No One Writes Any More
by Mike Eckel
That is to say, no one ever writes emails any more. To be precise, no one ever writes those meaty, mull-it-over-and-kick-it-around-the-synapses kind-of email correspondence any more. (never mind those things that people used to compose on paper, put into envelopes, paste with a postage mark and drop into rounded blue metal boxes on street corners for delivery within a couple days).
These days, it seems I get more Facebook messages than emails. If I'm looking for routine news from a friend or a family member, I might have to subscribe to a Twitter feed. Instant message exchanges on Gmail or an SMS-text message from an iPhone passes for a conversation. A soundbite on a YouTube video turns out to be more persuasive than a well-reasoned argument. At the news organization I work for, a 50-character headline is expected to capture the essence of a complicated 1,000 word analysis or complex news story.
Just like email buried the written letter, I can't help but wonder whether the 140-character microblog is the death knell for email and for something more troubling.
This is a bit tendentious of course. History's dustbin is littered with fraught warnings about momentous changes in technology and their effects on the thinking and the means of communications of the day (see: Gutenburg, radio, television, typewriters, the personal computer, the Internet, Google, Twitter, and so on).
Admittedly, this lament is coming from a person who didn't get his first email address until his sophomore year in college or thereabouts. (DEC VT-100 terminal anyone?) But this much is indisputable: the way we communicate with one another today -- be it the news media to an audience, or individuals to one another -- is undergoing a seismic shift, and that's changing the way we converse, the way we discuss, argue, debate.
When was the last time you had actually had an exchange of emails (or letters, if you know what those are) --a back-and-forth, give-and-take of ideas and proposals and arguments and counterarguments, with anyone? A friend? A parent? A relative? You know, the kind of thing where you posit an idea, you get a response, you disagree with the response, you get concurrence or another twist in the argument and so on?
Take this phenomenon to its logical next step: How can you debate the merits or flaws of proposals to reform the U.S. health care system via Twitter? Or Gmail instant messages? Or by posting things on someone's Facebook wall? Doesn't that have consequences for how a group of people -- a community, a city, a state, a nation -- makes important decisions? In a semi-authoritarian, top-down country like Russia, where I live, it doesn't really.
But in a democracy, it does. Witness the YouTube videos of the shout-fest town-hall meetings held across the U.S. this summer and the effect they've had on the debate over health care reform.
I'm not so much of a Luddite to dismiss this phenomenon outright. I have a Facebook page that I actually use for reporting sometimes, and Twitter has been useful in tracking down, in particular, breaking news events in the past. But the volume, the quality, the articulateness of information that comes via social media (as the idea is called) requires time, patience, critical thinking, the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff, to figure out exactly what is information, what is speculation, what is well-reasoned argument and what is complete and utter crap.
There's related phenomenon worth touching on here: when was the last time you read the letter-to-the-editor page in your local newspaper (do those even exist anymore?) Oftentimes, the letters lean toward the lunatic fringe or just malicious malcontent. But occasionally, you'll come across an interesting argument or point-of-view that might not have otherwise occurred to you.
At a good newspaper, that type of thing isn't limited to the op-ed page. You might come across a news article that grabs your attention, illuminates some alternative argument or opinion and gives your convictions or beliefs or prejudices a good shake, momentarily jarring you out of your self-satisfied, self-fulfilling view on the
world. Notwithstanding the glaring flaws in the business model of the newspaper these days, the concept of the newspaper as a public forum, a kiosk or shop stall in the marketplace of ideas, is still valid -- and so essential.
What's happens to the marketplace of ideas if the currency of choice is an idea limited to 140 characters?
Mike Eckel, '93, has been a correspondent for in Moscow, Russia, since 2004. Prior to that, he worked as an editor on AP's national and international desks in New York and in AP's bureau in Montpelier, covering the Vermont Statehouse.