Two decades after Al Gore may or may not have claimed credit for inventing the internet, I wonder whether Benjamin Franklin, who invented a lot of things, would have wanted the honor.
I say this after a recent Twitter spat that, apparently, happens a fair amount these days, the sort that seems inconsequential yet says something about a world in which we have traded conversation for email or texting, preferably in 140 characters or less. Wall Street rewards start-ups that create ways to make what we’ve said automatically and forever disappear, which was pretty much the way things used to work when we used to talk.
I do Twitter, barely, and Facebook not at all. My numbers are embarrassing for anyone who purports to call himself a journalist. After four years, I’ve amassed 306 followers and 581 tweets, epic fails in a world where any reporter worth snot, like our president, should tweet thousands of things read by thousands of people. I follow 14 people, a few prolific enough that I never want for things to click on.
Not long ago, someone I don’t know and had never heard of tweeted something that caught my eye, suggesting that women, brought up to believe that their opinions don’t matter, should alter their style. “My sisters, might we agree to stop prefacing our views with ‘I think’ & ‘I believe?’” she wrote. “Most men seldom do this, and we too often do this.”
I was reminded of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, easily one of best things ever written in America. The author was something of a cad, famous for flirting and not paying sufficient attention to his wife, but no one is perfect. His take was opposite of what I’d read on Twitter.
After mastering the Socratic method to the point that he could make a fool of anyone who dared disagree with him, Franklin famously found a better way, eschewing words like “certainly” and “undoubtedly” in favor of qualifiers: “It appears to me.” “I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons.” “I imagine it to be so.” “If I am not mistaken.” Nobody, Ben reasoned, likes a know-it-all, and the goal of a conversation is to either gather or disseminate knowledge, to please or to persuade.
“If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error,” Franklin wrote.
Foolishly, I tweeted a reply to the suggestion that “I think” and “I believe” should be stricken from the vernacular, invoking Franklin’s advice. I did not have to wait long for a reply.
“We’re not living in the age of Ben Franklin,” someone responded. Then it was on to bashing the Age of Enlightenment, with someone else tweeting that women in the 18th century were rarely educated and expected to marry, weren’t allowed to talk politics, couldn’t choose where they lived, were expected to bear between five and eight children and couldn’t enter into contracts or accumulate private property. “i think that sucks if I’m not mistaken,” the tweeter opined. Someone else tweeted about suffrage in Ireland, where women weren’t allowed in bars until the 1970s. A person whose tagline includes “Bitch is still my superhero name” got right to it: “Thanks so much, random man, your opinion is noted,” she tweeted in a fancy multicolored graphic that included text resembling a purple neon sign against a starry-night background.
Fortunately, I have, I think, a thick skin.
Much has been written about the hollowness of social media and the internet in general, how technology divides instead of unites and makes dumb folks dumber and smart folks not so smart. “Internet culture” is a thing, which I know from reading The New York Times on my phone. A prime directive for Silicon Valley nannies is to keep kids away from screens lest they become like us.
Neither Twitter nor Facebook can match face to face. Ask Michael Truett, news director for WICS TV, the embattled Sinclair Broadcasting station that’s won scorn from locals, ridicule from Stephen Colbert and goodbyes from advertisers since meteorologist Joe Crain got canned after telling it like it is, which is not necessarily the strong suit of television news executives.
I’d never met Truett and pegged him as either Secret Service or Sinclair an hour before a Support Joe rally started last week at the fairgrounds. He was, constantly, at the edge of a swelling crowd, wearing a decent shirt and sunglasses, occasionally talking on his phone. Finally, he addressed the throng, in front of a camera from his own station.
What he said was mostly bullshit. “We believe there was effectiveness to it,” he offered when asked about the station’s penchant for Code Red weather alerts. Crain himself called the Code Red that he told viewers about in his last broadcast, the one that got him fired. “Free speech, nobody stopped him from saying what he did,” Truett told the crowd. “He got fired!” someone yelled in response.
But, for the most part, folks shut up and listened when Truett talked, notwithstanding a few chants of “Sinclair puppet.” He didn’t have to yell to be heard, and he invited questions. No minds were changed, but no cops were called. A couple folks thanked him for coming as he left.
And that’s a good thing, I think.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.