Q: To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.

A: And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Here’s a concern I wasn’t expecting to encounter this year in a Q & A with Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books. New York Magazine, April 7.

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9 thoughts on “Q: To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.

  1. I think this boils down to the issue of the value of the information on the internet. Algorithms, in a sense, are the judges of information. Many people are busy creating systems to judge these vast oceans of information. It is indeed a whole new world.
    P.S. Also read your code of life post, very nice to see the process of learning about code. It is, in many ways, a life changing thing.

    • Thanks John. My feeling, increasingly, is that algorithms are going to be the judges of information as long as we sit back and allow them to be. This doesn’t mean that we should shun algorithms and rely only on humans. Those days are pretty much over. But humans using the algorithm as a tool is a pretty powerful knowledge combination. Algorithms using humans as tools? I’m a little worried about. I’m concerned about the happy day Ray Zurzweil is promising, when computers will “know” what our questions are, before we even pose them. Is it just me, or does that make you a little queasy? In that sense it’s hard to assess “value” of information. Because I think this value is always shifting based on how much agency is involved. So more people learning to code can be a real civilization changing thing.

      • So, I tried to reply but it didn’t take. What did I write again?
        Oh yeah, the point is that algorithms are always written by people. If they stink they will simply be rewritten. I love how Amazon recommends things to me. That’s an algorithm. And there are other systems that do involve people more directly, as exemplified by sites like digg.com where the most interesting info gets pushed to the top. And my personal favorite: recommendations from other people. These things aren’t going anywhere.

        As far as the “value” of information, you’re right in saying it’s hard to assess. The value of information is of course highly personal (as objectively good or bad as some things are), so you’ll need to have personalized systems.

        And no need to be afraid of systems knowing what questions we’ll ask before we ask them. These things always sound weird, but I’m sure flying in a chair at 30,000 feet sounded weird 150 years ago. If there’s a benefit, it’ll work. And if there isn’t, it will go away. At least, this is my faith in the world we’ve created.

      • I don’t mind Amazon recommending things to me at the appropriate moment, when I decide I need or want recommendations,. I hate that I don’t have the option of turning that feature off (maybe this is different in the device, but in the free app you can’t). I hate that Amazon has gone into publishing and uses data from our reading habits to determine the fastest way to kill off traditional publishers. I believe it is wrong for Jeff Bezos to own as many layers of the Internet as he does. If he wants to dominate one layer, a platform that sells and distributes books ,that’s his right in a free enterprise system. And as long as people can reasonably determine his agenda, I’m okay with that. When he starts mucking around in hardware and content creation, that’s two layers too many. At that point his agenda starts getting murkier. It’s good to have faith. But this shouldn’t be a matter of faith, it should be a matter of ethical business practice. I don’t believe demanding rigorous business ethics in any way endangers this wonderful world.

  2. Hi Juliet,
    Hope you don’t mind me continuing this thread. This is the longest I’ve stayed on a discussion.
    So, I get it, we don’t like it when someone gets too powerful. Usually when people get too powerful they become bastards/bitches. I just think the modern transparency and the empowerment of the common man tends to put the brakes on this trend. And really, all we’re worried about is that someone will dominate us and give us a raw deal. The question is “is this happening?”. I don’t think so. I love what Amazon is doing. They rock as a web store and I love the possibilities they give to authors and readers. I’m self-publishing a book and I know I would not have a good chance to get it published at a real publishing house.
    Hopefully my book doesn’t suck, but with all the self-published books out there, book critics like yourself won’t have the time to properly critique them. But this massive army of Average-Joe reviewers can. Are their review any good? Maybe they’re average, but then the average reader is also average. Know what I mean? And I have my own little ways to see if a review is good or not.
    And you’re right, we should demand solid business ethics. But I think we do. It’s just not coming from government organizations, but more independent global organizations and grass-roots movements.
    But maybe you have a nostalgia for traditional publishing that I don’t have. I don’t know it that well, so I can’t say. I’m just excited about the possibilities of self-publishing in the digital age.

    • John,

      I’m not part of that “we”. I don’t know anything about Jeff Bezos personally, so I’m not going to label him. He could be a benevolent, philanthropic spirit of infinite love and wisdom. It wouldn’t matter. He’s human, which means for the time being he’s mortal. So if he gets hit by a google self driving car, we’re still left with a system that is not transparent to the average person, or even the average programmer. I’m excited about the possibilities of self-publishing in the digital age. Everything you hope for is achievable without one corporation vertically integrating the entire industry. So, I need to ask you. Why are you so invested in all the power being in the hands of one person or company?

      • Hi Juliet,
        I don’t care if the power is in the hands of one person, as long as they are doing good things with that power. If Jeff Bezos dies tomorrow, I really don’t care – as long as Amazon (or whatever company) keeps doing things I like. I didn’t care that Steve Jobs died – I don’t know any of these people. I just care that the world is progressing, and I think it is, even though there will be things we inevitably lose along the way.
        As far as transparency is concerned, Jeff probably doesn’t know all the insides and outs of the system as well as his team of engineers. His death will have no impact on the system. If you’re really concerned about privacy, I get that. It’s obviously a big topic now and the power is slowly shifting back away from these companies and from government and back into the hands of people. It was technology that took away your privacy and it’s technology that is giving it back to you. And this back and forth will continue on forever with regards to all kinds of topics, but it will be technology that shifts it in all cases.

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