Twitter Happens


After years of swearing I never would do it, I have finally joined Twitter. It was due to needing to use it effectively as a way to promote the online newspaper (without all the pulpy paper) where I write and edit and my articles there. And of course as with any new tool and the skills needed to master it, it is a fascinating process.

But even as I find that I like Tweeting far more than I expected, I always keep wondering about the new tools of human communication, and how they affect us and the ways we live. I'm not in a position to say if Twitter is a good thing or bad thing or neither or both – perhaps it's all of the above at once – but I do decry as I have before how our channels of communication grow less rich, as theorists call it, and more impoverished in terms of full meaning and emotional importance.

If you are gifted in words and concision of thoughts, much can be said in 140 characters or less. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was a mere 272 words. There are some great poems that are merely four or eight lines (William Blake was a master at that).

One problem for me with Twitter already is similar to that with Facebook – slogging through all the useless and irrelevant stuff to get to the gems. There’s also the sheer overload of it all. We live in what is now the über-communication age. But I have yet to see that it has made many people better at communicating, even if some master the new forms quite ably. (The book is still out on how I will fare in the Twitterverse.)

The development of the written word was one of the most potent advanced in mankind’s evolution. The ability to disseminate it with the invention of the printing press was a seminal factor in bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages that led to what we think of as modernity.

As a writer the written word is almost like my life’s blood. It is much the same for me as an avid reader. But the longer I live, the more I value conversation (and even as a writer, a good part of my work is doing interviews, which is the art of conversation).

Communication theorists speak about how tone and nuance in the spoken word convey a richness that an emoticon can't even begin to express. Add to that gestures and facial expressions and the state of face to face conversations have so much more to possibly offer than a 140 character written tweet.

But there’s something else to the spoken word that theorists might scoff at but I find so important. And all our reading of today’s written material would be far less fulfilling if it wasn’t for it – what I call the music of spoken language.

For whatever communications that dolphins may exchange in with one another, I find it interesting that their vocalizations – or at least the small part of it within the range of our hearing – is just like music. It has frequency, amplitude, attack and decay, just like musical notes.

In the days before movies and then TV, people would gather just to hear noted or especially intelligent people talk at lectures, speeches and talks. It was a quite popular form of entertainment. And I think that one of the appeals of seeing speakers in the past, such as those who traveled the Chautauqua circuit, was the music in the words and how people speak.

Key to this was also having the patience to really listen, and listen for a while. Will communicating in small 140-character bursts kill that in too many people?

I don’t have the answers here by any means. And as the world changes, I realize I must adapt.

But I shall never forsake what I feel is one of the most compelling forms of entertainment I know: The truly great conversation. And the music of the language as it is spoken.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2013

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