Monday, June 29, 2009

Twits should back-pedal

A few weeks ago I made a post to this blog concerning the usefulness of Twitter. Essentially, I had argued that Twitter was a useless, narcissistically driven media outlet, but with the recent news in Iran, I felt it appropriate to swallow my pride a bit. I'm not a humble person, but I may have been a little overzealous in my condemnation of Twitter and I happily admit that fact.

So now I'm really confused. Is Twitter a beacon of democratic hope or a cesspool of idiots? The answer, I feel, is neither. The obsession over the medium has led journalists, bloggers, Twitter users, and society en mass to oversimplify this thing into a black and white dichotomy. I fear we are missing the point.

Twitter is a micro-blog, just one of many subcategories of various social networking sites (SNS). What distinguishes SNS from traditional media is user-generated content. Yes, it's incredibly easy to make fun of Twitter just as it is easy to blame the media for a host of problems for which, at best, they are indirectly responsible. Perhaps our handling discontent concerning traditional media has unduly spread over into the SNS realm.

We treat SNS, and all new media for that matter, as a category of its own in some respects, but in many others our framework of approaching new media is constrained by our old approaches to traditional media. The point is this: blaming the media still works, but who are we ultimately blaming? For traditional media, it typically means throwing charges at faceless of despised corporate bigwigs, but what about new media?

For media that relies on user-generated content, we can only blame the users: us. I'm not sure we realize that. Maher is right that Iran could save Twitter by lending it some credibility, but Americans in coffee shops aren't twittering about Iranian protests; Iranians are doing that. We twitter about how sad it is that Michael Jackson died and that we'll miss him -- though we did't know him; about the poor sexual decisions we made when we were blackout drunk the night before; about our dogs; about nothing.

I can no longer condemn this use though. It has its place. Media serve an escapist function too, and we can't be expected to intellectually attend to every world political event at all times; it is too straining. But escapism only works to a point, and sooner or later we need to embrace the fact that an informed citizenry is a good thing, much like the Iranians seem to be doing.

The bottom line is that SNS, and new media in general, are really only as timely and relevant as their users make it. Twitter isn't all bad, but it certainly isn't the democratic beacon we have made it out to be because we haven't made it that.

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