Is Boston Too Intellectual for Twitter?

Is Boston just too intellectual to bother with social media distractions like Twitter? The Globe‘s response to a recent study showing that Boston isn’t very chatty on Twitter falls into a familiar trap, claiming our intellectuals are just too verbose for the service’s limiting character count. The study that The Globe cites, conducted by the social media research firm Semiocast, listed the top 20 cities by number of tweets, and Boston didn’t even rank. In an editorial, the paper asks why:

In some circles, Boston’s relative aversion to Twitter could be seen as a knock against the city. To others, however, it suggests Bostonians just like tuning into the real world more than following it online. Then again, maybe it’s thanks to our high concentration of intellectuals — and the passionately verbose — that Bostonians just can’t say what we want to in 140 characters or less.

The “maybe” indicates that The Globe is making the suggestion almost as a throwaway final line, but it also seems to embrace the idea that intellectuals can’t be bothered with Twitter. It’s written with the tone of someone saying, “Oh well.” The Globe should be telling those Twitter-shunning intellectuals, if they exist, that they’re missing out.

The last time the interent exploded with a debate like this followed a column from former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who had similar concerns that Twitter didn’t allow for enough verbosity. Because of each tweet’s limited space, he criticized the site as a distraction, and a place where reasoned arguments couldn’t exist:

In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid

Bloggers across the land jumped to defend the social media service. Jonathan Chait, then at The New Republic, partially agreed with Keller, but he pointed out that Twitter is useful for reasons apart from long, complicated arguments:

My initial aversion to Twitter was based on seeing it as a retrogression from blogging — a thing that’s aimed at people who want a much stupider form of blogging. It is that if you try to use it for the same purpose. But as a device to communicate ideas that don’t need to stand up to critical scrutiny — i.e., here’s a story you should read, or here’s a little joke — it’s pretty great.

Twitter is indeed great for drawing our attention to stuff we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And that process in itself — following smart people who point out smartly written things — is a way to engage in arguments. Tweets, after all, can contain links. So when this post is finished, rather than cut and paste its text into hundreds of individual tweets, we could write a message like “here’s our response to The Globe‘s editorial about Twitter” and paste a link. That way, the debate goes on, this writer gets unlimited space to make his case, and most importantly, people who read The Globe this morning but don’t bookmark Boston Daily (which they should!) stand half a chance of actually finding and sharing this post.

It’s hard for intellectuals to engage in debate and argument when they don’t know there’s a debate under way. As evidenced by the many intellectual writers that this blogger follows, including Bill Keller, Jonathan Chait, and a few Globe editorial page writers, we’d say that Twitter is increasingly a place where smart people are talking, and a central way for other smart people to tap into their conversation. Maybe The Globe is right that Boston sends out fewer tweets than Miami because we’re just “passionately verbose,” but we shouldn’t let that stop us. After all, what use are a lot of words if no one is reading them?

Eric Randall
Eric Randall Eric Randall, Contributor at Boston Magazine

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