“Oh my god,” New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean told her 26,000-plus Twitter followers yesterday. “Did I just agree to write a blog on newyorker.com? I’m afraid I did.” If you go by some of the adjectives tossed about by some of her august media peers in this month’s public Twitter squabble, starting a blog will make Orlean, a prolific Twitterer, something between a crackhead and an ejaculation addict.
Earlier this week, Gawker amply chronicled the skirmish between New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan. That particular fight was over blogging — specifically Sullivan’s blogging — which Wieseltier pungently likened to “ejaculations” as part of a gassy screed about Sullivan’s supposed anti-Semitism.
That argument echoed the playground scuffle between New Yorker political reporter George Packer and Times writer Nick Bilton, which was sparked after Packer asserted on his newyorker.com blog that Twitter is “crack for media addicts.” Packer isn’t quite the curmudgeon that Wieseltier is (he does have a blog, after all), but he’s stubbornly held his ground while Bilton, Orlean, and others have tried to convince him that, actually, Twitter can be pretty great.
Really, the Times’ David Carr started the whole thing with a Twitterphobe-baiting column on New Year’s Day, in which he rhapsodized that “Twitter is a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while” and that “There’s always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.” This freaked out Packer, a non-Twitter user, who chewed it over for a month before taking to his blog to deliver the “crack for media addicts” zinger (a line that’s become very popular on Twitter). “Twitter sounds more like sipping than drowning,” he explained, because it’s just Too Much Information. Fear of information overload is also why he refuses to get a BlackBerry and stashes his laptop on the Amtrak to D.C.— so he can have some quiet time away from the roar of all that data.
Then Bilton read Packer and decided to stir the pot further with a Bits blog post arguing that information is, well, good. It’s helpful everywhere from Haiti to Iran to outer space, he posits, adding: “Call me a digital crack dealer!” And maybe just to provoke Packer, he asked: “I wonder if, 150 years ago, Mr. Packer would be riding the train at all, or if he would have stayed home, afraid to engage in evolving society and demanding that trains be stopped.” Ouch! Digital-media watchers like Jack Shafer, who tweeted “@nickbilton kicks the shit out of George Packer’s ignorant Twitter piece,” cheered him on. Double ouch!
Naturally, Packer wasn’t going to take that lying down, so the next day he started name-calling: A “Biltonite,” by his definition, is a member of “a triumphalist and intolerant cult” of “techno-worshippers.” Just because he refuses to join doesn’t make him a Luddite, he insisted. He also added a death-of-media angle to his Twitter rage, arguing that any journalist who uses the service, including Carr, Bilton, and Marc Ambinder (whose tweeting habits Packer criticized), is “essentially asking for his own destruction.” Bilton then excused himself from the conversation by saying, “Discussions like these are a healthy part of a democracy and our future,” which sort of sounds like code for “You’re still wrong, but I can’t talk about this anymore.”
Finally, earlier this week, Packer and Orlean each went out of their way to agree with one another in a conciliatory talk about Twitter that had shades of couples therapy. Yes, Orlean acknowledged, Carr had unrealistically made it sound like “Twitter would solve your problems and make you a better person.” But she professed that its simple pleasures, like sending out updates on the health of her backyard chickens, did seem to enrich her days. Packer then praised her ability to “write elegant long-form journalism and tweet 6,000 times a day” before wringing his hands some more, saying, “I worry that tweeting is going to win, and long-form journalism is going to lose” — which is basically the same worry that’s got Wieseltier writing thousands of words about Andrew Sullivan.
The podcast felt like a temporary closing of hostilities. But there’s no doubt that this battle will pick up again as soon as some other Twitterphobic old-media type gets frightened enough to type out a few more thousand words to combat the encroachment of endless 140-character missives. Or maybe Orlean herself will stoke the flames with a post on her new blog (a medium that was once the enemy of long-form journalism and is now, ironically, a seeming “happy medium”) and the cycle will begin anew.
Related: Our Sam Anderson attempts a literary Twitter feed. [Vulture]