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It’s worth reading this week’s Weekly Standard cover story by Matt LaBash, a biting but insightful lampooning of the culture behind Twitter and what goes on at conferences like SXSW. Here is an excerpt:

If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m not a Twitter fan. In fact, I outright despise the inescapable microblogging service, which nudges its users to leave no thought unexpressed, except for the fully formed ones (there’s a 140-characters-per-tweet limit). I hate it not just because the Twidiocracy constantly insists I should love it, though that certainly helps. Being in the media profession (if “profession” isn’t overstating things), where everyone flocked en masse to the technology out of curiosity or insecurity or both, I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness. I hate the smugness of it, the way the techno-triumphalists make everyone who hasn’t joined the Borg feel like they’ve been banished to an unpopulated island, when in fact the numbers don’t support that notion. . . .

I hate the way Twitter transforms the written word into abbreviations and hieroglyphics, the staccato bursts of emptiness that occur when Twidiots who have no business writing for public consumption squeeze themselves into 140-character cement shoes. People used to write more intelligently than they speak. Now, a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet. . . .

I hate the way Twitter turns people into brand managers, their brands being themselves. It’s nearly impossible now to watch television news without an anchor imploring you to “follow me on Twitter,” even as you’re already following him on television. You couldn’t do this much following in the physical world without being slapped with a restraining order.

Though I’ve just catalogued much to hate about Twitter, there’s plenty more to hate about Twitter. I hate that Twitter makes the personal public. That conversations between two intimates that formerly transpired in person or by email become conversations between two intimates for the benefit of their followers. I’ve actually been to lunch with people who have tweeted throughout, unbeknownst to me. (The fact that they only looked up from their iPhone twice in two hours might’ve been a tipoff. Though that’s pretty much par for the course, even with untweeted lunches these days.) . . . .

A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets, Twitter causes Twidiots to ask one fundamental question at all times: “How am I doing?” That’s not a question most people can resist asking, even in their offline lives, but on Twitter, where tweeters are publicly judged by masses of acquaintances and strangers alike, the effect tends to be intensified. Even the most independent spirit becomes a needy member of the bleating herd. It’s the nerd incessantly repeating what the more popular kids say. It’s the pretty girl, compulsively seeking compliments.

As a friend of mine says, “It’s addictive and insidious. I see it even with smart people who ought to know better but can’t help themselves. They give wildly disproportionate weight to the opinions they read on Twitter, mostly because they’re always reading Twitter. Which fills them with anxiety, distorts their perceptions, and makes it almost impossible for them to take the long view on anything. Every crisis is huge, ominous, and growing. Every attack requires an immediate response.”

You can read the whole thing here. But permit me just one more quote, which has implications for how we as Christians think about ourselves and our technological culture:

Evan Fitzmaurice, an Austin-based lawyer and longtime friend who until recently was the Texas Film Commissioner, has attended many a SXSW. He tells me one night over dinner that while he’s wired to the hilt (“I’ve gotta connect to the Matrix”), he sees the downside of perpetual connectedness. “You’re truncating natural thought. Things don’t gestate anymore. It’s instantaneous, without the benefit of reflection. And everything’s said at volume 10. Nothing’s graduated anymore. It’s a clamor.” Though not religious himself, he says what I witness at SXSW would be recognized by any religious person. “They’re trying to supplant deliverance and redemption through religion with civil religion and technological redemption—the promise of a sublime life on a higher plane.”

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10 thoughts on “The Decline of Western Civilization, 140 Characters at a Time”

  1. Dave Dorr says:

    So good!

  2. Luma Simms says:

    Justin, this is fantastic! Thanks! I re–read The Abolition of Man over the weekend. Although I tweeted some lines from the book, I realized that if I wanted my reading, thinking and writing to be fruitful in the long term, it would take some time. The ideas need to marinate in my mind for a while. The thoughts need to be turned over again and again and studied from different angles. Tweeting a sentence from the book here or there will not bring about the change in society I want to see. If I ever hope to write a book on the order of The Abolition of Man, it will serve me well to walk away from the thought truncating tentacles of the online life.

    Again, thanks for the heads–up on this article.

  3. Ray says:

    Am I the only one who found that article way too long?


  4. Phil Allcock says:

    I heard David Wells talk about this as the ‘confetti generation’ (he was quoting someone else, but I can’t remember who…) – we are bombarded every day with a continual stream of information, and we struggle to distinguish between the weighty and the trivial, the true and the false, the healthy and the corrupting. Twitter is the ultimate expression of this.

  5. Unfortunately, it seems that Twitter has become an “essential” ingredient of online marketing. Luma, I hope you do get the chance to put your mind and your hand to writing a work as valuable as The Abolition of Man. No doubt, such works will continue to have a powerful place in the history and development of human thought and worldview for a long time. At the same time, we are being told by many of our culture’s marketing gurus that we can’t expect people to find our major works in the vast sea of 21st century information if we don’t send it through the funnel of social media such as Twitter.


  6. Rachael Starke says:

    While I agree with many of the arguments, I can’t help asking about the growing influence of Twitter in advancing social causes, namely, the Kermit Gosnell trial (which, if you’re reading this between 12 and 2 PST, please STOP reading and pray for the prosecution, currently making their closing arguments).

    Can anyone deny that the tipping point in ending the atrocious silence on this case came when Mollie Hemingway began publicly tweeting journalists and local journalist JD Mullane tweeted a picture of the empty seats in the courtroom reserved for journalists who didn’t materialize? And then, in the same week, people following updates on the Boston bombings received better, more accurate and faster information than all of the MSM outlets combined.

    Much like blogging, instant messaging and all other forms of social media, tweeting is a new form of communication with rules of engagement, best practices, and development of wisdom principles still in their early stages. Like other revolutionary technologies (lasers, nuclear energy), there’s an equal amount of potential for transformative good as their is evil.

  7. Twitter is just another amoral thing that can be used for #good or #bad. We have a Spirit of power, love, and self-control. Practice self-control, use Twitter for good, and glorify God, yes?

    1. Michael says:

      Is it “good” to use something that causes a decrease in attention span? Ephesians 5:16 says Twitter can certainly be moral!

      1. I see where you’re coming from, Michael. Here’s something for you to consider though: I’ve mentored young people over Twitter concerning drugs, guns, depression, suicide, and first and foremost—pointing them to a living, thriving relationship with Jesus. All in ONE WEEK. Is that not making te best use of time during these evil days?

        To think that everyone uses Twitter for brand purposes—or to let the world know what they’re doing—is to minimize the great things happening behind the scenes. Twitter has opened up dozens of opportunities to make disciples of Jesus. It’s an avenue for the gospel.

        If we’re going to stop using Twitter because it decreases our attention span, then we pretty much have to throw out the twenty-first century along with it. Our brains are hardwired differently wether we like it or not. We are not going to stop using credit cards, Amazon, Paypal, email, facebook, texting, etc—all of which contribute to our short attention spans. So what do we do? Redeem the time.

        Short attention spans cannot stand against the power of the Gospel. Short attention spans are not the problem.

        Our distain for change and unwillingness to adapt is the problem.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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