God forbid we should actually talk to each other

“How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live (in 140 characters or less)” by Steven Johnson (Time Magazine, 15 June 2009). If you’re still trying to get your head around the latest mainstream media hype that is known as Twitter then Time has prepared a few thousand character expose that should get you up to speed — or dummied down depending on how you look at it. As one would expect from Time, Mr. Johnson is thorough as well as entertaining. However, the ball gets dropped in the last 30 or so tweets.

But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn’t build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years.

The first discrepancy is  that at this point Mr. Johnson is off topic. What started as an overview of Twitter suddenly takes a sharp turn into cheerleading. Equating Twitter to the superiority of USA ingenuity is a bit of a stretch. The next discrepancy Mr. Johnson fails to recognize is that the if he mentions (i.e., “but if you measure…”) is a big if. Twitter is not the cure for cancer. Mr. Johnson then nose dives in the final paragraph.

This is what I ultimately find most inspiring about the Twitter phenomenon. We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds, and ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways to put these tools to use. There’s a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.

Read another way, Rome is burning and we just keep tweeting. And that’s a good thing? Are there benefits to Twitter? Of course there are. AU is certainly not anti-technology or anti-progress. We use Twitter, too. What we are is anti-hype. Bring together 17 million people, let them throw enough tweets around and eventually there are bound to be a couple success stories. The question is, how much time and effort was wasted to get to those one or two miracles?

Twitter is  a great tool and it can be fun but it’s hardly sliced bread.

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