Thursday New Tools Feature: Twitter Not Just "For The Birds"

There's been a lot of buzz in the media over the last few days about the popular micro-blogging service Twitter. On Monday, Politico published a list of D.C.'s top 10 most influential Twitterers, a story which was promptly picked up by MSNBC. Then, on Tuesday, ABC News partnered with Twitter for their live coverage of President Obama's pseudo-State-of-the-Union, even as members of both parties tweeted their reactions to the speech on the floor as Obama spoke.

It's fast becoming clear that Twitter is not just a fad; it's here to stay, or at least as much as any net-based service can be (we should probably not be thinking about Facebook or MySpace as truly permanent institutions either, but their importance in our society now is unquestionable).

I'm a little ambivalent about the ascendance of Twitter. Don't get me wrong; Twitter has a lot of great potential for politics (see the Twitter Vote Project) and is a convenient way to keep up with your friends and their whereabouts. And of course, NDN's Twitter feed is totally great and you should start following us today.

Yet at the same time, I actually do wonder what effects a 140-character limit might have on us as a society. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote about this yesterday, noting that: view the hodgepodge of text messages sent from the House floor during the speech, it seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder.

Or, see this recent report from a top neuroscientist finding that social networking sites may harm children's brains:

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.

While I usually find stories and reports decrying the dangers of technology to be reactionary and sensationalist, playing to our collective resistance to societal change and fear of the unknown, I think Mr. Milbank may have a point. And it makes a certain amount of sense; the idea that everyone wants to know what you're doing all the time, the basic premise of Twitter, seems an inherently egocentric one. It's hard to say much of value in 140 characters (of course, my papers in college were always twice the maximum length so maybe I'm just not that into the whole brevity thing). Here are the first 140 characters of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Loses something, doesn't it?

For good or ill, Twitter has become part of the core technology set necessary for 21st century political communication. So, in conclusion, you should definitely use Twitter. But make sure to read a book once in a while, too, just in case. 

UPDATE: Once again, Jon Stewart and I are on the same page: