Twitter is not a Typewriter: Ted Koppel’s Commencement Address at UMass Amherst

This weekend Ted Koppel, longtime host of Nightline, gave the commencement address to UMass Amherst, where I did my graduate work. His full remarks are copied below, but here are my thoughts on a few key passages on the state of journalism, politics and social media.

He opened his remarks with a familiar critique of social media: the requisite nod to the Arab Spring followed by a dismissal of Twitter and Facebook as too fast, too shallow, and full of too much noise.

If sclerotic dictators can be overthrown by messages of 140 characters or fewer, surely I should have been able to Tweet something adequate your way. But I won’t. It will surprise few if any of you to learn that I don’t Tweet and that I have, thus far, resisted all efforts to “friend” or be “friended.”

Billions upon billions of Tweets and text messages, most so lacking in substance that it is difficult to imagine any impact if they were all vaporized tomorrow. The new media clearly enable information to be transmitted more widely and efficiently than ever before.

Koppel links the speed of social media (and news media) today to a larger erosion in our ability to engage in constructive dialogue. This is born out, for him, most clearly in our political discourse.

By ABC Television [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Political debate is a wonderful thing; but partisan shrieking is corrosive and destructive. If we are to find solutions to the challenges we face, we have to re-learn the virtues of compromise.If we are going to deal intelligently with the problems we confront, we need time to pause, to consider and reflect. But our media, news and social, are intolerant of anything but an instant response. We are making and receiving endless observations about the trivial, and believe that we are communicating. I am left with a feeling of not just great opportunities missed, but with a sense of actual danger to our republic.

I tend to agree that America and its media need to re-learn, not just the virtues, but also the skills and practices of compromise and dialogue. However, Koppel offers this analysis with little sense of solution. This is in part because he is like a fish trying to explain water. He seems unable to step back and see the system that he has been so fundamentally a part of, so instead of suggesting any hint of structural change, he suggests that the problem is the users – the students he is talking to.

As consumers, we have a very real responsibility to demand more of our media and to make conscious choices about how we consume the media around us. Both Dan Gillmor and Clay Johnson have made this case well in the past. However, both Gillmor and Johnson include a larger structural analysis of the problems of our media.

Koppel seems blind to the structures and policies that shape our media, arguing instead that media is nothing more than a dumb pipe, and “all media are either validated or trivialized by the content of the messages they convey.” He continues:

Media are, after all, only tools for conveying information. Whether or not a chimpanzee, endlessly pounding on a typewriter, will eventually produce Macbeth, is beside the point. The typewriter doesn’t care. Pen and paper are indifferent to the words that are inscribed by one on the other. Twitter is not capable of formulating an agenda.

These extraordinary instruments of communication are still just that – nothing more than that – merely tools. Like the paint brush, the quill pen, the typewriter, they depend entirely on those who use them.

Equating Twitter with a typewriter ignores that Twitter is a global media company that has real economic, social and political agendas and glosses over the role of media companies, new and old, as gatekeepers. This “Twitter as Typewriter” comparison recalls the remarks of FCC Commission Mark Fowler, who in 1984 famously called television nothing more than a toaster with pictures. Koppel would likely argue that broadcast media was also little more than a vehicle for the news and information it carried, but that’s simply not true. Perpetuating that myth serves no one.

Luckily, for the most part, Twitter’s agenda has largely been in line with that of its users and the public. But it would be a mistake to suggest because of that, that they don’t have one at all. The same is true of Google, Facebook, Comcast, AOL, News Corp and others. While pen and paper may be “indifferent to the words that are inscribed by one on the other” we know full well that Amazon, Facebook and Apple  are not.

The media is not a tool, it is a set of systems and we need citizens that can navigate those systems.

UPDATE: 5/15/2012

Mathew Ingram over at GigaOm has a great post about Twitter “tiptoeing” into the media business, hiring editors and doing more curation, which extends the argument I make above and further debunks the typewriter metaphor. Ingram writes:

At the moment, Twitter seems to be trying to walk a tightrope of sorts between being a media entity and being a platform that is used by other media players. Being a platform or a tool is good, because it means that the company can form all kinds of valuable partnerships with traditional media entities [...]. But platforms don’t always generate large amounts of revenue.

Ingram points to YouTube as another example of a site that began as a platform but has now moved fully into a media entity itself, with it’s own shows, channels and more. See also an earlier post by Ingram: “Hey Twitter, you are a media company now, embrace it

***

UMass Amherst Commencement remarks by Ted Koppel
May 11, 2012 (also available at the UMass website)

It’s a rather quaint tradition, isn’t it? We all dress up in medieval scholastic robes with their ecclesiastical overtones. The speaker struggles to say something memorable. Everyone else struggles to stay awake. The simultaneous attainment of these two goals is pathetically rare.

Why even bother?

The University could certainly have emailed your diplomas; and those of you nostalgic for crowds could have assembled as a flash mob. As for your families: Think of the money they could have saved on travel expenses if you’d simply “friended” them on Facebook. Ah yes, your commencement address: If sclerotic dictators can be overthrown by messages of 140 characters or fewer, surely I should have been able to Tweet something adequate your way.

But I won’t. It will surprise few if any of you to learn that I don’t Tweet and that I have, thus far, resisted all efforts to “friend” or be “friended.”

Indeed, some events still need to be celebrated in person; with all the outdated pageantry, the tedious speeches, and even the unnecessary expense. What you’ve done – all of you – those of you who’ve earned degrees, those who taught and mentored you, and those who encouraged, supported and in many instances paid for you to attend this great university; the accretion of hundreds of singular moments of achievement deserves this communal celebration. It should still be experienced in real time, without being accelerated, freeze dried and miniaturized.

Even over the relatively brief span of my life-time, I have seen the telephone evolve technologically from a rotary dial system, on which long-distance phone calls had to be placed through an operator, to this – (HOLD UP Iphone). (I am not, as you might imagine, big on Apps.) Still, I get it. You cannot spend a lifetime in radio and television, and not appreciate the value of instant, near-universal communication.

But it is both the blessing and curse of our time that media have never been equipped for greater speed and universal reach than now. Speed, you see, is often the enemy of accuracy and clarity.

I suppose that what disturbs my 20th century ethos most is the noise; the sheer bulk of occasionally meaningful but mostly meaningless messages that constitute the life-blood of these proliferating social media. Billions upon billions of Tweets and text messages, most so lacking in substance that it is difficult to imagine any impact if they were all vaporized tomorrow.

The new media clearly enable information to be transmitted more widely and efficiently than ever before. But all media are either validated or trivialized by the content of the messages they convey. Media are, after all, only tools for conveying information. Whether or not a chimpanzee, endlessly pounding on a typewriter, will eventually produce Macbeth, is beside the point. The typewriter doesn’t care. Pen and paper are indifferent to the words that are inscribed by one on the other. Twitter is not capable of formulating an agenda.

But here it is: the democratization of journalism. And somewhat belatedly, some of us are recalling that the Founding Fathers weren’t all that enamored of pure democracy, when they were crafting what would become our system of government.

We would, after all, elect people to represent us in doing the nation’s business. And then, of course, there was the judiciary; and what came to be called the Fourth Estate – the press. Checks and balances! Representational government! – not democracy, for heaven’s sake! The American public, it was feared, was too likely to be swayed by passions of the moment.

And that, of course, was long before our time; when the American public is kept informed, round the clock, of the votes – sometimes even the intentions of their congressperson. Now we are exposed, round the clock, to a partisan harangue designed to inflame our pre-existing biases. Now the voters can instantly communicate their displeasure directly to the office of their elected representative. What would have been unimaginable in the 18th century has become commonplace in the 21st. More than ever before, we live today in a world of instant reaction, constant judgment and corrosive partisanship.

Political debate is a wonderful thing; but partisan shrieking is corrosive and destructive. If we are to find solutions to the challenges we face, we have to re-learn the virtues of compromise.

If we are going to deal intelligently with the problems we confront, we need time to pause, to consider and reflect. But our media, news and social, are intolerant of anything but an instant response. We are making and receiving endless observations about the trivial, and believe that we are communicating. I am left with a feeling of not just great opportunities missed, but with a sense of actual danger to our republic.

Much of our journalism is a catalogue of what just happened, without any regard to its impact or importance. We have a greater capacity to communicate more, further and faster than ever before. Rather than using information to illuminate the world, though, we consume it like fuel. The more we burn, the faster we go. The faster we go, the less we see and understand. We slow down only for the accidents along the side of the road; and the biggest accident still lies ahead.

Only, I fear, when that occurs – only when the combined impact of too many unemployed, too many foreclosures, too much debt, exacerbated by two undeclared and unfunded wars; only when the human and social costs of a crumbling education system and a flawed health care system, leave us wondering where and why we lost our footing as a nation, will we come to realize that WHAT is communicated to us is vastly more important than the medium by which it is conveyed.

Some are already posing the question; but one day, most Americans will point at us in the news media and say: “Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you encourage all that bile and venom? Why did you feed us all that trivial crap, when so many terrible things were converging?

And no one will be happy with the answer. Least of all, those of us who offer it. “What we gave you,” we will say, “is what you wanted.”

At this critical juncture in your lives, then, let me urge you – no, let me implore you to want more: More substance…more real information about important issues; more fairness, more objectivity; more tolerance for views that differ from your own. More time to reflect and consider. And above all, a greater understanding that these extraordinary instruments of communication are still just that – nothing more than that – merely tools. Like the paint brush, the quill pen, the typewriter, they depend entirely on those who use them.

You have a truly magical array of media at your disposal. Use them well.

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