Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Twitter: an exercise in pointlessness

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 7.)

RARELY was anything more appropriately named than the social networking site Twitter, a word that brings to mind a flock of sparrows noisily chattering over a crust of bread.

It’s the perfect moniker for a mode of communication whose defining characteristic is its sheer pointlessness.

Even the creator of Twitter, Californian Jack Dorsey, admits the name sums it all up. “We came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect,” Dorsey is quoted as saying. “The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

There. I rest my case.

The “tweets” that Twitter users send to each other are limited to 140 characters, which seems admirably suited to people with the attention span of goldfish. Small wonder that tweets are rarely concerned with anything more profound than what the tweeter has just had for dinner at KFC. The fact that National MP Tau Henare is Parliament’s most active tweeter – in fact is best known for his tweeting – speaks volumes.

What’s mystifying is that some branches of the news media have embraced Twitter with almost evangelical enthusiasm. Tweets from politicians, obscure celebrities and rugby players are excitedly reported, no matter how puerile or banal the content.

Journalists who would never dream of listening to talkback radio, considering it the domain of the ignorant and bigoted, nonetheless delude themselves that they are taking the pulse of the nation by monitoring the aptly named twittersphere.

When TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner on the current affairs show Q+A tells Labour leader Phil Goff that Twitter users are demanding that he spell out policy, you can’t help feeling that the Twitter phenomenon – or at least the media fascination with it – is getting out of hand.

Some Twitter users are mesmerised by its speed. I have read one journalist boasting that he heard about the February 22 Christchurch quake from Twitter while it was still happening. Another marvelled that Twitter had news of the ditching of an airliner in New York’s Hudson River in 2009 30 minutes before news sites were posting it as “breaking news”.

Well, wow. I suppose that counts for something if you’re the sort of person who loves to be one step ahead of the pack, just for the sake of it. But it’s about as silly as a motoring writer arguing that one car is better than another because it takes 0.5 of second less to get to the speed limit.

I mean, so what?

* * *

ECSTATIC reviews for the British television series Downton Abbey merely reveal how starved New Zealand viewers are of half-decent entertainment.

By the standards of the 1970s, the golden era of British TV drama, it’s rather ordinary. The characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional. The script is clich├ęd and formulaic. The actors are competent, but do little more than go through the motions – no one more so than Maggie Smith, who has played similar roles a dozen times before and could do it in her sleep.

The programme tends to lead viewers by the nose, giving them heavy-handed cues as to how they should respond to the characters and storyline. I suspect this is because the producers realise TV audiences have forgotten how to react to seriously good drama and need to be retrained.

Despite all this, the critical response has been little short of gushing – demonstrating that after years of cheap, banal “reality” shows and sordid American crime programmes, we’ll eagerly embrace anything remotely reminiscent of the quality drama we once took for granted.

* * *

ONE OF THE pitfalls of being self-employed is that I have to deal with ACC.

I recently sent them an email asking why I received not one but two invoices every year. The reply appeared to be written by someone with English as a second language. It clearly hadn’t been proofread and was nigh incomprehensible.

To give you an example, ACC’s email began (and I reproduce it exactly as it was sent): “We you select coverplus extra you receive two invoices.” (CoverPlus Extra is the policy I’m covered under.) Further on, it referred to levies that are “not aloud [sic] to be charged on a nominated amount”.

What’s especially galling is that I have no option but to deal with ACC. I am not allowed to find an alternative provider that ensures its communications make sense and might even arrange things so that everything is covered by one invoice.

Fortunately this will change next year, assuming National is re-elected and proceeds with its plan to open accident compensation to competition. As ACC Minister Nick Smith says, ACC needs the constant pressure of choice to keep it on its toes – an argument applicable to all monopolies.

National could hardly be described as fearless champions of free enterprise but in this instance, at least, it’s moving in the right direction.

1 comment:

Denis Welch said...

You've nailed Downtown Abbey perfectly, old son. It's so formulaic it makes CSI look like Citizen Kane.