Twitter’s Eternal Present and (Almost) Non-existent Past

Like many people these days, I love to Tweet.

Or, to be more precise, I love reading other people’s Tweets.

Millions of people around the globe using this form of communication have only amplified its importance. In fact, journalists who specialize in Tweeting and social media in general probably have a more bright and stable career trajectory than those who produce print content in the traditional method used by newspapers for more than a century.

Reasonable people may disagree about the precise role Twitter and other social media played in the Arab Spring that saw a number of regimes toppled and others sustaining heavy body blows, but few would argue with this statement:

The revolution in Egypt feels like it happened a long time ago.

This also has something to do with a little-discussed but highly significant consequence for Twitter-its impact on our perception.

Thanks to Twitter, by the time a basketball game is over, much of the commentary and analysis has already happened. If newspapers used to be “the first draft of history,” now that role has been usurped not only by those people who do not have a press pass, but who are actually experiencing the event in real time. In many instances, and for many people, reading a static and physical description of the same event one witnessed and heard dissected the night before is a part of why the newspaper industry in America has continued its steady decline (It’s a far different scenario in countries like Finland and Japan, but that’s a topic for another post.).

Obviously,absorbing information through Twitter has many advantages, not the least of which is getting real-time information and discussion of what is happening at that very moment. The opening of the number of people in the conversation can lead to fascinating and rich interactions and conversation that brings together people who are not physically in the same place. Thus, when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler did not go back into the contest against the Green Bay Packers for the right to play in this past season’s Super Bowl, we heard instantly the disapproval voiced by Maurice Jones-Drew. While not a paid analyst, or even a journalist, the running back’s position on the issue held some weight due to his own extensive experience of playing in and with pain.

In earlier years, that some opinion might not have had an audience. Now, thanks to Twitter, his opinion was part of the conversational mix.

Of course, the Egyptian revolution and a the veracity of a surly quarterback’s injury are vastly different topics. Yet I would argue that the advantages that Twitter presents, and the pre-existing context in which it occurs of 24-hour news and commentary through the Internet, have had serious consequences in our understanding of time.

Specifically, they have worked to nearly erase the past.

Because the first draft of history has already written before the event or day has ended, newspapers, which used to be that first version are now cast to some degree in the role of providing perspective on what has just occurred.

People’s hunger or desire to thoroughly explore that which has come before, if it existed before, has been diminished. Indeed, I would argue, that the very idea of what constitutes the past, or its relevance toward today’s events, have both undergone substantial revision, in part due to Twitter.

Consider the recently concluded NBA season. Before LeBron James’ Miami Heat had won a single game in the final series, Scottie Pippen and others were saying that he could be the greatest player to have ever played the game. Now, to be fair, this is a statement that has a certain future trajectory to it. Yet it also seemed stunningly oblivious to the careers of thousands of players who had come before, and whose “bodies of work” James presumably was in a position to surpass.

In a similar vein, Dirk Nowitzki not only, as Scoop Jackson noted, erased a history of ostensible playoff failures by leading his Dallas Mavericks to a championship, he invoked in increasing comparisons to Larry Bird, another blond-haired gunner who played 13 years with a single team.

I’ll cop to my hometown bias in favor of Larry Legend, and I would say that most, if not a very high majority, of serious basketball fans, would deem the comparison ludicrous, especially when offered, like Pippen’s assessment of James, before a single game of the finals had even been played.

This shrunken sense of the past is by no means limited to the world of basketball I so deeply enjoy inhabiting.

Whereas getting back to someone within 24 hours used to be standard professional protocol, now returning a call the next day could leave you out of the 20 other exchanges that had happened since the original communication. Studies about young people’s attention span shows that, too, has gotten smaller.

I know I’m sounding awfully close to a middle-aged crank moaning about an increasingly interconnected and constantly plugged-in world, and that may be true. I also don’t want to romanticize or overstate either the equity of the earlier world or the gains or insights that can come from endlessly pondering the impact of some long-distant battle on today’s social configuration.

And yet I can’t help but be a little worried at the erosion and compression of the past, both because of its connection to today and because of how it can help us understand how we have gotten to the present moment and where we might go together based on that reflection and analysis.

I had planned to end this post with a quip about having to post to Twitter and not remembering when I started this post because it was too long, but instead would like to hear your opinions.

Has Twitter contributed to a lessened sense of history? If true, is that a positive or negative development? Why is this so?


2 responses to “Twitter’s Eternal Present and (Almost) Non-existent Past

  1. David Russell

    Interesting and thought-provoking as always. I am a bit puzzled by all the hype that Twitter receives, and I am skeptical of the substance that can be communicated within the 140 character limit. A wonderful way for companies and celebrities to quickly and frequently send messages to their followers, but for the rest of us? I signed up for an account a year ago but haven’t used it. Something to pay attention to and learn more about, in any case. I’ve enjoyed your sports posts recently, too; I hadn’t heard the Lebron/ARod comparison before. Also the Celtics/Mavs piece. Hadn’t thought of the “light-skinned point guards with histories of domestic abuse”! Thanks again for your tribute a few days ago; many people have mentioned it to me. Best to you.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dave. I look forward to talking about Twitter with you. It can be real fun and an absolute firehose of information at the same time.

      We’ve always got something to cover with sports, eh?

      Happy to write the tribute. It came from the heart, and I’m glad that people have read and commented on it to you.

      Best to you and yours, too. I know we’ll talk soon.


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