Argument: Chomsky wrong to suggest Twitter is “superficial, shallow, evanescent”

Nathan Jurgenson argues that Noam Chomsky’s thoughts about Twitter are misguided:

Noam Chomsky has been one of the most important critics of the way big media crowd out “everyday” voices in order to control knowledge and “manufacture consent.” So it is surprising that the MIT linguist dismisses much of our new digital communications produced from the bottom-up as “superficial, shallow, evanescent.” We have heard this critique of texting and tweeting from many others, such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr. And these claims are important because they put Twitter and texting in a hierarchy of thought. Among other things, Chomsky and Co. are making assertions that one way of communicating, thinking and knowing is better than another…

Claiming that certain styles of communicating and knowing are not serious and not worthy of extended attention is nothing new. It’s akin to those claims that graffiti isn’t art and rap isn’t music. The study of knowledge (aka epistemology) is filled with revealing works by people like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard or Patricia Hill Collins who show how ways of knowing get disqualified or subjugated as less true, deep or important…

In fact, in the debate about whether rapid and social media really are inherently less deep than other media, there are compelling arguments for and against. Yes, any individual tweet might be superficial, but a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square, a war zone like Gaza or a list of carefully-selected thinkers makes for a collection of expression that is anything but shallow. Social media is like radio: It all depends on how you tune it…

Chomsky, a politically progressive linguist, should know better than to dismiss new forms of language-production that he does not understand as “shallow.” This argument, whether voiced by him or others, risks reducing those who primarily communicate in this way as an “other,” one who is less fully human and capable. This was Foucault’s point: Any claim to knowledge is always a claim to power. We might ask Chomsky today, when digital communications are disqualified as less deep, who benefits?

Back to a classic question: is it the medium or the message? Is there something inherent about 140 character statements and how they must be put together that makes them different than other forms of human communication? I like that Jurgenson notes historical precedent: these arguments have also accompanied the introduction of radio, television, and the Internet.

But could we tweak Chomsky’s thoughts to make them more palatable? What if Chomsky had said that the average Twitter experience was superficial, would he be incorrect? Perhaps the right comparison is necessary – Twitter is more superficial compared to face-to-face contact? But is it more superficial than no contact since face-to-face time is limited? Jurgenson emphasizes the big picture of Twitter, its ability to bring people together and give people the opportunity to follow others and “tune in.” In particular, Twitter and other social media forms allow the average person in the world to potentially have a voice in a way that was never possible before. But for the average user, how much are they benefiting – are they tuned in to major social movements or celebrity feeds? What their friends are saying right now or progress updates from non-profit organizations? Is this a beneficial public space for the average user?

Additionally, does it matter here if Twitter had advertisements and made a big push to make money off of this versus providing a more democratic space? Is Twitter more democratic and deep than Facebook? How would one decide?

In the end, is this simply a generational split?

(See earlier posts on a similar topic: Malcolm Gladwell on the power of Twitter, how Twitter contributed (or didn’t) to movements in the Middle East, and whether using Twitter in the classroom improves student learning outcomes.)