The evanescence of Twitter debates

By Felix Salmon
December 30, 2010
Rob Beschizza has a very good post on the dynamics of the spat between and Glenn Greenwald. For an excellent overview of the fight and what it's about, I recommend Blake Hounshell. But Rob picks up on something else:

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Rob Beschizza has a very good post on the dynamics of the spat between and Glenn Greenwald. For an excellent overview of the fight and what it’s about, I recommend Blake Hounshell. But Rob picks up on something else:

The AP-style story format now prevalent at makes it less bloggy than readers think it is. This establishes a distance between readers and reporters and restores a traditional tone of objectivity to its newswriting. As it is, Wired’s commenters rarely emerge from a state of inchoate, slavering rage, so there’s no incentive for its writers to enter the peanut gallery. And the blog river itself is polished to such a high standard that casual, chatty posts don’t really belong. Without a local venue where writers and readers can engage readers in non-confrontational discussion, it all ends up as bitching on Twitter.

The point here is that the fight is not like the blogwars of old, despite the fact that both sides are publishing on blogs. We haven’t seen a lot of back-and-forth on the blogs, and the blog entries that we have seen have been clearly worked at considerable length. Instead, the debate has been raging on Twitter, where it’s much harder for an outsider coming to the subject afresh to follow what’s going on and who’s saying what.

The biggest development in the story today comes from Sean Bonner, who seems to have managed to elicit over Twitter the very information that Wired’s critics have been calling for all along. Wired’s Kevin Poulsen told Bonner in a tweet that “The published logs include the reference to a secure FTP server Lamo discussed with the Times”; when Bonner asked Poulsen for clarification that the reference in question was the only reference in the chat logs, Poulsen said yes.

On top of that, editor Evan Hansen told Glenn Greenwald in a public tweet that he had reviewed all of the chat logs and that everything pertaining to Julian Assange or Wikileaks was already public.

Obviously, that single tweet is not going to satisfy Greenwald. But in many ways it does more to address the demands of Wired’s critics than the long and carefully-worded blog post that Hansen and Poulsen put up last night. And Greenwald too has noted — on Twitter, natch — that “it’s amazing how central of a role Twitter now plays in these disputes/debates”.

What we’re seeing here is the professionalization of the blogosphere — Greenwald and Poulsen both get paid to blog, as do I — and the way in which that has led to the less journalistic parts of blogging moving over to the informal and freewheeling venue of Twitter. I was happy to take a small part in this debate over Twitter this morning, for instance, but I’m concentrating on meta-issues here, partly because I’m clearly conflicted: I have a big story in the latest Wired magazine, and might well be appearing on’s blogs in future, too. On Twitter, such conflicts don’t seem to matter, or need to be addressed, in the way that they do on a professional blog.

This development is not, in my mind, a good thing. It robs from the blogosphere much of its naturally conversational element, which has largely moved to Twitter. Back in 2004 or so, it was easy to follow debates back and forth between blogs just by clicking on links; now, it’s much harder, and professional blogs are much more likely to link to straight news stories or just break news themselves than they are to link to other bloggers. Discussions and debates on Twitter aren’t archived in the way that they were on blogs, and they’re functionally impossible to search for if you’re more than a few months away from the event.

This particular debate is big and loud enough that bloggers are following it, archiving it, and linking to important tweets. But most Twitter discussions never reach that level, and therefore will disappear in a way that blog discussions never did. At some point, I hope that Twitter will roll out easily navigable and searchable archives of all public Twitter streams. But for the time being, Twitter is a stubbornly evanescent medium, for all its increasing importance.


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Twitter is an amazing media, first because you can zoom in on anything, and I mean anything you are interested in, learn and debate it without being personal, it is not a social network but a “live” information and debate media.

Posted by jm111t | Report as abusive

But twitter just seems like a method for you to publicly text or chat with your colleagues. Isn’t that what the old AOL chat rooms were all about? This dumbing down of debate into sound bites (AKA tweets) is just what we complained the MSM was doing for years. So now this cool new tool comes along to make the sound bite even smaller. This is something to celebrate? No. It’s different from the chat rooms because it keeps the rif-raff out. I can see why the blogger set would like this feature, but for the rest of us it’s largely unintelligible.

Posted by silliness | Report as abusive

Why would you recommend Blake Hounshell’s summary as “excellent” ?

xunguxungu’s post is much better about it: 29/glenn-greenwald-and-wired-magazine-i- see-no-reason-to-doubt-poulsens-integrit y-or-good-faith%E2%80%9D/

Posted by x7o | Report as abusive

It’s sometimes difficult to be quite as offensive in 140 characters as it is in email or a blog post, and I’ve seen bitter enemies actually conduct substantive conversations in Twitter.

Posted by GlennFleishman | Report as abusive

Twitter could be the ideal commenting add-on, if a few details were worked out. Someone is going to make a billion dollars by figuring it out. Twitter is becoming the de facto forum for comments on stories and sagas, and is the fast lane for link exchange. So clearly some kind of conveyance which marries these two seems the next step.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

Twitter isn’t the ideal commenting add-on because users can only tweet 140 characters at a time.

The problem I have with twitter is that it’s used for all these things it’s not very good at. It’s a selective feedreader except for how now everyone posts everything to twitter and since people tend to retweet a lot of the same material, the feed’s basically a bunch of endlessly repeating links. Twitter’s also a place for conversation, except that of course, following a conversation on twitter is hell.

Blogs handle comments better than twitter, and if publishers better recognized the value of content produced by these threads and paid a few of us to moderate them, then we wouldn’t have to have Sean Bonner parse out a tweet for us. My sense though, is that this inefficiency is cheaper for publishers which is why it persists.

Twitter is awful at search, but it’s worth mentioning that blogs are really only nominally better at archiving. The problem with digital media in general is that it’s up to either the individual or a business to pay hosting and domain fees. Permanence is just an idea in the web world, never a reality.

Anyway, I use twitter all the time, but let it be known that I hate it.

Posted by Paddy_Johnson | Report as abusive

Twitter is indeed evanescent — but there is great content there and on other social media sites. It’s quite hard to pull it all together and to tell a story across different social networks. It’s something we’re working on at my startup Storify, please come check it out at

Posted by burtherman | Report as abusive

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and blogs in general are ADD. Only “new” stuff seems to matter on these platforms.

It’s a big deal that the Web has no memory. We created tinyvox to try to give users a tool with which they can reclaim their ability to remember things.

Posted by tinyvox | Report as abusive

As you said yourself the Greenwald/Wired debate was big enough so as to be archived.

I for one find it a good thing if minor pointless spats, which have become legion with professional internet punditry, go down the drains of oblivion.

Just because the internet has made “opinion journalism” more accessible to a larger number of scribes doesn’t mean every bloody piece of blabbering needs to be enshrined.

Posted by murrayabraham | Report as abusive

Do you prefer a medium like Facebook where it’s a controlled environment, so Big Brother can watch us? Or are you suggesting only those who want to write a Thesis by Blob should be allowed to contribute to the debate? I think the readership have shown their preference, time to get off your high horses.

Posted by Th2Shay | Report as abusive

Twitter is more alive and real time. Share opinion without feeling afraid of being embarrassed.

Posted by ace25 | Report as abusive


Posted by ftantillo | Report as abusive