Is Twitter Gonna Kill Us?

On: October 9, 2009
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About Jelle Kamsma
I am a MA student of New Media at the University of Amsterdam. I have a bachelor degree in Media and Culture. After three years mostly focussing on film and visual culture I've made the switch to new media. Mostly because I'm interested in journalism and how it has to adapt to the new media. I just finished an internship at ANP Video, a Dutch press agency that makes short video-items for different newssites. I'm curious to find out how new media theories will aply to my experiences in the practical field.


“Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.” – Jean Baudrillard


New media like Twitter often endure a lot of criticism. A lot of these critical remarks can be seen as the last remains of the century-old debate about the distinction between high culture and low culture. Since postmodernism showed us the futility of that distinction, it is important not to fall in that trap. Still, I would like to give a critical perspective on the aphoristic nature of Twitter and our society in general. I shall use Twitter as the main example in this short essay, however, it is good keep in mind that this is part of a much broader tendency and that Twitter is just one of the symptoms.

The Dutch philosopher Rob Wijnberg wrote in his book Boeiuh! Het stille protest van de jeugd (2007) about the apparent indifference of younger generations.  Wijnberg blames this indifference to what he calls ‘the information overload’, a concept which stems from Jean Baudrillards notion of the metonymic bombardment. Young people, far more than older generations have to deal with a tremendous amount of information. For a lot of people Twitter is one of the main sources of this “tsunami of information.” Hundreds of tweets are fired at them day in, day out. Wijnberg concludes that because of this tendency it becomes necessary to shield ourselves otherwise we will “drown in the whirlpool of tragedies that each new event brings with them”. It is apathy out of self-protection.

Furthermore, Wijnberg argues that the nature and structure of these new media help to promote apathy. Every event or fact has to be presented in a easy to comprehend format. We see this on television where the conflict in the Middle-East has to be explained in under two minutes, but Twitter with it’s 140 character limit is the epitome of this. It enables passivity rather than revolution as some media would like to claim. Of course I have to remark here, as other posts have pointed out, that Twitter has many faces and can be uses for different purposes. Also the agency of the user plays a large role so I would like to point out that Twitter doesn’t inherently lead to apathy and passivity. It is possible to make a meaningful contribution in 140 characters. They are, however, very rare on Twitter.

I also believe that new media and technologies like Twitter have the ability to transform our offline activities. For centuries the pencil was good enough when someone wanted to write something. But with the introduction of typing machines and computers, the pen was used mainly for small notes. If we, hypothetically, would be told we had to write our master thesis by pen we would no doubt panic. We seem to have lost the ability to write longer texts by hand. You could ask yourself whether this is bad. We also don’t make fire with brimstones anymore. However, we see now that new technologies, first the television and now the internet also transforms how long we write or read. Everything has to be fast and quick and there seems to be no more time for contemplation. The steady decline of the newspaper industry seems to be the most prominent symptom. And this is something we should critically examine.

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