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So Long, @Croisan: Five Twitter Lessons

23 Feb

I am putting my Twitter persona, @Croisan, out to pasture. After two years and 10,000 tweets, it’s time to quit and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way.

The first lesson I gleaned from Twitter was to tweet about “Five Amazing…” or “10 Great Ways to…” or any number combined with a superlative to entice someone to view a link or retweet the offering. Though I rarely applied the lesson to my own tweets, it’s ubiquitous on Twitter, so it probably works.

I lied about the other four lessons.

This is not to say I have nothing to impart to you. I do. But @Croisan (For the curious, it’s pronounced “kroy-zin” like poison.) can’t be summed up in a tidy curriculum that you follow to become a Twitter god or goddess.

Fact is, I’m not a Twitter deity of any kind. I’m a middlin’ tweep. I follow around 780 people and have about 1,275 followers. And now that @Croisan reached my goal of 10,000 tweets, as promised, I’m pulling its plug.

I do not plan to remove my account or delete tweets. They stand, for good or ill, as my testament to microblogging. If packaged between the covers of a book, my tweets and retweets would run more than 600 pages. (Estimating five characters per word and 100 characters per tweet equals approximately 20 words each post, totaling close to 200,000 words, easily filling a thick book.) Granted, it would be a strange, context-free, mostly unintelligible tome. Like Bob Dylan’s Tarantula. 😉

Better left unbound, free, lost in the inexhaustible timelines of Twitter, those tweets. That’s where all my or anyone’s postings belong. Book writing and tweeting are not the same thing, naturally, but both require a creative, consistent, and egocentric effort. And time.

Nothing wrong with that, kept in perspective. However, just knowing how much effort has gone into my Twitter persona got me thinking, frankly, that I might have different things to do with my time. Maybe read more books. Maybe write one.

Hey, that’s a second Twitter lesson: it’s a time sink.

Of course, no matter what I do, whether riding my bicycle, reading books, tapping on a keyboard, or having heart-to-hearts with Cathie, time, my limited time on this good earth, is draining fast. If Twitter is one way to watch it wash away, so be it. Yet, as much as I’ve enjoyed my beguiling Twitter experience, it’s too insubstantial to continue as @Croisan.

For example, I never physically met anyone via Twitter. Oh, sure, I made contacts through Twitter. But never have I actually met a new person face to face through the service, you know, like you would do with a real friend. Never shook a hand or studied a new face. Not once. Even pen-pals get to meet each other now and again. That’s not the case on Twitter, despite thousands of virtual encounters between me and others none of them evolved into an actual encounter.

So, while I have enjoyed interacting with people through the service and will miss their wit or wisdom, I can’t say I have added anyone as a dear friend. There’s no one I found through the service who I would loan money to or drive hundreds miles to visit or call and talk to all through the night. There’s no one I have encountered on Twitter whom I can say that I love.

Likewise, when @Croisan stops posting to the wonderful Twitter information firehouse no one will or should care. It’s merely the demise of an idea of a mere part of someone somewhere who has moved on.

Say, come to think of it, that’s another good lesson: virtual friendships are not true friendships.

Although lacking in love, Twitter is an exceptional place to gather information on a given topic, particularly if you want to keep up with breaking news. Whether democratic movements in the Middle East or those that happen in Wisconsin, Twitter delivers the most timely information available. Of course, some of it is just rumor, innuendo, or lies.

Let’s call this a lesson, too: Pick your tweeps carefully. Many are simply bullshit artists. Unfollow and block others regularly to keep your content Timeline free of plain ol’ crap.

Finally, Twitter can give you a false sense of “doing.” That is, my tweeting and retweeting everything and anything on an important issue, such as health care reform or the environment, can convince me that I am somehow doing good. When, in fact, I would do more viable good by calling my elected representatives, attending protest marches, campaigning for the best candidates, or whatever was a true, more meaningful action for the cause I supported. Instead, by racking up a few dozen tweets about one thing or another, I can believe that I have actually done something to further a cause. Tweeting about Tahrir Square or the Capitol in Madison is not the same as being there.

Maybe that’s the last lesson: the real world remains real and important and vital, while the online realm remains only a reflection. It’s wise, then, to allot your limited time accordingly.

So, I did not lie, after all. That’s five lessons. Just like the headline promised.

And they were all learned by me.

Class dismissed.

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Obsolete Words About Obsolete Technology

14 Nov

I am now the proud owner of a MacBook Air. It’s the 11-inch model with the standard 1.4 GHz Intel Core 2 processor and two gigabytes of RAM. But I souped up the flash storage to the maximum 128 GB. I’ve never had a computer that opened applications and documents faster. I’ve never had a lighter computer. I’ve never had one that is as cool looking as my MacBook Air. It’s simply the most sophisticated computer I’ve owned.

I wonder how soon it will become obsolete.

This is my first Apple laptop since my PowerBook Duo 230, a state of the art machine from 1993. I’ve been using Windows or Linux laptops since 1996 when I left MacWeek and became the director of ZD Labs. Needless to say, while at the Labs I had access to the most advanced personal and business computing tools the market had to offer at the time. It was while there that I fully recognized the futility of my work as a technology journalist.

Nothing I write about for my work will stand the test of time. Which, of course, means the bulk of my writing is as immortal as a mayfly. But like most writers there’s a part of me that wants to produce something of lasting value, something that might be of interest to someone who’s around long after my ashes have been scattered to the winds. As a writer with an ego, it’s disappointing, to say the least.

The nature of technology is to change, to replace itself as rapidly as possible. Cars drop carburetors for fuel-injection. Circuit-switched telephone networks give way to packet-switch systems. Surgeons (thankfully) replace ether and chloroform with advanced anesthetics like bupivacaine and sodium thiopental. Technology change is not just inevitable, it’s generally for the better.

But those of us who earn our livings writing about technology crank out prose destined for dustbins and delete keys. We know that what excites our readers today will bore them tomorrow. Beyond archivists and historians, few care to read about obsolete things. I know I don’t.

So, getting excited about new technology, such as my new MacBook Air, is a double-edged sword. I love this machine. It’s so much cooler in so many ways than every other laptop I’ve ever owned or used that words can’t do it justice. Not that words would matter anyway since they will become as obsolete as my latest computer in short order.

Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century

9 Aug

If reading influences what we think and believe, it’s little wonder that so many of us have a jaded view of government, business, media, and society in general. Just look at your typical best seller list from the New York Times or USA Today and you’ll find them chock-o-block with thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre. Anyone familiar with these cousins of fictional style knows that nothing in life is what it appears to be; there’s always an agenda or conspiracy in play; and the truth exists merely to be suppressed.

Reading these books teaches you not to trust institutions of any sort. Politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs, journalists, and probably your next door neighbor are all up to no good. These genres feed a worldview nourished on cynicism, doubt, suspicion, and dread. Perfect books for our time.

I enjoy a gripping thriller or a taut mystery as much as (often more than) great literature. But the key to a top-notch one is not the plot, but the people in the plot. That’s where the thriller and mystery writer can match the literary artist. If they can engage you with characters at the level of, say, Edith Wharton’s Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, you’ve found yourself a winning writer.

Here’s a selection of character-driven thrillers and mysteries from the first decade of the 21st century that stayed with me because the people in them were complex, interesting, and even profound as well as fun to spend time with, if only on the page.

The Falls (2000) by Ian Rankin. Almost any Rankin novel of the last ten years is worth your time. Resurrection Men would be an excellent alternative. But the plot in The Falls is more subtle and satisfying. Inspector Rebus is, as ever, an exceptional antihero worth getting to know.

The Good German (2001) by Joseph Kanon. Set immediately after World War II in the ruins of Berlin, the story is a character study of a man trying to square his pre-War life with post-War realities as the foundation for the new Cold War is being laid. Conspiracy. Greed. Murder. Femme fatale. What’s not to like?

December 6 (2002) by Martin Cruz Smith. Not one of Smith’s better known works, probably because it’s not part of his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, et. al.), but it is his most intriguing. Plus, Smith introduces his most engaging and likable character, Harry Niles, who is caught up in a 24-hour whirlwind of events the day before the “date which will live in infamy.”

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) by Philip Kerr. If there’s a mystery/thriller writer with a higher IQ than Kerr, I haven’t read him or her. His novels make you think and none more than his quirky mystery involving Newton and his erstwhile assistant sidekick. However, if you’ve never read Kerr before start with The Shot or Dead Meat from the previous century. They’re better still.

A Place of Hiding (2003) by Elizabeth George. Most of George’s mysteries center on her Inspector Thomas Lynley. This one, however, takes two minor characters, Deborah and Simon St. James, from her other Lynley novels and puts them front and center in solving a knotty conundrum.

Bangkok 8 (2003) by John Burdett. Although I’ve read other Burdett novels with his delightful detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, this is the one that started it off. And it’s the best of the bunch.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson. Mysteries involving bad things that happen to children generally leave me cold. They deliver cheap thrills, building our interest around threats to the utterly innocent. Atkinson’s approach is much different, building the plot around the characters more than the crime. An exceptional story.

The Lighthouse (2006) by P.D. James. This is another excellent novel with the stiff, eloquent, and poetic Commander Adam Dagliesh. Almost any James novel will satisfy (such as 2001’s Death by Holy Orders), but this is particularly illuminating as her main character deals with issues as his career sputters towards its close.

The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) by Michael Gruber. A wonderful tale with a handful of characters who are all well-drawn, unique, and oodles of fun to follow through a fascinating plot that spans centuries. None of Gruber’s other books come close to this gem.

The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst. Everyone is spying on everyone else and everyone knows it. But our favorite spy is the best character of the bunch, Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon. Gallant. Brave. Thoughtful. If you’ve never read Furst, here’s the place to start.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 in English) by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Blomkvist. Need I say more, except this is the best of the trilogy.

My Only Wisdom

5 Aug

As a writer, it’s more important to read than to write. There’s always more to learn than to say.

Ego and the Power of Print

29 Jul

During the recent years of print publishing’s decline, I’ve heard many reasons why print remains relevant. You know them, too.

* Print is more portable

* Print has higher resolution

* Print is a better medium for photojournalism and designers

* Print is perceived to have a greater value than the same content in digital form

As time passes most of the arguments in print’s favor begin to lose their impact. As the headline says, “Even Print People Know Print Is Dead.”

Except it’s not. Our egos will keep print alive for a long, long time.

People prefer to see their names in print rather than online. Content online feels ephemeral, while print reeks of permanence. In fact, seeing your name in print is a much more motivating force to most writers than money. We’re told, for example, that citizen journalists get involved in reporting on their communities in hopes of getting their names in print.

Digital content doesn’t sustain the ego like print does. In an era when everyone and their dog has a blog, there’s nothing special about writing one. (BlogPulse currently counts 144 million of them.) Sure, writing a blog can give your ego a taste of fame, but getting your name in print is like sitting your ego down to a four-course meal of immortality.

In the hundreds of stories I’ve written for various publications, when they’ve involved working with public relations professionals I’m always asked if the piece will run in print as well as online. If yes, I often get access to more senior officials because the PR person knows that the high-and-mighty aren’t impressed with seeing their names online. But if they can see them in print, the PR pro gets happy slaps on the back. (Unless, of course, the story is not very flattering.)

It’s time we started to include the most powerful argument in print’s defense: our fragile egos. I think print can ride on them for many years to come.

The Defeat of Personal Communications

22 Jul

In the past decade first-class mail delivery by the United States Post Office declined by 29%, down to around 276 billion pieces of mail a year. During that same decade my letter writing dropped by about 90% to just a handful of letters each year. The reason for these related declines is, of course, e-mail.

I got my first e-mail account in 1982. I think it was mhall@sytek.com. Since then I’ve had addresses ending in @well.com, @compuserve.com, @aol.com, @sun.com, @macweek.com, @me.com, @computerworld.com and many others. But back in 1982 few of my friends or family had e-mail, so I wrote letters and postcards to keep in touch.

I wrote to a lot of people and I wrote often. Although I never counted, I probably cranked out 200 or so letters each year and maybe an equal number of postcards. My morning routine would be to initiate or respond to correspondence with my first cup of joe. I could usually scrawl one or two each morning before heading to work. Cathie, my wife, was also an excellent letter-writer, and because we were such a diligent correspondents, we received plenty of real mail.

Alas, today all of my friends and family, save my sister, have e-mail. Correspondence, with the exception of vacation postcards, has devolved into the digital variety. My life is the lesser for it.

Yes, I communicate more frequently with many friends because it’s so easy. We type brief missives to one another, attaching files, links, videos, and whatnot. We send each other stuff we wouldn’t have taken the time to do in the past because it’s a breeze to do. And while I appreciate getting each and every message, there’s no excitement or tactile pleasure when I see something new in my e-mail queue.

Whereas, whenever a letter arrives, there’s always a heartfelt enjoyment at sorting through the mail, choosing the letter, opening it, easing out the contents, and reading the pages, sometimes working with Cathie to decipher someone’s penmanship. Different people use different paper and ink. They insert clippings, photos, and whatever else can fit into an envelope. Each letter was unique, reflecting something personal about its author.

Now everything appears black-on-white in Optima 14 typeface. Talk about boring.

Although I collect postcards sent my way as a kind of lazy man’s hobby, I also hang on to many of the letters we’ve gotten over the years. Stuffed away in boxes are not only the hundreds upon hundreds of my friends’ epistles, there are even a few notes from people regarded as famous, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. I’ve also received e-mail from notables over the years. Let me tell you: it’s not the same thing.

The triumph of e-mail is considered a victory of modern communications for all the obvious reasons. But it’s also a sad defeat of personal communication for reasons that are special to each and every letter writer and recipient.

Commenting on Comments

5 Jul

Among the many blessings the Worldwide Web has brought us is the Comment section following any article published online. From the New York Times to Haaretz from the lowliest blogger to soaring celebrities, readers get to post their reactions to news, events, opinions, and, yes, commentary everywhere. Editors like to label it “community involvement” or some such nonsense.

That’s what most of it is, too, nonsense.

First, the overwhelming majority of the comments left by readers are anonymous. Or, at websites like Salon, each commentator has a made-up user name that guarantees anonymity to other readers. Some print publications even have begun using anonymous messages left online as submissions to the Letters section of their magazines. Wired magazine sprinkles them amidst missives signed by real people. My former employer Computerworld rarely publishes a letter from writer who has an actual name and job title. Every one is signed by Anonymous.

Second, commentators have trouble staying on topic. They stray this way and that. Single-minded folks will always write about their hot-button topic no matter the subject at hand. Often anonymous writers will get into pissing matches with one another, careening off onto unrelated territory with their invective-charged comments.

Third, there’s the invective itself. Being anonymous, many commentators see little reason to grace their words with an iota of politeness. They rant. They rage. They rip everyone apart. From where they sit, it seems, nothing and no one is worth a smidgeon of respect. To them an insult is a worthy insight.

Finally, there’s the plain ignorance on display. As noted earlier in this blog, professional writers need copyeditors. So, I do not hold it against readers when they post comments rife with typos or wrong subject-verb agreements. That’s why in days gone by a Letters page editor might connect with readers who submitted letters to have them approve an edited item. It’s also why other magazines would proclaim on a Letters page that submissions might be subject to editing for “length and clarity.” But, in so many cases, even a good editor could not make sense of some of the reader responses left online.

All this is not to say I abhor reader reactions to stories and OpEd pieces. Obviously, I read them. But sometimes at the end of a session reading a long string of pointless, mean-spirited, logic-free, and downright dumb comments, I feel as though I have utterly wasted my time. That the only reason I kept reading was to come across a prize example of reader foolishness. It’s as if I am a NASCAR fan, claiming to be enthralled by the roaring cars hurtling past in a blur, when all I am really waiting for is for the cars to crash