My guess is that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller gets all his phone calls returned. I'll bet that he has party invitations for every night of the week and has strangers trying to get his attention at every conference room and cocktail bar he steps into. I don't think he means to brag about this, but that what he's doing when he wonders aloud why we need stuff like Twitter and Facebook:
The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?
My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.
I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!
You're right, Bill. (You don't mind my using your first name, right?) There is something faux about Facebook, just like there's something phony about New York Times columns written in the first person. I'd much rather hear your views about social media in person, with an opportunity for meaningful discussion, than read your argument after it's been edited for New York Times house style and cut down to standard column length. (And I'll bet there are some great unprintable stories you can share on the subject, perhaps involving a Pulitzer Prize winner getting busted for "sexting" at a White House dinner.)
I do not have a cell phone. I do not have a blackberry. I don’t have a computer. I don’t have a microwave oven. All of which seem like the same thing to me.
If I were Fran Lebowitz, I wouldn't need those things either. I'd swear off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and all the rest of it if I could live in Manhattan and stroll into the Waverly Inn for dinner and conversation every night. (Does the Waverly have an iPhone app yet? It could just say YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING when you click it.)
I know where Fran's coming from. In the early '90s, when I was just out of college, I lived in Boston's South End and had a bunch of friends also living in the neighborhood. I could just drop into one of my favorite bars on a Friday night and know that I'd run into an acquaintence. I loved it. But now we all live in different cities and states, and some of us have families, and the South End is unaffordable for most of us anyway. Given that we can't all live like Fran, I think Facebook and Twitter are pretty clever inventions to help us keep in touch.
They're also good ways to meet people, Bill! (Not that a New York Times editor needs them.) I've made connections through Twitter with other writers and journalists who might never have returned my phone calls. And I've had lengthy, face-to-face, non-ephemeral conversations that have picked up where Facebook exchanges left off. Since people don't regularly accost me at parties with pitches for New York Times stories, I find this to be a useful tool for meeting people!
So, Bill and Fran, you can complain about the effects of social media on critical thinking. There are some valid points in your arguments. But don't overlook that you have a conflict of interest when talking about social media, whose democratic aspects lessen the power of media and literary gatekeepers like yourselves.
See you next time I'm in the Hamptons!
Update: I Hate the New York Times has another theory behind Keller's rant, which is that the Gray Lady simply hates all forms of fun enjoyed by normal people, such as cursing and going to flea markets. Of course, this strengthens rather than competes with my theory of of Dumontesque elitism.