Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stick to the Character Limit

In advance of the current issue, The Atlantic Monthly has changed its Letters to the Editor section. Comments are now printed in a more broadly conceived section called "The Conversation," which, as James Bennet explains in the Editor's Note for May, "is an attempt to more fully express the widening range of reaction to our work." That is to say that there is a much greater diversity of media through which one might comment on a piece of journalism, and The Atlantic now prints traditional letters to the editor alongside blog comments, poll results from, and so on.

By and large, I find this to be an admirable way of extending the dialogue that might grow out of the writing in the magazine without giving short shrift to anyone who tries to express their insight in what is arbitrarily identified as the wrong place. That said, I think there are wrong places - media that ought not be included, and I was appalled to see that among the meaningful and articulate commentary, one tweet had been transcribed and printed in the pages of an esteemed, historic magazine. It read: "I love the 'Letters to the Editor' part of The Atlantic where they let the writers respond. SO MUCH GLORIOUS CATTINESS."

Perhaps this is appreciably amusing, and perhaps it comments on the nature of the discourse that tended to fill the newly renamed section. But anything that's one hundred forty characters at an established maximum is severely limited in how amusing it can be, and debilitatingly limited in how insightful or poignant it can be. The main impression that I get from the above tweet is that it seems like it's just somebody's off-the-cuff, knee jerk commentary. It seems like something that somebody might have simply said aloud to a friend while reading the magazine, not a series of thoughts that somebody took the time to formulate and carefully express. The latter is the only thing that deserves to be put into print.

But of course, my reaction to the tweet printed in "The Conversation" is my reaction to every tweet I'm likely to run across. They all strike me as just being part of somebody's unfiltered and unrefined stream of consciousness, because of course that is what they all are. That is specifically what Twitter is an outlet for, and it has no more place in "The Conversation" than a word from somebody who is simply passing through the room has in an actual ongoing conversation.

The tweet printed in The Atlantic is a perfect example of that. The word "love" is used in it in such a way as to actually denote almost complete detachment. Neither is it used sarcastically nor does it indicate genuine affection, of the sort that would make one want to give something back to the object of it. It is "love" in a sense that is almost unique to the internet, and no doubt endemic on Twitter, in that it is expressed in pleasure at simply letting something happen while you stand as an anonymous observe to it, neither contributing to nor mitigating its persistence.

More than that, anything that uses the word "glorious" in such a casual, colloquial, and borderline meaningless way should not be taken seriously. Is "glorious" really the best word that could have been used here? Does the cattiness the tweeter refers to actually confer something triumphal, something magnificent? Or would it be better to simply call it something like "pleasant"? I won't pretend to never use words like "glorious" in such exaggerative, overly-emphatic contexts when speaking to friends, but I would never write like that. And that is just the problem. The Atlantic is a magazine. It is a piece of literature. It is not idle talk, and there should be a distinction between the two.

It depresses me every time I see things like twitter further validated in traditional media. Does no one else perceive the absurdity of hearing a news presenter say "You can tweet at us," or of seeing a 134 year-old magazine print a comment IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? Does no one else think that this sort of thing robs us of self-respect as a society? It seems to me that it is all an effort at inclusiveness in building a dialogue, but that fact, as I see it, is that including the largest number of voices possible tends to reduce the number of actual ideas being shared. We shouldn't strive to make room for the words of people who haven't really thought things through.

But everywhere I look, we seem to go on reducing the level of discourse, and I am left to wonder: Will there ever be such a volume of pablum in the media that we reach a breaking point that changes and compartmentalizes the ways in which we communicate, or will this go on indefinitely, until the entire conversation is presented in one-sentence increments, with every third comment being LOL or WTF?

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