THE BLOG
03/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

The first draft of this piece was written for Twitter, and was 133 characters long. It read, in its entirety:

Alessandra Stanley proves that bloggers aren't the only ones who can be reflexively snarky about things they don't really understand.

I spiked it, because Twitter -- a popular microblogging service that has a 140-character-per-post format -- is the right place for some things and the wrong place for others. It's right for one- or two-line gags, for passing on links to photos or articles, for quickly seeking out advice on a variety of topics. It's wrong for a response to a slapped-together trend piece by a writer who isn't exactly known for attention to detail. And now this paragraph officially contains more nuance than Stanley's New York Times piece on media celebrities who use Twitter.

The problem isn't that Stanley doesn't care for the service, which is her right. The problem is that she doesn't seem to have looked beyond the accounts of a few high-level journalists to grasp the real breadth and depth of the thing. She relies on snotty pronouncements like "yet another gateway drug to full-blown media narcissism" (As if bigtime TV journalists need one; have you watched Blitzer or Olbermann lately?) and: "It's not just television, of course. Ordinary people, bloggers and even columnists and book authors, who all already have platforms for their views, feel compelled to share their split-second apercus, no matter how mundane" -- which is really just an amplification of the lazy canard that Twitter is largely the domain of self-obsessed Millennials posting moment-by-moment updates on the progress of their daily errands.

This was, to be sure, the idea behind the service when it was launched. What's been interesting about its progress, though, has been the degree to which that original concept has splintered. There are now more distinct constituencies using Twitter than there are cliques in a high-school lunchroom. There are gearheads like Leo Laporte, athletes like Shaquille O'Neal (who was reportedly put up to it by a high-priced marketing consultant, but has embraced the medium with an outsized enthusiasm), Internet celebrities like Merlin Mann, indescribable originals like Joshua Green Allen. And yes, there are big-name journalists, more of them every day. It's like a mile-long buffet of mini-bites by the world's widest variety of chefs. You certainly don't want to make it your main source of informational sustenance; but as a way to fill in around the margins of your online experience, it can't be beat.

Stanley doesn't see Twitter quite this way. She's in more of a Threat-to-The-Republic mode in her piece, even making the leap to this howler:

Those who say Twitter is a harmless pastime, which skeptics are free to ignore, are ignoring the corrosive secondary effects. We already live in an era of me-first journalism, autobiographical blogs and first-person reportage. Even daytime cable news is clotted with Lou Dobbsian anchors who ooze self-regard and intemperate opinion.

Just a couple of points here: Skeptics are indeed free to ignore Twitter, as most of America seems to be doing very nicely on its own. Outside of the echo chamber in which media junkies live and work, Twitter isn't exactly a household word. Try calling your friends from high school and asking if they're on it; you'll be able to hear their blank looks right over the phone. Even within Twitter itself, though, users are quite free to tune out any voices they don't choose to hear, whether it's David Gregory or some guy named Paco tweeting about his cats. I've constructed a Twitter feed that features about 150 users, some of them well-known, some of them not; I have a reasonable amount of confidence that everyone I follow has something interesting to say, and if they don't I dump them. So the notion that Twitter is force-feeding its own users or the citizenry at large anything "corrosive" is more than uninformed -- it's deeply silly. Then again, anybody who says "Even daytime cable news is clotted with Lou Dobbsian anchors who ooze self-regard and intemperate opinion," as if cable news were within recent memory a high, clean, windswept plain of selflessness and temperance, isn't smoking what I'm smoking.

What's most frustrating about Stanley's take on Twitter -- aside from its insufferable tone and the reporting-free clean room in which it seems to have been drafted -- is that there's a smidge of truth in it. There has, in fact, been a rush of bigtime TV journalists to Twitter in recent weeks, a rush that's felt dictated more by marketing than by any sense that there's something interesting going on. (There are exceptions to this: Rachel Maddow, a relatively early adopter, seems to like the service and appreciate its utility, frequently using it to annotate topics discussed on her show.) Would it be more useful for, say, Contessa Brewer to spend her downtime brushing up on economic policy than tweeting on whether Dan Abrams looks dreamier clean-shaven or bearded? Well: Yeah. But is Twitter, as Stanley implies, the thing that's somehow driving the cultural debate down toward narcissism and triviality? I can answer that in 21 characters: That ship has sailed.

Bill Barol tweets here.