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Twitter Tempest: Jonathan Franzen Versus the 'Twitterverse'

Award-winning author called it the “ultimate irresponsible medium”

Jonathan Franzen hates Twitter. Last week, the famed author of "The Corrections" and "Freedom", spoke at Tulane University and said that the social networking tool is "unspeakably irratating." 

“Twitter stands for everything I oppose... It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters," Franzen said. "It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring 'The Metamorphosis.' Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers—particularly serious readers and writers—these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Since the speech, literary circles have been buzzing.

Is Franzen Right? 

When the topic of Twitter comes up, I often hear people say: “I don’t care what some celebrity ate for breakfast.”

What they don’t understand is that Twitter is a tool that is used very differently depending on your own interests. Yes, you can simply follow lots of celebrities and read tweets about their favorite new cocktail or how much they hate Daylight Savings time. But you can also follow breaking news, whether that news is about technology, finance, politics or yes, even celebrity gossip.

It's a Microphone

Like any public space, there is ignorant speech, gossip, unsubstantiated rumors, mindless chatter and sometimes intelligent or witty conversation. And unlike traditional public conversations, Twitter allows us the ability to amplify topics by gathering more voices from around the world. You may have a very specific interest and not know anyone locally who wants to discuss it with you, but with social media you can find others who can share your passion. There is no one way to use Twitter, nor can you simply write off all the speech found there as ignorant.

My advice to someone who is curious about Twitter is sign up. Follow a few people you either know or admire. See who they follow. As you follow along, unfollow those who don’t enhance your understanding or who offend you. Twitter will suggest people to follow based on how you use it. Engage with others and start your own conversations. I find it to be a great way to keep up to date, to find stories that I may have missed and have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of people I wouldn’t have “met” in any other way.

Before you criticize it and its millions of users, let the experiment run for a few weeks. You may find that the conversation is one you would rather ignore, or find that it trivializes communication like Mr. Franzen, but you may discover why so many people find it to be an essential part of their online life.

If you do join Twitter, be sure to follow me @DigiDaunted and Lorton Patch @LortonPatch.

KNL March 14, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Didn't Richard Russo write _Empire Falls_?
Amanda M. Socci, Freelance Writer March 14, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Jean, thank you for describing the positive side of Twitter. Like yourself, I, too, am a fan of Twitter for the reasons you've mentioned. I enjoy doing Twitter for fun, but I do not see it as a make-it-or-break-it-tool in my writing career. I use Twitter experimentally, following people within my personal circles of interest, which deal with writing, publishing, parenting, and recycling. Mr. Franzen is definitely entitled to have his opinion, but I am also grateful for those who are a bit more open-minded and willing to experiment with the very-interesting and always-changing Twitter. Follow me at @SocciWriter and you'll see my focus on writing-related tweets. Perhaps as a follow-up to this article could be a more nuts/bolts type of written article or face-to-face instruction on Twitter basics. Many people don't use it or simply don't know of its existence.
Rev. Charles Oberkehr March 14, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Literary circles leave me dizzy, but articulate :-)
Mike March 16, 2012 at 11:51 AM
What Franzen doesn't seem to understand is that, as Jean mentioned, Twitter can be used in other ways. Many journalists utilize Twitter to follow stories and don't use newspapers or TV news. In fact, I saw a story the other day on Twitter that wasn't on CNN yet and didn't show up on their site for a good hour or so. I like getting news that quick. I don't follow celebrities and use the tweets that have website links to further read into a story that sounds interesting. Maybe Franzen can quit "hating" new technology and see the benefits. I thought like him for the longest time before trying it out and now enjoy it.
Pedru Perez September 21, 2012 at 09:43 PM
Franzen makes a good point. Even better ones are the disconnect with the natural world, loss of privacy, and physical deterioration from hours of focused sitting that social media enthusiasts are prone to. Does social media really give people so much benefit that it is worth the loss of privacy? Is interacting with people while staring at a screen really better than interacting in person? It seems to me social media is more for the benefit of profit-motivated marketers and power-motivated politicians than it is for the public. We're just targeted demographics to them and social media lets them get exactly who they want in the cross-hairs. It even uses our friends to convince us to do what they want us to do. Social media manipulates us in ways we never dreamed of and it is getting strong every day. Be careful my friends.

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