Why Joe Nocera isn’t on Twitter

It’s the all of the convenience and annoyance of the world-wide non peer-reviewed interwebs, x1000:

But to me, at least — and, yes, I acknowledge I’m at the age where I’m losing the battle to keep up with technology — the negatives outweigh the positives. So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things, as Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons receiver, did after the George Zimmerman verdict, suggesting in a tweet that the jurors “should go home and kill themselves.”

With its 140-character limit, Twitter exacerbates our society-wide attention deficit disorder: Nothing can be allowed to take more than a few seconds to write or read. [Paul] Kedrosky may prefer Twitter, but I really miss his thoughtful blog. I recently heard Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, bragging that the pope now has a Twitter account. Once, popes wrote encyclicals; now they tweet.

What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful. It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life. For several years, Douglas Kass, the investor and CNBC commentator, regularly tweeted his investment thoughts; with 63,000 followers, he was one of the most popular investment gurus on Twitter. Recently, however, he decided to stop because he had received so many inexplicably nasty messages. People who opposed his investment views denounced him in the foulest language imaginable. “I received several life-threating tweets,” he told me. “I concluded it wasn’t worth navigating the sharks to find the good fish,” he added.

I agree.  Blogs surely can be hateful, but it seems to me that the nastiness on blogs is less personal and more performative, whereas hateful tweets are addressed to one’s personal account and can be motivated not just by what the objects of their ire say on Twitter, but by anything about that individual and/or  her opinions that someone doesn’t like.

But, then, what the hell to I know?  I have a Twitter account, but I opened it only to ensure that no one else grabbed the handle “Historiann.”  (Nevertheless, I have Twitter “followers”–followers destined to be disappointed, I’m afraid.)  What do the rest of you think about Nocera’s analysis of Twitter?

Besides:  once the Vatican opened a Twitter account, didn’t that make it seem kind of over?

22 thoughts on “Why Joe Nocera isn’t on Twitter

  1. I’m on Twitter and use it a little. I promote my own blog posts, pass along items of interest, and make the occasional snarky observation. I listen in on professional conversations and manage to avoid nastiness by being selective about who I follow and refusing to get drawn into pi$$ing contests on any subject. I don’t love Twitter in the way that I love Facebook (which I know you continue to resist), but it regularly points me toward things I wouldn’t otherwise see and I appreciate it for that. I don’t think Twitter is any nastier or more frivolous than anything else on the interwebz. If you’ve got 63,000 followers, you are obviously going to have some sharks in your pool, but I doubt I will ever have that kind of problem. The great and powerful Historiann might have to contend with the perils of mass popularity, but I’m sure your lasso is big enough to keep the wild ponies in the corral.

    Also, speaking of the Pope on Twitter, turns out you can get time off in purgatory for following His Holiness! Send the sharks over there! http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2013/jul/17/time-off-purgatory-pope-twitter-followers


  2. Historiann, we’ve had this conversation elsewhere in comments sections, but I would second Madwoman. I do not think that everyone *has to* be on Twitter; as you’ve noted, it takes time, and there’s only 24 hours to go around. But I think Nocera is a bit off-base in his critique.

    Most importantly, he portrays Twitter as an unfiltered forum (a fire hose, to use the most common metaphor), and himself as a hapless victim. But that’s just not how it works – you see only the tweets of those you follow. To put it another way: I’m on Twitter and had no idea Roddy White had made ill-advised comments until I read about it in Joe Nocera’s New York TImes column, and he found out about it somehow even though he’s not on Twitter.

    In other words, if you follow people who say nasty, vicious things, that’s what you’ll see. I’m not denying that Nocera wouldn’t get vitriol if he joined the service — a NY Times columnist is far more likely to get that sort of thing than the average historian — but is his email inbox today a paragon of reasoned, rational, polite debate? I really doubt it.

    Second, unless you want it to Twitter doesn’t mean you don’t do anything else. Contrary to what Nocera suggests about the Pope, Francis just issued an encyclical last week, and did so earlier in his term than any other Pope in history! For me, it’s gained greater exposure for the longer form writing I’ve done (at The Junto, our pageviews spike with every mention on Twitter and Facebook), and brought me and my writing into contact with people who might not otherwise have seen it.

    It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it takes practice and time. That’s all fine. But the technological determinism of Nocera’s piece was off-putting, in my mind.


  3. In a recent classroom simulation of an international conference, some of the students asked if we could have each group create a twitter account, allowing them to tweet their opinions if they were too shy to speak in debate or couldn’t get their spoken words in before the topic moved on. Let’s give it a try, I thought. We projected the live twitter feed up on a screen in the classroom. What savvy student-driven use of technology, I thought — sure to get commended by those who want us to use all the techy bells and whistles! Instead of informed (or even uninformed) commentary on the topics being discussed, it was schoolyard taunts. Predictable, perhaps, but the medium seemed to drag down the tone.


  4. I started getting notices that people were “following [me] on Academia.edu.” I was like, o.k., what’s Academia.edu? It took a while to get over there, mainly because it turns out that I don’t exist on Academia.edu, but the notices continue to trickle in. Being a missing persons case in cyberspace is kind of interesting. Part of me would sort of like to tweet, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Have to get a smartphone first.


  5. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the genre, but I’ve really gotten into Twitter. There are so many historians using it and it’s been a terrific way for me to discover new historical blogs and scholarship. It’s also easier to connect with people you don’t know — I would never dream of requesting to be Facebook friends with an unknown scholar, but I do follow their Twitter feeds. I haven’t encountered anyone being nasty; far from it.


  6. I just joined Twitter last week, so it’s definitely over! (I am also a Facebook refusnik.) I have no intention of ever actually tweeting anything, but decided that it looked like a good way to follow news events and in particular, local issues. Three weeks ago we had serious flooding in our area, and it was hard to find up-to-date information on what roads were open via standard outlets. I only follow a few news outlets and my current guilty pleasure, an athlete I have a crush on. We’ll see how it works.


  7. Nocera is one of the few good eggs within the columnist ranks. Most columns share size and location. Yet, quite a few of them are hateful. Hate targets differ; some hate liberal, others hate Clinton and others hate Israel. (Gore Vidal in the 60s: I don’t like your country.)

    Hate is an unlimited resource plentiful and widely spread. Twitts didn’t add hate, they just channel it faster.

    Personally, I never understood why use hate when you can cut any idea with a sharp tongue.

    By the way Mr. Adelman, if I follow your twits I can reply to you and you’ll see my reply. Am I wrong?


  8. koshembos: Yes, if you include someone’s Twitter handle in your tweet as a reply, that person will see it. But if that tweet is offensive, derogatory, or otherwise unwelcome, the person tweeted to can block the user, which would prevent that from happening again. You can also report someone if they’re being abusive. I’ve never had to do that (I’m apparently not controversial enough!) so I don’t know what Twitter’s policy is on how to handle those.

    If Joe Nocera joined Twitter, would he have a lot of noise in his mentions? Yes, absolutely, and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of public figures, in particular columnists. (I would not have wanted to be the intern in charge of reading David Brooks’ feed yesterday.) But one can ignore the silly stuff, engage with the serious, and report the vicious. Of course, as I said above that takes time and I understand the impulse to use that time otherwise. But it’s a logical fallacy to jump from “sometimes people on Twitter say ‘awfully stupid things'” to “Twitter exacerbates our society-wide attention deficit disorder.”


  9. Well, having recently joined twitter for professional reasons, I’m still figuring out my way around. Like any social media — blogs, book of the face, etc.,– you need to know *why* you’re doing it. I use it to follow stories, and to post things I think are of interest to those who care about the humanities in general, and history in particular, with a side in higher ed policy issues. I briefly followed the NY Times, and then decided that way was the road to insanity (they tweet every single story). So I’m trying to be thoughtful about who I follow, and what I tweet. That said, I went off line totally for a few days, and I really haven’t caught back up with twitter…

    However, my favorite is that BBC Radio 4 now does a “Tweet of the Day”(http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk), which is a different birdsong every day. It makes me smile every time I hear it.


  10. I’ve quite enjoyed the seeming evaporation of media references to Groupon in the last six months or so, whether that means they’ve crashed and burned, or just found their natural niche and retreated into it with their ultimate audience. But at least I no longer have to encounter repeatedly the ludicrous term of art “daily deals site,” as if “daily deals site” is a longstanding natural category of reality, or a new one important enough to care about. Maybe that will be the pattern for a lot of these social media tools. I don’t care if some celebrity wants to tweet some crazy thing, but hearing that an obscure third-string quarterback in a generic town out there that apparently still has an NFL franchise “used his twitter account to [whatever]” (as if people were born with twitter accounts, or were using one bodily organ to scratch another bodily organ) makes me want to “learn more” about daily deals sites.


  11. Thanks, everyone, and welcome Joseph to the comments section here. I think what Joesph and Meghan say makes sense–if you’re a NYT columnist, you’re going to get a larger and nastier audience than if you’re an academic using it for professional purposes. As in all social media, setting boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries is paramount to keeping it a useful medium.

    Lord knows that blogs sometimes host nasty and vicious conversations.

    I don’t see myself as leaping into Twitter, mostly because I feel like I already spend enough time on the world-wide non peer-reviewed intertubes. That, and my own internet/social media-induced ADD that now plagues me in middle age!


  12. I agree with @Joseph and @Meghan as well. Bigger Twitter accounts are comparable to the comment feeds on huge blogs that are not moderated. I get a little irritated at the Get Off My Lawn aspect of critiques like Nocera’s. I love long, thoughtful, complex writing, but there is something churlish (imo) in the complete dismissal of the short form. Being bounded by character length puts constraints on the writer that can lead to creativity. While I understand people’s complaints about Twitter feeding into national ADD and also our obsessive need for over-exposure (let’s Tweet every tiny detail of my day!), there is also a place for the pithy, the trivial, and superficial in people’s lives. Those things can have art to them too. I’m overanalyzing this, I know, but it strikes me right as the Big Male Authors versus Female Authors in the 19th and early 20th century – how the male authors were always arguing that novels had to be about big social issues and those lady novelists were condemned for their domesticity. Isn’t there a place for an ordinary day, and an ordinary life?

    (Of course the punchline to my post is that I’m not on twitter!)


  13. I have been ranting about twittering for years:


    Here’s a sample of my thoughts:

    I absolutely 100% refuse to write or read on twitter, and for reasons that are partially captured by Roxie’s blog post.

    First, I believe that it–like Facebook–is deeply destructive of the mental operation of contemplation. The entire intrinsic structure of the medium is 100% oriented towards MORE, FASTER, BRIEFER, SUPERFICIALER communication. It is about collecting: friends, links, retweets, followers, hashtags, etc, and not about describing, explaining, or contemplating. It is about avoiding deep thought, not embracing it.

    Second, it is about DOMINATING discourse, not diversifying it. Yeah, it might be a different set of people who are using it to dominate than who are using traditional modes of scholarly communication, but ten people at this meeting posted 300 fucken tweets each!?!? Jeezus fucke. It is about defining insiders and outsiders. (And no way were those poor compulsive twittering assholes even able to listen to the sessions they were at or genuinely participate in them: see my first concern above.)

    Third, it is grossly destructive of the practice of constructing decent complete grammatical sentences in the English language (and, I’m sure, other languages that poor dumb twittering fuckes in other countries use). Why should I learn to read and write in some bizarre semaphoric bastardized illiterate form of English language just so that a bunch of assholes can whip out hundreds of least-common-denominator atomized communications as fast as possible like it’s some kind of massive throbbing cocke to smack other people in the face with? Get your fucken twitdicke out of my face: I’m not interested.

    Fourth, it enables a form of herd behavior with masses of people rushing around like lunatics flogging their fucken hashtags and leaping off rhetorical cliffs that I find extremely distasteful. What’s the fucken hurry? Do I really need access to anyone’s thoughts but my own in real time?

    Fifth, at the end of the day, it’s corporate shill shitte. Some massive corporation is leveraging off content that users provide them for free in order to make fucketonnes of money. No thanks


  14. Sorry. Just read my quote more closely and realized it needs context: it was written as part of a discussion of real-time twittering during scholarly conference sessions.


  15. “Why should I learn to read and write in some bizarre semaphoric bastardized illiterate form of English language just so that a bunch of assholes can whip out hundreds of least-common-denominator atomized communications as fast as possible like it’s some kind of massive throbbing cocke to smack other people in the face with? Get your fucken twitdicke out of my face: I’m not interested.”

    Hilarious, and I agree 100%. I rage about Twitter all the time.

    Thank you, PhysioProffe, for making my day with that gem.


  16. Historiann,

    You know you’re my hero, but you’re wrong about Twitter. Here’s why:

    1. I use to say the same things about attention deficit disorder. But what Twitter is most useful though is for links. As Meghan suggests, you will see things that you would never see otherwise because of Twitter, which actually makes it much more useful in some ways than the dearly-departed Google Reader.

    2. Yes, there are awful people on Twitter, but (as Joseph suggests) what everybody who’s not on Twitter seems to miss about Twitter is that you can block or simply not follow people who tweet pictures of their breakfast or say awful things. What you get then is a subset of Twitter commonly known as “Academic Twitter.” That subset is multi-disciplinary, international and very unlikely to ever tweet their breakfast. If they ever do, just unfollow them. They won’t be offended. They’ll probably never even know.

    3. If you’re worried about information overload, then either a) Don’t follow all that many people or b) Don’t read your whole timeline. If you follow good people the stuff you want to read will eventually appear anyways.

    4. I can’t tell you the number of really interesting scholars I “know” from Twitter, who I probably would never know otherwise because the number is so high. Take Joseph Adelman, for example. If I remember right, he teaches at Framingham State, he studies the history of the Post Office and (although I needed no convincing) his post office tweets should be more than enough to convince anybody that whatever book comes out of his research is going to be awesome. Unlike Facebook, which tends to reinforce connections between people you already know, Twitter helps you “meet” others who you wouldn’t know otherwise.

    5. Twitter is a meritocracy. Grad students can easily destroy full professors in terms of number of followers if they work hard at being interesting. I just LOVE that about Twitter. Yes, Niall Ferguson has a zillion followers because he’s on TV (I guess you could say the same thing about the Pope), but you really can’t say that about people like @zunguzungu or @tressiemc. Bill Cronon has a huge slew of Twitter followers not just because he’s Bill Cronon, but because his tweets are extremely interesting and useful. I can tell you for certain that I never would have found the blog Edible Geography if it weren’t for him, but I digress…

    6. I think those 30+ people follow you now do so because they think you’d be really good at Twitter. I happen to agree with them. Personally, I gave up Twitter arguments for Lent. You could go in with the intentions of just ignoring the trolls from the outset. However, I don’t think you’d meet very many. What I know would happen is that you’d find a community of people who’d be really interested in what you have to say and who you’d likely find really interesting yourself. Paul Harvey’s on Twitter. Need I say more?

    OK, I took my best shot. I promise to never bring up Twitter in your presence (or your online presence) again.


  17. You can bring up Twitter again–I don’t mind. But, only ONE of us has another book out and his final promotion. There’s only so many hours of the day, right? And I’m already feeling like the world’s Most Superannuated Associate Professor Ever. . .

    Maybe I’ll start giving my Twitter followers something to follow once I’ve got my current book done and out the door. Until then, I should probably avoid it.

    Tenured Radical had a post recently about Twitter, and she commented that if you’re on Twitter and something “blows up” (i.e. you become the object of controversy/ire), you really have to respond quickly and watch the feed and let everything else in your life drop. That, unfortunately, is not something I can do at this point, for all kinds of professional (see above) and personal reasons, too.


  18. Historiann:

    Don’t let @jhrees reminding the world that I am on Twitter scare you away from it permanently! Of course, the main reason to stay off is for the very reasons you mention directly above, i.e., need to finish the book, etc. And I find usually about mid-semester that complete 2 or 3 week Twitter vacations are necessary if those papers are going to get graded, & etc. But I totally agree with everything Jonathan has said above. Jonathan gives one example of a professional connection; I have many of those now, including a young early American historian I got to know there who I was able to get onto the BBC when said BBC wanted to interview me about Jamestown cannibalism (why, I don’t know) – so I said “I know nothing but here’s the person to talk to.” And I think she was pretty thrilled to do so.

    Of course, the Historiann blog has such a following on its own that you don’t need Twitter, you’re doing just fine here at your own home, thank you very much. On the other hand, look at what Twitter has done to make @jhrees known as the destroyer of Moocs worlds.

    I’m curious about what others think about tweeting at conference sessions. On the one hand, it’s really fun to follow those if you’re not at conference but want to follow what is going on (as I did when people tweeted the Religion and American Culture conference last month, #raac2013. On the other hand, it would kind of creep me out as a presenter, I think — not that anyone has ever tweeted any talk I’ve given.


  19. Jonathan, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m not ready to go into the details publicly just yet, but I can say that book on the post office exists because of Twitter and the connections I’ve made there.

    Paul, I’m in about the same place as you are in terms of conference live-tweeting. That is, I enjoy it when I can’t be there (I can’t afford to be in St. Louis for SHEAR, but I’m following #SHEAR13 closely to see what people are talking about), but I’ve found it distracting when I was in the room, either participating in the session or doing the live-tweeting. There’s only so much focus to go around.

    Part of the AHA roundtable that Historiann and Tenured Radical participated in a few months back, if I recall, focused on Twitter etiquette at conferences, and one of the themes seemed to be “consent of the tweeted.” (It’s also possible I conflated the roundtable with a separate TR post.) That seems reasonable to me, but anything approaching clarity on the level of the conference organizers is appreciated.

    Having said that, there was also some discussion in the comments about that very issue when I wrote about Twitter for the Junto in April. I also elaborate there more on my full opinions about Twitter in academia.

    Last, thanks Historiann for hosting the discussion and keeping the door open a crack for a future on Twitter. As Jonathan said, I think you’d find our little historian corner very welcoming.


  20. Hi Historiann,

    Just wanted to chime in and say that this young early Americanist really was thrilled when Twitter (via Paul Harvey) led to the BBC recording studio. It CAN be a snarky place–but more often than not I’m staggered by the generosity of senior and junior scholars alike.


  21. Anything good–love, learning, cooking–takes extended, invested, uninterrupted attention. Writers know this; and in their hearts, everyone else knows it, too.


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