A tweet is worth a try, no matter how brief
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One of the first things I did when I came across news of conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart's death Thursday was scan the Internet for reliable news confirming that it wasn't a hoax. Then I checked my Twitter feed.
Those who know me well will be stunned by that last sentence. After holding out as long as I could, I finally joined Twitter a week ago. A Carnegie Mellon University student nudged me into it after stating that he and his contemporaries were much more likely to follow me on Twitter than visit the Post-Gazette's website to read my column.
Before I took the plunge, I imagined the "Twitterverse" to be a place where people posted banal and uninteresting things about themselves. That happens, but the folks and institutions I follow aren't self-indulgent. Twitter is only as interesting as the people one chooses to follow.
The limitations placed on Twitter users by the format is part of its perverse appeal to media junkies like myself. With a 140-character limit to each tweet, there's only so much one can say. Most of the tweets that come my way are either news flashes, links to articles, pithy reactions to current events or very funny Zen koan-like observations.
After a week of stumbling around and reading hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets, I've yet to be bored. I've written less than 50 so far, but they get easier with each tweet.
Thursday, I was fascinated by the reaction to Mr. Breitbart's death, both on the partisan political blogs and on Twitter. It was one of the highest-trending subjects of the day and a perfect laboratory for social media watching.
By mid-morning I had tweeted the following: "With Andrew Breitbart dead, what will happen to the videos he claimed he had of Obama's college days? A new conspiracy meme is born!"
Little did I know that there was already a suspicion in the more paranoid sectors of the conservative blogosphere that President Barack Obama had "murdered" Mr. Breitbart to prevent him from releasing damaging videos of the future president sitting at the feet of Saul Alinsky and Bill Ayers.
It was too much for many on the right to believe that the man who defamed former Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, publicized U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's sexually explicit Twitter photos and circulated James O'Keefe's undercover ACORN "expose" would die of natural causes at 43.
Syndicated talk radio host Mancow Muller tweeted: "He told me RECENTLY he had big dirt on Obama ... MANY believe it's murder!"
While thousands of tweets echoed Mr. Muller's paranoia, those on the progressive end of the political spectrum extended condolences to Mr. Breitbart's family for their loss while refusing to sugarcoat his negative impact on public discourse. Many liberal Twitter users re-circulated Mr. Breitbart's exceptionally cruel words upon learning of the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy and applied them to his own demise.
It was fascinating watching folks on the left argue among themselves about the appropriateness of tweets celebrating Mr. Breitbart's death, as if it were somehow a victory for liberalism. I'm happy to say far more liberal tweets acknowledged his flawed humanity, though grudgingly, as the day wore on.
I re-tweeted a link to Middle East scholar Juan Cole's Informed Comment website that made an important point that was largely lost in the partisan rancor: "Dear Mainstream Media: Andrew Breitbart was not a blogger. He was a political trickster, a serial frame-up artist, a con man, a fraud, a flimflam man. In the Nixon days he would have been called a 'plumber.' "
Mr. Cole's blog entry continued: "A blogger is an independent observer, a citizen journalist. Breitbart tinkered with video to falsify what people said and staged interviews to falsify peoples' views. He generally polluted the information environment with fraud. Andrew Breitbart was many things, and in Britain would have been in jail for libel on several occasions. But he was not a blogger."
Many journalists have gotten into trouble posting comments on Twitter that violated their organization's standards, but I don't plan to be one of them. I labor over each tweet as if I'm writing for print. That alone will limit my productivity on Twitter. Still, there's an undeniable freedom that comes with boiling even the most complicated feelings and observations down to 140 characters.
Twitter is already old, perhaps passe to those who have been doing it for years. For us newbies, though, Twitter is a brave new world where less really is more.
First Published March 2, 2012 12:00 am