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 Record 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. Chris Rock's tweet upset a lot of folks who felt it was inappropriate and racially insensitive. Was there anything more unpatriotic than stirring up the memory of slavery on a day devoted to hot dogs and fireworks?
Reaction to the tweet broke down along familiar lines, of course. The outraged tended to be white and conservative. Black folks of all political persuasions let out a collective "Duh," as if the premise of the tweet was beyond question -- which it is.
Because we engage in amnesia and denial when it comes to examining the economic, cultural and political legacy of slavery, something as insubstantial as a tweet can ruin someone's day if they're still living at that "Yankee Doodle" level of reality.
Because the full context is missing, the willfully dumb are able to engage in a fantasy of persecution -- i.e., Chris Rock hates white people, doesn't he?
A mere 69 years after the end of the Revolutionary War and 13 years before the slaves were freed, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest patriots this country has ever produced, was asked to give a speech about the meaning of Independence Day for blacks. This is a tiny fraction of what he told his audience in Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852:
"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless ... your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
Douglass' audience was mature enough to listen to hard truths and do something about it. All Chris Rock was doing was retweeting his speech 160 years later.