The Gap


by - May 21st, 2010


I came to a realisation yesterday while attending the Interrogating Twitter session at yesterday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: there is a significant gap between those who get Twitter and those who don’t. And that gap may never be bridged. How can it? Those who despair of social media genuinely believe that it will destroy our language and do irreparable damage to our consciousnesses. But those who use social media can barely understand why everyone is complaining about it.

I don’t necessarily think this gap is generational. The panellists ran the gamut from the venerable Ruth Wajnryb through to the younger, hipper end of the spectrum with John Freeman and David Levithan. Nonetheless, all of the panellists seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing wrong with Twitter (or other forms of social media) and that we shouldn’t worry that it will cause the next generation of children to be illiterate. In fact, if anything, the panellists seemed mildly perplexed that this should even be at question. The only dissenting voices came from the audience, who managed to sound exactly like the fusty SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype.

So where does this gap come from? And why? Freeman’s new book, Shrinking the World, posits that each forward leap in communications technology has been greeted with scepticism, fear and contempt. The Gutenberg press was called the ‘devil’s machine’ by monks and the telephone was going to tear families apart. Nonetheless, Freeman cautions that Twitter, just like any other communications technology, is not necessarily benign. How could it not change the way we think, he says, when we can barely go a moment without checking our phones?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people of late. And it perplexes me – maybe because I’m absolutely on the ‘understanding Twitter’ side of the gap. Why is there a persistent myth that those who participate in the brave new world of texting, Twitter and Facebook suddenly become automatons who cannot make the choice to switch off their devices and will have some kind of panic attack if they’re ever alone? Nothing I’ve learned by participating in social media has led me to believe this to be true.

This kind of Luddite moaning about the value of being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’ is ubiquitous on the other side of the gap. I had a conversation with another (very young) author at the SWF about travelling on the train. Nowadays, he says, it’s impossible to have a moment of quiet introspection while on the train, such is the cacophony of noise produced by communications devices. Since when, I ask you, has public transport been the most Zen part of anyone’s day? Human beings have spent thousands of years going to remote locations in order to be truly alone. How has that changed?

You always have the choice. Whether it’s to switch off, go somewhere quiet or to not participate in social media at all. As David Levithan said – if you’re not interested, don’t worry about it.


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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No Responses to “The Gap”

  1. PJ Says:

    Interesting piece. I like the image of the ‘SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype’ but I think there are different groups of people who ‘don’t get twitter’.

    I’m one of them. I’m not in the ‘don’t get it’ camp us described. But more in the ‘I don’t get why people use / who really cares what people are thinking / I don’t see any use of it’ camp.

    I wouldn’t say that I’m stuffy old person stereotype (I will admit to being grumpy though). I’m young, tech savy person, but I just don’t get Twitter or Blogs (apart from good ones). Perhaps it about caring about other people’s opinions. To me twitter and blogs are about forcing your opinions on the broader world. To me reading people’s twitter is like going to pub and going around to all the tables and listening in on people conversations just to hear their opinions. I don’t care. People whose opinions I do care about I will discuss with them in a (more) constructive and flowing forum, or will read the opinions of people who know what they are talking about.

  2. Sam Says:

    I was at a SWF yesterday and there was a SWF-grumpy-old-person-type complaining about Matthew Reilly. Snob!

    I agree. I was at a dinner party not long ago and the hostess was lamenting the amount of time her children spend on MSN. She feared they would have no social skills. But they have MORE social skills. They are interracting with their peers. And what is the difference between writing a letter and writing an email?

    In the UK they have introduced ‘silent carriages’ on the train system for fusty old types like PJ.

  3. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I’m sorry if I implied that everyone who doesn’t like Twitter is a grumpy old person – that’s definitely not what I meant.

    I guess what I mean more specifically is the idea that most criticisms of Twitter and other social media from people who don’t use them are that they are somehow either a) damaging to our culture or b) an inferior way of having a normal conversation.

    Social media is a tool for communicating in a certain way. It’s not a substitute for in-depth face-to-face conversation. If it’s not for you, that’s fine. But don’t try and impose your ideas about what it is and what it means on those of us who actually use it and find it useful.

    For starters, I think your pub metaphor is flawed – and it comes down to my point about choice earlier. Most people do not use Twitter to get an unfiltered feed of random opinion. People choose who to follow on Twitter and cherry pick the interesting tweets. I don’t think there is a physical-world metaphor for this kind of communication, so there is no need to try and impose one.

  4. Luke McElroy Says:

    I don’t think communication through Twitter is any more offensive than ‘normal’ face-to-face conversations. In fact, it can be a lot more intriguing and enigmatic than the effusive babbling about jobs and other technical talk you often get with face-to-face conversation. The restricted word count and unspecified audience to whom Twitter updates are often addressed makes them a lot more interesting.

  5. Kate Says:

    Can I quietly say that I want to go on the “silent carriage” on the train?

    Is it weird to say that I get facebook but I don’t get twitter? I thought maybe I’d “get it” eventually. But I still don’t. It just seems like so much work, I feel like you have to be on there all the time to see what is going on, I can’t make the commitment. And there’s nothing pretty to look at.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, maybe I’m just not following anyone interesting enough…

    I also don’t have any concerns about its affect on language. I’m of the descriptive rather than prescriptive school of linguistics (whilst remaining CONSTANTLY furious about people using the wrong form of your and you’re. Even when I’m texting I use u’r and ur. Everytime someone forgets the apostrophe I cry a little bit inside. Strangely there is something about it’s and its I just can’t get, I have to look it up constantly to remind myself. Melb Uni linguistics department has a lot to answer for!).

    On that note, someone did suggest to me the other day, after sharing another random, pointless, dull (quite long) story that I should be twittering them…

  6. Marianne Says:

    Great post, I really wish I’d been at that event. I’m so glad to hear that the panelists did get up and say that social media isn’t a harbinger of the apocalypse, but for everyone and that’s ok!

    Conversations about social media don’t have to be (and really shouldn’t be) about whether this is the end of intimacy and language and human connection forever! I’m not surprised that the SWF crowd wasn’t on board with that though. I was at an event yesterday and a whole room full of nannas yelled at William Dalrymple to “face the front!” while he was reading. They may believe that Facebook and Twitter are the end of decent and correct communication, but if calling out stage directions at an author during a session is the kind of communication that needs defending, I’m going to go and politely tweet myself to death!