I came to Twitter reluctantly.
In 2009, as my fellow journalists and the people and institutions I cover slowly made their way into the realm of 140-character expression, I dutifully followed suit. Three years and a mere 1,500 tweets later, I've come to accept the necessity of Twitter to cultural journalism. It's often where news breaks first, where important debates begin to play out and where the spirit of the current cultural moment (or at least some section of it) takes shape.
As more and more colleagues, artists and cultural figures enter the Twitter fray, I remain largely on the sidelines, even while acknowledging Twitter's usefulness as a tool for conversation about arts and culture in this country.
Part of what continues to put me off about Twitter is its role as a kind of conversational playground, in which otherwise reasonable adults often descend into puerile behavior when arguing with one another. There's a lot of room in 140 characters for hurt feelings and misconstrued meanings, but not much room for nuance -- and that can sometimes wind up being counterproductive for the discourse. This seems to play out on a weekly basis locally, as Twitter commentators argue over preservation, Mario Williams, or name your issue. At its best, Twitter forces people to make their arguments more concise and potent. When this fails -- and it often fails -- Twitter becomes a dumping ground for the collective id, a place where society's brain farts and barbed insults gather themselves together into a noxious cloud.
But here's the paradox: The function of Twitter as a window into society's unmediated thoughts, which repels me and many others from certain aspects of it, is exactly what makes it indispensable.
This past week, a perfect example of this arose when many young Tweeters expressed disappointment with the casting of "The Hunger Games," the new film based on the popular series of young adult novels. They complained about the inclusion of African-American characters they had envisioned as white. These Tweets, collected on hungergamestweets.tumblr.com for anyone brave enough to look, are indescribably ugly and disturbing. They say something extremely dark about the pervasiveness of racism in America.
Even though many of us personally recoil at such unmediated statements from some of the youngest literate members of our society, the fact that Twitter broadcasts those statements to the world seems to be a good thing.
In the past, the filters we ascribe to the traditional media allowed issues like America's widespread institutional racism to fly under the radar, largely because these tossed-off comments remained in lunch rooms and study halls.
The collective id can be an ugly thing, and as the recent reaction to "The Hunger Games" casting demonstrates, Twitter forces us to face it head-on. We can no longer pretend, as many of us have for decades, that we live in a country where race no longer matters. It matters deeply, obviously, and the age-old prejudices many of us like to imagine as belonging to some distant age are with us today. They are now only a few frightening clicks away, there for all to see.
None of this, of course, has to do with Twitter itself, which is merely a new method of self-expression that inevitably reflects the faults and virtues of its users.
I still have no idea what Twitter's effect on the general discourse on major issues will wind up being, and neither does anyone else. The social media rush of the past few years has spawned any number of self-appointed digital theorists who proclaim the significance of trends that no one can possibly see from the inside, and make loads of money doing it. The best we can offer are worries about Twitter's downsides and thoughts and guesses about its benefits, both of which I offer in this column with the caveat that they may turn out to be wrong. Follow me at @colindabkowski, and you'll be the first to find out.