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.