Son of Irtnog

03/03/2009 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1938, E.B. White wrote an essay entitled "Irtnog," a cautionary tale that should be a lesson to the texters and Twitterers of today--that is, if anyone paid attention to cautionary tales anymore.

"Along about 1920," White wrote, "it became apparent that more things were being written than people had time to read. That is to say, even if a man spent his entire time reading stories, articles, and news, as they appeared in books, magazines, and pamphlets, he fell behind..."

"...Then along came the Reader's Digest. That was a wonderful idea. It digested everything that was being written in leading magazines, and put new hope in the hearts of readers... [But] It was obvious that something more concentrated than digests would have to come along to take up the slack."

"It did. Someone conceived the idea of digesting the digests. He brought out a little publication called Pith, no bigger than your thumb...Everything was so extremely condensed that a reader could absorb everything that was being published in the world in about forty-five minutes. It was a tremendous financial success, and of course other publications sprang up, aping it: one called Core, another called Nub, and a third called Nutshell..."

"Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word "Bang!" and reduced a long article about the problem of the unruly child to the words "Hit him."

"It was not until 1960, when a Stevens Tech graduate named Abe Shapiro stepped in with an immense ingenious formula, that a permanent balance was established between writers and readers...He was positive that he could take everything that was written and published each day, and reduce it to a six-letter word."

"He worked out a secret formula and began posting daily bulletins, telling his result. Everything that had been written during the first day of his formula came down to the word "Irtnog." The second day, everything reduced to "Efsitz."

People accepted these mathematical distillation; and strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, people were thoroughly satisfied - which would lead one to believe that what readers really craved was not so much the contents of books, magazines, and papers as the assurance that they were not missing anything..."

E.B. White's prophecy of 1937 turns out to be even more advanced than the state of abbreviated communication today. White foresaw a way to reduce all the news to one six letter word. "Tweets" are by contrast long-winded at up to 140 characters.

The other day Allesandra Stanley of the New York Times wrote an insightful column about the "media narcissim" of news anchors and commentators who believe America wants to know what David Gregory had for lunch and the name of Rick Sanchez's pet turtle.

And like most media pandering in the name of "interactivity," the portion of the audience that takes the bait is tiny--around 2% of the four million viewers who tune into "Meet the Press" and 1% of the masochists who endure the robotic David Shuster at "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" follow them on Twitter.

"Left alone in a cage with a mountain of cocaine," Stanley writes, "a lab rat will gorge itself to death. Caught up in a housing bubble, bankers will keep selling mortgage-backed securities -- and amassing bonuses -- until credit markets seize, companies collapse, and millions of investors lose their jobs and homes."

"And news anchors and television personalities who have their own shows, Web sites, blogs and pages on and will send Twitter messages until the last follower falls into a coma."

Howard Kurtz, in a similar column, quoted the political poseur Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette, who believes the public is clamoring for "what is a basically a live feed from inside my head regarding whatever I'm doing that day." According to Kurtz, 79,000 people actually are--or so they say.

Like most online conversations, participants quickly shift away from the subject at hand and focus on the topic they really find fascinating--themselves. Gore Vidal used to say "I never pass up the chance to have sex or be on TV," but now, the truly self-obsessed can find fame, however fleeting, on the internet (and sex too, often at the same time). It reminds me of that wonderful scene in the old Steve Martin movie, The Jerk, where his downtrodden character is overjoyed to reach a level of celebrity he never imagined--his name appears in the phone book.

As the long-form written word becomes more and more obsolete, with newspapers going out of business and book publishers hiding behind closed doors, the "Twitter effect" is a race to the bottom of critical thinking, and an illusion of widespread popularity. Can you really reduce the day's news to a few lines of stream of consciousness composed by your thumb? What are you missing while you are tweeting?

Oh, never mind. Just say "Irtnog!"