I can recall, back in around 2008 or so, sitting in an airport listening to a radio story about this thing called Twitter, in which some tech booster was explaining how great it was to be able to send out little 140-character updates on what he was doing all the time, so the the people he cared about could have a sense of his daily life. I thought it sounded both inane and horrifying, but like most things governed by network effects, its value not just increased but changed in nature as more and more people got on it. I resisted going on Twitter for a long time (despite the pleading of my then-editor), in part because I was worried it would just be a distraction from my work. But it turned out, once I got on, that it became invaluable to my work. Most of the people I follow are writers or other people who point me to things I might need to know or want to write about; when I'm lost for something to say, Twitter will often send me on a path that will ultimately lead to a post or a column.
But I can see how, if you're still not on Twitter, all the people saying, "You totally need to be on Twitter!" would make you really, really not want to be on Twitter. So it seems with Paul Krugman, who I think it's safe to say is the most influential liberal voice in the American media. He explains why he stays away:
One reason is that I have better things to do with my time. Another is that I don’t think my instant reactions to things are especially interesting. But I have to admit that I've also been aware for some time how many people end up destroying themselves by tweeting something really offensive.
Why do people do this? Well, it turns out that many prominent people have inner demons of one kind or another — often homophobia, but also racism, sexism, or just some kind of generalized contempt for large numbers of other people. And social media make it all too easy for those demons to slip out in front of a large audience.
I don't think I have any demons like that, but who knows? And if I do make uncomfortable discoveries about myself, I'd like to do it in private, thank you.
Frankly, I don't think he has anything to worry about. If you're a thoughtful person, the chances of you revealing something ugly and twisted lying within your soul, just because it's possible to tweet quickly without thinking, are pretty low. There's a saying (where it comes from I don't know, but it seems like it was made for blogging) that if you're asking yourself, "Should I say this, or is it a little too angry/cruel/whatever?" then the answer is probably no. As long as you keep that in mind when tweeting, you'll probably be safe. I suspect that most of the people who've gotten in trouble for saying something offensive on Twitter are, in fact, jerks. If you're pretty sure you're not a jerk, then you don't have much to worry about.
But here's the thing: Paul Krugman doesn't have to be on Twitter, and he's not letting anyone down if he doesn't. If you're interested in what he thinks about things, you have plenty of opportunities to find out. He writes books. He blogs. He writes a column twice a week. Sometimes he goes on television. He's doing quite a nice job of disseminating his opinions.
As it happens, these days if you write about public affairs and you aren't blessed with a New York Times column, you pretty much have to be on Twitter. You can think of it as "building your brand," which might make you throw up a little in your mouth, or you can think of it just as making sure as many people read your writing as possible. After all, that's kind of the point—when you write something, you want lots of people to read it, and Twitter is one way to let more people know about the stuff you write. And if you have witty and insightful observations along the way, all the better. But you never know—maybe five years from now, there'll be some social-media platform that's even better at doing what Twitter does, and Twitter will turn into another MySpace. It's happened before. And now that Twitter is going public and will naturally become a slave to the most infinitesimal movements of its share price, who knows what it'll become.
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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)