Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Some Real Tweets Feel Too Hard to Swallow

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Some Real Tweets Feel Too Hard to Swallow

Article excerpt

At the rate things are moving, social media won't be satisfied with simply augmenting journalism. Twitter is poised to replace it, according to conspiratorial-minded old fogies like me.

Revolutions from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement would scarcely have been imaginable without social media, especially Twitter. That's why regimes from China to Iran instinctively fear it. Even authorities in long-established democracies flood the service with demands for subscriber information every year.

Given the ubiquity of tweeting, there's no reason that war, even one fought 150 years ago, should be exempt from being characterized in an endless stream of 140 characters or less.

On Saturday, the Battle of Gettysburg will get the Twitter treatment. Four tweeters will cover the reenactment of one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War in real time for the York Daily News and the Hanover Evening Sun.

The tweets will include pithy reports about fighting at Devil's Den as part of the 149th anniversary. Tweets from the Confederate and Union sides will be included along with a "big picture" look at the battle.

The string of tweets will provide an interesting look at the limits of social media in crafting a coherent narrative in the absence of traditional media. Even with full knowledge of how things ended, how successful will the tweeters be in providing context for the patriotic gore that was the Battle of Gettysburg?

I'm looking forward to reading the newspaper accounts of the reenactment, but I'm not expecting anything more than cursory headlines from the tweets. At 140 characters or less, tweets can only drill down so far until running into irreducible complexity that defies the format.

If there's a hope that journalism won't be completely replaced by social media like Twitter, it is this -- a truthful narrative requires context and content. If either is limited by an arbitrary format like 140 characters, something is going to get shortchanged.

Last week, comedian Chris Rock tweeted the following on July 4: "Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks."

I missed the tweet and the controversy it stirred until a local talk show host informed me of it a few days later. …

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