In a recent interview, the MIT linguist and critic of mass media Noam Chomsky was asked about social media, and had this to say:
Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication… It is not a medium of a serious interchange.
Although this conforms with many mainstream views of the shallow nature of digital communication, it perhaps misses the point, considering that Twitter and many other forms of social media often aren’t trying to be a medium of “serious interchange”. By serious exchange, I’m assuming Chomsky means substantive argument, but why should ‘serious communication’ be limited to persuasion?
Among the many uses of language, two important forms are persuasive, and informative. We use the persuasive mode when we try to convince others of the correctness of our views or the necessity for action, while the informative mode is used to exchange information about our world and coordinate action. 140 characters is a terrible length for persuasive arguments – a claim, reason, evidence and acnkowedgement of counterarguments don’t fit well into 140 characters – but it’s an excellent length for exchanging information: “there are rioters burning the bank on High Street”, “floods expected in the north of the city, residents should evacuate.”, or “read this amazing persuasive argument: (link)”
Where Chomsky goes wrong is in assuming that ‘public’ language is the only significant language. While exchanges like Twitter posts may be displacing some types of communication, in many cases, they can also enable and enhance other forms of serious, though non-public discussion.
• Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Why Chomsky is Wrong About Twitter‘ – Salon.com
• An interesting recent interview with Chomsky covering everything from the comic potential of bananas to 1940’s baseball statistics to Twitter and transparency in government, can be found here. Incidentally, this post includes some great photographs from around Chomsky’s office at MIT