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Twittered out

Coherence, context missing from new media.

NEW MEDIA: Politicians' new tool.
  • NEW MEDIA: Politicians' new tool.

There's been a lot of talk around these parts lately about “new media.” I guess the real debate started back when KATV decided to start letting their viewers choose their news and one old-school reporter called it a gimmick, which it is. At the core of that debate, though, was an important question about what we, as a society, value in our news: blocks of print or bells and whistles.

It seems, sadly, that we've chosen the latter. We follow friends on Facebook, chat each other up on Gmail and learn, minute to minute, about the minutiae of acquaintances' lives through Twitter (a social networking service that allows users to tell others “what they're doing” as long as it stays within the 140 character limit).

The up-side is we're in touch more than ever. These new technologies allow one to keep up with friends and family like never before. Twitter allows not only journalists, but newsmakers themselves, to break stories instantly. 

The down-side is that it might just be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Keeping up with friends through Facebook, while convenient, really only gives the illusion of connection. Having meaningful communication through Twitter is like finding a half-finished joint at a Phish concert. It ain't gonna happen. After all, what can you really say in 140 characters?

Neil Postman, in his 1984 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued the invention of the telegraph, and later the popularization of television, moved the U.S. from a print-based culture to a television-based one. He also said the quality of political discourse in America had declined with each new technological advance. If TV news marked the death of our print-based culture, then Twitter is the nail in the coffin. Postman passed away in 2003, so he didn't live to see the rise of this new phenomenon, but his description of the telegraph perfectly describes the tweet.

He said the telegraph was “suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message” and created a “neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities.”

But some argue that Twitter, like all of the “new media,” will change things for the better by breaking down the wall between journalist and news consumer, congressman and constituent. There is some truth to that, but it depends on how it is used. During President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress in late February, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, twittered, “Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren't going to bother watching pelosi smirk for the next hour.” Ah, political discourse at its finest.

Here in Arkansas, locals can check up on their representatives or follow local news personalities. You can get a two-sentence update from House Speaker Robbie Wills about lottery legislation or putting his kids to bed. Of course, like any other medium, Twitter can be used for political purposes. Karl Rove protege Tim Griffin announced he was considering a run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 on Twitter, a story that got legs because a local blogger spotted the tweet.

One argument for the existence of KATV's “Choose Your News” is that it creates transparency in a business that people don't always trust. Viewers can see news being made, e-mail questions to reporter Jessica Dean, read her blog and follow her tweets. I checked in with CYN the other night to catch a tweet or two. This is what I found: “It's busy here tonight ... we are spending the final minutes before the 10 analyzing Beyonce's Single Ladies video. Important stuff.” Indeed.

This is not to say these technologies are inherently bad, they're not. But, as Postman said, “there is a limit to the promise of new technology.” We should recognize those limitations.






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