By Tom Bryson
Communications Director City of Farmers Branch, Texas | Immediate Past-President 3CMA
First, let me clearly assert that I’m a fan of Twitter.
How four guys from a podcasting company came up with this microblogging concept during a brainstorming session is a testament to ability old adage that there are no stupid ideas – just ideas that haven’t been properly capitalized. That brainstorming session yielded what is now a $3 billion company with 321 million active users worldwide.
By comparison, the total population of the U.S. is 325 million.
Twitter is, in fact, the perfect vehicle for the short-attention-span society in which we are inescapably entrenched. We’ve all developed attention deficit purely as a defense mechanism that allows us to consume the mass quantities of information now available at our collective fingertips.
Many of us in the field of government communications, PR, marketing or whatever flavor of information dispersal to which you ascribe, have found Twitter to be a useful writing exercise. The ability to form a coherent message in a limited space is a challenge that we frequently embrace. As such, again for many of us, the ability to use, strategically plan for and leverage social media is not just a desired skill – it has become part of the job description.
And, Twitter is barely 14 years old.
At times of breaking news and rapidly evolving developments, Twitter, along with other social media, has evolved into a critically important tool for relating details of violent coups in foreign lands, emergency alerts for impending severe weather and proof of life to mark oneself “safe” after natural or manmade disasters.
While these and many other justifications support the great value of Twitter in society, as with many other tools, its abuses cannot be overlooked.
I do not propose to get into the political weeds of high government office holders taking to Twitter to denigrate members of the media they don’t like. If I did, I would say that it is almost incomprehensible, beneath the office to which they were elected and just plain mean. But, I won’t do that. That’d be easy.
Rather, let’s note the undeniable impact that social media has had on American discourse as a whole. Yes, with the stroke of a few keys we can stay in touch with people from our past that would have otherwise faded into the background vignettes of distant memory. There is certainly value to that. Still, it seems that human nature continues to look for the shortcut and resorts to the smartphone as its exclusive means of communicating the most sparse details possible, before moving on to the next Tweet, post or text.
Nobody writes letters anymore.
In my home office, I have a box of notes, postcards and letters that my father wrote home to his parents in Greenwood, Louisiana during his tours in Europe and the Pacific towards the end of World War II. To me, these are beyond value.
But, what will our grandchildren look back on to inform their perspectives of our generation? Who will compose the intricate commentary on 21st century society that will be necessary for future generations to understand what happened during our brief time on the planet?
It is worth noting that none of us were forced into reducing our myriad thoughts, emotions and complexities of the human experience into 280 characters. We hopped on this bandwagon voluntarily. Still, it doesn’t mean we should abandon books, and long-form journalism and actually writing letters to each other. OK, email qualifies, but make it a series of graceful thoughts in carefully composed sentences, not abbreviations and emojis.
Abraham Lincoln wrote 10 sentences on the back of an envelope while on a train to Pennsylvania. His address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg is not remembered for Lincoln’s speaking style, but for the tender, meaningful and moving words that echo still.
If Lincoln were alive today, would he Tweet? Maybe. But, I’d like to think they’d be remarkably elegant thoughts that would still be combined with soaring orations and letters, both business and personal, that conveyed the very essence of his message in descriptive and impactful terms that people would treasure.
So, how do we avoid the fate of our era fading into that vague background of collective societal memory?
HOW TO SAVE SOCIETY FROM RHETORICAL OBLIVION
- Write a journal.
- Don’t stop Tweeting, but be deliberate in language and memorable in manner.
- Write letters (even in email) that are thought provoking and emotionally intelligent.
- Agree to disagree. Respect isn’t dead, it’s just ailing.
- Don’t stop reading. Consume information, lots of it. The best way to form a coherent stance on matters of the day is not to limit your news to a single source. Read, listen and watch from a variety of sources for the most well-rounded opinion you can muster.
It is, in fact, just that simple.