Can We Be Thoughtful in 140 Characters?

In response to my most recent post about McLuhan and social media, Bob McCannon, President of Action Coalition for Media Education (an organization with an honorable mission, check it out here) asked me this:If McLuhan is right, what does that mean for the quality of the culture created by messages communicated by short tweets and even shorter texts. Do we not lose the considerations crucial to a complex understanding of the complexities of life, love, democracy, etc.? Is our disdain for detail responsible for knee jerk reactions of today’s media pundits and politicians?”

Bob implies that brevity mandates excluding details, and that our culture’s obsession with brevity, with tiny tweets and texts transporting important information and complex ideas to thousands of readers simultaneously, has created an atmosphere in which the majority of people dismiss the critical details. Furthermore, he’s arguing that there is a danger in this move away from the details. Without the complicated particulars, we may be losing the ability to understand larger ideas, ideas that successful, engaged, voting adults must understand.

I agree that the brevity of tweets, texts, and other social media interactions has certainly had detrimental effects on the way young people are communicating. When I taught writing courses to undergrads at the University of Utah, I was shocked at how often inappropriate abbreviations and slang showed up in academic papers. Students used “thru” for “through” or “u” for “you,” for example, and sentence fragments abounded. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Bob and ACME report that an alarming percentage of Americans can’t read 7th grade material. If adults can’t read simple grade-school literature and use short forms of social media as their main communication medium, how will they be able to understand the important issues they’ll be asked to vote upon? It’s frustrating for me, as someone who grew up with literature and is passionate about the written word, that texts and tweets have become the new vernacular.

This leads me to a larger question, though: if the message is short, can the content be rich? Does brevity imply simplicity? I don’t think so. Content can’t be measured in characters. Many poets would agree with me. Consider Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro” that he famously trimmed down from 30 lines to 2:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.”

In his 1918 essay “A Retrospect,” Pound wrote, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.” There’s a long tradition in English literature (in all literature, really– think of the haiku) of communicating important, beautiful images in condensed forms.

This isn’t to say that tweets should be compared to poems. Of course we can’t compare the seething restraint in Dickinson’s ten line verses to the poorly written tweets out there (one today from a young Tweeter: “#dearyoungself This too shall pass. And that. But will give you a spine of steel. Then fun part.” Um, what?) However, we could argue that there’s a precedent for embracing shorter forms of communication as valuable. If brief content can’t be rich, then lengthy content must be, and we all know from watching rambling political speeches that this isn’t true.

I’ve only recently started using Twitter, and I must admit that I adore it. For me, it’s not the tweets, it’s the links. Though the tweets themselves are short, grammatically incorrect, jumbled (etc), they almost always refer readers to a more complex article, story, or video via a link. Some anecdotal evidence of Twitter’s positive effects: I have a friend who used to be very apathetic about the news, particularly international news. Now that’s he on Twitter and follows a handful of politically minded celebrities who tweet links to news stories and opinion pieces, he’s much more informed.

So is it the brevity of mediums that can lead to knee-jerk reactions, or is it their social element? If you use Twitter to follow the news, think about the degree to which your news could be biased based on who you follow. If you’re a conservative and you’ve chosen to follow Sarah Palin, Fox News, and the Tea Party, and use their links to keep up with the day’s breaking news, you’ll end your day chest-high in ideas in which you were already knee-deep. Likewise, if you’re a liberal who follows Cecile Richards, Stephen Colbert, and President Obama, you’ll end up in the same situation. The news is becoming increasingly social, just look at the Huffington Post. It’s brilliant, it makes money, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage challenging oneself to consider another point of view. We don’t use social media to connect with people we don’t agree with. We “like” things like ourselves.

As I said in my last post, we must approach media critically. The medium doesn’t just deliver, it constructs. None of what I’m saying is new, of course. Cultural theorists and media educators like Bob McCannon and his cohorts at ACME have been making this point for quite some time, as do professors and graduate students at most academic institutions. But this point isn’t made nearly enough in the mainstream media. It’s no longer enough to be literate; we need to be media literate as well.