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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted April 22, 2009 | 03:16 PM (EST)

Maureen Dowd, Please Stop Now. Twitter is Not Just For the Banal Retentive


Maureen Dowd devotes her entire column today to a frontal assault on Twitter, a screed badly disguised as an interview with their founders.

Is it mere envy, the green-eyed monster that's one of her go-to Shakespearean shout-outs?

It's a likely conclusion. After all, Twitter is exploding and its generous VCs aren't holding back funding despite a void of ad revenue, while the Times has to refinance its high IQ HQ.

So what does Dowd make of the phenom? She writes Twitter off as an idle plaything for the Banal Retentive. (That's my Dowdism, by the way; NYT are you paying attention? I'm open to filling in while she writes her next book.)

She not only loathes Twitter, she over-ascribes a series of dismal prospects to its success, a typical columnist calumny.

So it becomes another example of the decline of literacy; a proxy for our digital vanity and vacuity; a marker for the end of Western Civilization; the sound of taps for the elevated intellectual discourse that we've cherished since the Enlightenment showed up.

Nonsense, all. Twitter is a neutral and agnostic platform. Ranting about it may be a useful strategy for meeting your column obligations, but it's about as wise, useful and rear-guard as complaining about email or the microwave.

As the wounded, role-seeking New York Times stumbles to find a revenue source that is as clearly-defined as its own very chiseled sense of self-importance, the predictable resistance of Ms. Dowd tells us more about the level of fear in the Palazzo Piano than anything meaningful about Twitter.

In fact, despite her control of the final interview presentation, and her ability to set Twitter's founders to sea in her Ark of Snark, the 140-character nano-blogging service emerges better than Dowd does.

The truth is, like any palimpsest awaiting a scribe, Twitter's value depends on those who choose to play. And those whom you choose to follow.

Disclaimer: I Twitter -- "hanft" is my hugely clever and obfuscatory user name -- and those few loyalists who follow me hopefully are rewarded with more plangency than "Subway late again. Ugh."

Twitter can be, and is, whatever we make it. As William Gibson famously said, "The street finds its own use for things."

So it can report in real-time spasms from Mumbai or the operating room. It allows people in chemotherapy to regain a sense of sense in the face of immune violence. It's Shaq, Beyonce, and Oprah; it's constitutional law professors, chessmasters and a hobbled community of sliced and diced job seekers.

It astonishes me that Dowd is silent on all this, exhibiting the complete lack of balance that is apparently the sacred privilege of the Op-Ed feifdom.

But you've got to give her rigidity its due. It's tough to summon up the arrogance of dismissal that's powerful enough to ignore the fact that Twitter is successful and popular, that it's filling a cultural role of some material importance.

Perhaps, just perhaps, in this most stressful of all epochs, Twitter is a much-needed escape valve, a new genus of psychological sublimation, a meta-socialization apparatus.

Rather than offering some lapidary cultural forensics, though, Dowd is as aggressive and militarily incompetent as North Korea.

She simply cannot control her frustration at Twitter's new hegemony, which blocks her both from seeing through the faddishness, and acknowledging the instant, impressive and vast ecosystem of Twitter apps and tools that have erupted in a fungi fury.

Here's what I say.

Beyond whatever else Twitter can contribute -- and didn't it help prevent a violent school episode in Canada recently? -- it has a salutary social role.

If a Tweet can release some anxiety that would otherwise be focused on self-destructive or anti-social behavior -- a cigarette smoked, a child spanked, a harsh word slung -- then that alone gives it more meaningful human value than the entire New York Times Op-Ed mausoleum.