For those who aren’t cool or hip (do folks still use those words?) Wiki defines twitter as "a social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 bytes in length. "
Think of it as a tiny, speedy, badly spelled e-mail between friends. Gee, you even get a whole 140 bytes at the apple, even if you don’t have a mac.
As communications forms go, Twitter has the ability to be both the best and the worst. On one hand, Twitter’s ability getting the word out quickly is unmatched. But, with that advantage, two other potential problems crop up.
It is no surprise that our attention spans continue to recede. Once a upon a time, people would sit in the evenings, talk, play cards, make music, listen to a radio, or do something known as "reading." That changed with the advent of TV. Soon, 1/2 hour programming changed the way people thought. First in 1/2 hour increments, then in 14 minute intervals, TV changed our internal clocks. During a time out in one super bowl, every major city registered a huge drop in water pressure, as every football fan decided to flush in unison.
People started scheduling their evenings around the news, sitcoms, and variety shows. Even the act of eating changed, ultimately becoming the incredible, inedible "TV Dinner" while Lawrence Welk and Walter Cronkite were telling America what it wanted to know.
Politics also suffered greatly. In Lincoln’s age, debates were long, complex, and covered the issues of the day in great depth. Abe himself would speak for hours at a time, before an audience of hundreds and even thousands, with every person anxious to hear every word. Over time, what used to be a political debate has been turned into the 10 second sound bite, with little or no substance, but a lot of heavy symbolism. Then again, this brevity might be a mixed blessing, especially if the pol giving the talk is Michelle Bachmann. There is only so much nuttery and insane rambling anyone can take in one sitting. Twittering will only accelerate our mental decline, making us think in 140 byte ideas, instead of detailed, deep, and well thought out concepts. Communications skills will become even worse.
Twitter surely has some advantages. It is fast, it is easy to use, and it permits instant contact with your closest 14,389 friends. And therein lies the second problem. Twitter can not only inform, it can also bring ruin, riot or destruction to a town, a city, perhaps a whole region. Rumors, unfortunately, have made our modern, speed of light society, even more fragile. Combined with our ever shorter attention spans, we have a recipe for disaster.
Modern rumors can create truly unmanageable problems. Towards the end of 1999, Japanese "heard" a rumor that part of the Y2000 problem would result in a toilet paper shortage. So, all the shoppers quickly went out and stocked up, quickly creating – - – - – an artificial toilet paper shortage.
Several years ago, in the southwest, there were rumors that gas was running out. It caused drivers to fill up at every chance, resulting in a regional gas shortage that took months to fix. Local authorities even considered rationing just to insure that ambulances, fire and police could get enough gas to move around.
Twitter will eventually cause a some huge problem someplace, and we can only hope that the damage it will do will be minimal. Given 8 straight years of administratively delivered mental abuse, today’s Americans are still edgy and easily scared. Wrong information can readily set off panic attacks and turn normally sane people into rioters or a crazed mob.
If a bad rumor gets tweeted, and goes viral, even the most rational can be affected. When this panic attack occurs, it won’t be something simple like yelling "fire" in a theater. No, it will be something almost believable, and quite scary. All it will take is a hyperactive imagination, and the right conditions, and BOOM. A twitter-created riot.
Threats of disease, terror attacks, or similar baseless rumors will spread faster than anyone could imagine. And given the short attention spans we’ve created in the minds of most Americans, their ability to rationally set aside panic or viral fear, makes a twitter-based rumor a potentially dangerous, even deadly event.
Some might think this is paranoia. It is anything but. Let’s say that you have a college town, heavily wired, with most of the students twittering like birds. Say that a car backfires. What if a rumor of a raging school gunman was tweeted? And what if a nearby military lab, rumored to be making anthrax, suddenly seemed to be under attack? Within minutes, the entire school population could conceivably go nuts, creating serious problems where none exist. That would immediately spread to the general population, and the only winner would be chaos.
Of course, the authorities would issue special bulletins, claiming that all was well. It is too bad that Americans have seen our government lie to us so often, that we simply no longer believe what they have to say. (Iraq has WMD? Mission Accomplished? The Economy is Strong? America does not torture? There is no mortgage crisis? R I G H T ! )
I don’t know of any obvious solution to our future twitter riots or panic attacks. With Americans ever more dependent on portable electronics, the likelihood of a tweet-created riot or worse grows ever larger. With the new and improved American attention span, the pool of calm, knowledgeable rational thinkers grows ever smaller. Simply turning off the twitter functions by some governmental emergency order would only make matters worse. Once a bad rumor is viral, enforced, artificial silence would only make it worse.
There is something else to consider. Our military and governmental computers are under daily attack, with Russia and China behind the most sophisticated efforts to break into secure systems. What if a twitter rumor was deliberately launched, with the intent of causing chaos and trouble? The more wired we become, the greater our risks are.
Maybe one of our readers has a solution to this future problem. If so, please share. We could all use the preparation. And for those who think that this scenario cannot happen here, I suggest that you look up the War of the Worlds, as brought to you by Orson Wells.