My response to Bill Keller: Trivialization makes you stupid
By Zeynep Tufekci
The opinions expressed are her own.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has recently kicked up a lot of discussion with his comments about social media. I hope to reply to some of the substantive questions he raised over time. But first, I think we need to discuss the discussion.
Keller’s first missive was a tweet which simply said: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” This was followed by a piece in the New York Times and an interview with Reuters where he seemed to compare anyone who objected to his views of social media to religious zealots, and declared his opponents to be “digital evangelists and cyber-puritans, who treat any hint of skepticism as heresy.” He then declared that he was misunderstood, as his view of social media is “that it is a set of tools, not a religion.”
A substantive discussion of how social media is changing dynamics in the public sphere, or even whether Twitter makes anyone stupid, is certainly worthwhile. However, can we first agree that trivialization of the topic and dismissal of opponents through strawmen certainly makes the discussion of this issue — or any issue — stupid? Yes, social media is a set of tools. And yes, all new technologies come with trade-offs. Yes, they should not be worshipped. That doesn’t move the conversation forward very much.
Kellers says that #TwitterMakesYouStupid was a way of testing whether Twitter lends itself to “deep, rich conversation, with context and persuasion.” He then bemoans the fact that his one word, one hashtag tweet generated, in his words, “an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (‘Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!’).” However, instead of realizing that there really could not be any other kind of reaction to such a provocative statement, he chides people for missing the fact that his hashtag was, in his words, “followed, please note, by the word ‘discuss.’” Perhaps the key characteristic of the emerging public sphere on social media is that people now have an opportunity to talk back, rather than just being talked at. A dismissive statement, predictably, generates dismissal.
The rapidly-receding iron grasp of the elite on public conversations, however, is both an opportunity and a threat to the health of democracies — and this trajectory partly depends on whether gate-keeper institutions incorporate some of these new dynamics while preserving some of their crucial and, in my opinion, irreplaceable functions.
But, first, we must move away from the land of trivial generalizations.
What kind of a response would Keller expect from his staff if someone walked into the New York Times newsroom, waving a stack of Judith Miller’s infamous “weapons of mass destruction” articles and shouted “New York Times reporters are a bunch of cowardly liars! Discuss”? Surely, that would not generate a healthy discussion.
That said, the Judith Miller saga remains an egregious example of some of the unhealthy structural dynamics of elite journalism which a careful and thoughtful embrace of the emerging social media ecology can help counter. One of Keller’s key mistakes: Twitter cannot be evaluated as an isolated platform, but must be considered as a part of a complex new ecosystem.
For too long, the conversation in major newspapers has been dominated by elite interests, well-funded viewpoints, insider games and a narrow worldview. For too often, journalists have gone to one well-funded source versus another while ignoring a vast number of real experts who can provide valuable guidance. To this day, too many stories are devoted to elite concerns and insider games at the expense of wider concerns.
Also, for too long, commentary in newspapers has been dominated by the elite punditry who seem to have an interminable license to shoot from the hip with zero consequences for their grip on the megaphone. Even the whole Iraq debacle, for example, has not changed the composition of the foreign policy punditry. Keller complains about “aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty.” Let me be the first to acknowledge that such people, unfortunately, exist, both young and old. But can we simultaneously not be blind to the overabundance of blowhards among elite columnists?
All of these issues are problems not because they restrict civic dialogue but also because journalistic dependence on a few insiders and well-funded players opens them up to manipulation by the powerful in a vicious cycle of rising careers and cheap, formulaic public discourse, where utterances are judged more by their conformity with an artificial “conventional wisdom” than by their conformity with reality.
The emergence of expert and academic blogs offers a refreshing alternative. They could be used to fact-check — and shoot down — the kind of outrageous claims which permeated Miller’s reporting. Used right, Twitter provides rapid access to crowd-sourced fact-checking, on-the-ground reporting and rebuttal. Social media platforms can help integrate newsroom practices with the issues that concern ordinary people, and which they often don’t see reflected in their newspapers.
A call to reconfiguring journalism through social media is not a denial of the wealth of good journalism produced by institutions like the Times. Nor is it an invitation to let everyone speak as loud as everyone else without any discrimination or judgment, but rather a call for deep and hard thinking about how to broaden a healthy, fact-based conversation and move it outside institutionalized practices of elite gate-keeping.
First, though, let’s get trivialities out of the way and start talking. #forreal.
Tufekci is currently an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and will be moving to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill this fall. She tweets as @techsoc and blogs at technosociology.