Convert to the religion of Twitter? I'll pass

Twitter is useful, but it’s also a time suck. And it could soon be outmoded, just like the flip cam.

In the 21st century, technology comes and goes at lightning speed.

Take the flip cam, the cheap, easy, point-and-shoot video camera. Its most popular version, the Flip Ultra, came out in fall 2007, and took the market by such storm that New York Times technology writer David Pogue found himself writing this apologetic review six months late:

“Well, this is a little embarrassing. One of the most significant electronics products of the year slipped into the market, became a megahit, changed its industry – and I haven’t reviewed it yet.”

About a year after his review, Cisco Systems bought the Flip’s manufacturer for a reported $590 million in stock. Earlier this month, less than two years after Cisco’s purchase, the company announced it would stop production: Who, after all, needs a stand-alone video camera when more and more smart phones can do the trick between calls, texting, and tweeting?

Perhaps the story of the flip cam should serve as a lesson to those preaching the religion of Twitter in 2011.

Making the leap

Their message is clear: The social-media world is flying past, and you can either leap on or get left behind. And so, on aging knees, since I teach the rapidly morphing field of journalism, I am trying to make that leap. But I can’t help but believe that like my flip cam, which I bought last spring, this latest breathless manifestation of news and information will have been jilted for the Next Big Thing about the time I begin to master it.

It’s not that Twitter doesn’t have value, journalistically and beyond:

•It forces users to be succinct, a good thing since Web content careens around like subatomic particles in a supercollider.

•It provides instantaneous alerts to breaking news around the world.

•It broadens the potential for finding and contacting sources.

•It allows nonjournalists to find people with similar interests.

•It pushes news and information out to adept users, who can rely on the wise men and women they “follow” to identify what really matters rather than having to look for it themselves.

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But therein lies Twitter’s weakness as well. Who can provide the perfect list of stories to follow? And what do we lose when we leave our news in the hands of individuals rather than respected news organizations whose business is to make sense of events?

As a friend of mine put it, Twitter, like Facebook, easily becomes “an endless time suck.” Yes, Twitter is fast. But it’s exhausting, too. And I’ve seen the way it fragments the attention of my most-hooked students, who cling to it like the addicted gambler does a casino slot machine.

So what?

Sure, if I committed more time to Twitter, I might find some fascinating videos, articles, and ideas. I might successfully “retweet” them to a growing band of “followers,” who in turn would further spread the word. I might ... But so what?

In the meantime, I also might miss the song of the cardinal in my backyard, marking the arrival of spring. I might, as I stare at my phone or computer, not notice the willows in first bloom. I might forget to acknowledge my neighbors passing by as I walk my dog, leash in one hand, cellphone in the other. I might never get around to signing off.

And – as blasphemous as this undoubtedly sounds to the high priests of Twitter – I just might learn more elsewhere.

Back in the Middle Ages of slow news, when people waited a day for many of their headlines, one of my professors noted that younger readers turn to headlines and older readers turn to editorials and op-ed pieces. Today, I’m one of those older readers, and I understand why. I’m a lot more interested in making sense ofthe news rather than simply knowing its fleeting headlines first.

So, when a young colleague announced at a meeting recently that “anyone not on Twitter today is a caveman,” I tried not to take it too personally.

Despite his admonition, I will take a tempered approach to this new nirvana. For one thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter is before long sputtering in the same exhaust fumes that real-time chat, Myspace, the flip cam and, yes, text blogging occupy today. It will find itself forced to retreat or retool as the next mind-bending communication breakthrough pushes it aside.

For another, I’ve learned over the years to look skeptically at the things others say I must know. There is a great deal to choose from. Three decades ago, a New York University colleague announced to me that “anyone who hasn’t read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is uneducated.” I said nothing, far too embarrassed to admit I was among the uneducated. Alas, I still am.

But there’s time to change that, if I choose wisely. This much I can safely say: If it comes down to a choice of being an educated cavemen or spending yet another hour mastering Twitter, I’ll choose the former.

Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. His latest book is “Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves: Telling Stories in an Age of Blogging.” He blogs here.

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