against Short Points
Though my main points are done, I have other rants to get off my chest relating to inaccuracies in Leibovitz' article.
- Jonathan Rosen's book, the The Talmud and the Internet was not an essay about how the dialogical structure of the Talmud presaged the Internet's hypertext, as Leibovitz suggests. Did Leibovitz read more than the title?
I love that book. It's a memoir about loss. It tells the story of Rosen's two grandmothers, one who came to the shores of the US a Reform Jew from Germany in the 19th century, who Rosen knew well and whose death inspired the book. It's also about his other grandmother whom he never met. She perished in the Holocaust. Rosen intersperses the life stories of his grandmothers and his relationship with them with literary and Jewish thoughts. He powerfully retells the story of Yohanan ben Zakkai's exit from Jerusalem in a coffin in the wake of its destruction. Rabbinic Judaism, it's rich teachings and its way of life, were born from that loss. The Talmud and its profound method of pedagogy grew out of that loss. In the context of Rosen thinking about his own losses, his own alienation, Rosen muses how the Internet may be a response to that sense of loss an alienation that so many human beings feel. "If you weren't lost, why else would you need a home page."
I had lunch with Jonathan Rosen once. He told me that at the time he was trying to sell the book, "Memoirs were out." The book wouldn't sell. His agent came up with the idea of pitching it as a literary essay on a topical subject, and so the misleading title of the book was born, and played a critical role in getting it published.
- Leibovitz claims that what grounds the conversations and controversies in the Talmud is the fact that they are a response to an "urtext" -- the Torah. I think he exagerates the role that the Torah text plays in Talmud. The Torah is important as a symbol for the Sages. It also sets down basic concepts of law like Shabbat and Kashrut. But it mostly serves as a symbol to show that contemporary inovations are rooted in tradition. The sprinklings of Torah and other Biblical texts in the Talmud are there to make that symbolic connection. But in terms of the content of the Talmudic conversations and their arguments about law, the Torah is like a canvas to work and riff on.
I remember getting over a hump in my study of Talmud when a teacher recommended skipping the proof texts when I first approach a sugya (a Talmudic passage). Aha, the sugya was much easier to understand. References back to Torah are often more a reflection of the Rabbis ability to bend their mind in order to make a tortured connection then they are reflection of a true semantic connection between the old Torah and the new teaching. But making that connection served to pay respect to the past and help to validate the current argument.
- Leibovitz bashes geeks, referring to our community as "dorkdom." FYI, I am a geek and I take this personally :) His attack on us dorks comes mostly by mentioning only one, a certain Jorn Barger, the guy who happens to have come up with the term "weblog" (not blog as Leibovitz suggests). It appears that the guy might also be an anti-Semite. To taint the web revolution, open source, and social media by a remote connection to a single possible anti-Semite is bad journalism, bad analysis, stoking Jewish paranoia, and makes me quite grumpy.
Leibovitz' piece as a whole, though honored by being placed on the pages of the Forward is an example of the bad parts of the blogosphere. It's hyperbole, based on little fact, that is meant to stoke a fire on a hot topic without getting people to really think about it.