Vanity Fair to Twitter: Get Off My Lawn!

January 7, 2010

During Christmas Dinner, I had to explain Twitter to my girlfriend’s father.

I don’t remember how it came up. It’s possible I did something bad and this was Lizz’s way of punishing me. I explained things slowly, tried to come up analogies that were accessible to a man in his sixties, but I don’t think he understood. He was okay with the technical process – he knows how to use a computer and a cellphone, he knows what a text message is – but I’m not sure he really got his mind around why people would actually do that sort of thing for fun, or how it would be useful for anyone.

I think he still could have written a better article about Twitter than the one Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote for Vanity Fair.

It’s an attempt to profile several (young & attractive) women who have raised their profiles and advanced their careers through Twitter. It’s an interesting group, headlined by writer/actress Felicia Day (who is not related to me, on the off chance you were wondering), and several new media/marketing people with whom I’m not familiar. (I’ve followed Julia Roy already.)

It doesn’t get off to a great start, with the ninth and tenth words being “extreme” and “narcissism”, then redeems itself a little by reminding us about stuff like crashing airplanes and middle-eastern protests. But it all goes horribly wrong when Gregoriadis starts making up words.

All right, so Grigoriadis didn’t make up “twilebrity” on her own. But not only does she use this stupid word, she uses it to make a very simple point: Twitter is not to be taken seriously. Nothing that should be taken seriously uses so many silly and made-up words.

(There is much to be said on the subject of made-up words, but I think Dinosaur Comics said it best.)

Tweeple, twitspeak, “Twitformation Superhighway” (does anyone actually use the phrase “information superhighway” any more?); Twilebrity appears another six times. The article is headlined “America’s Tweethearts”, though we can’t necessarily blame that on Gregoriadis; editors have been known to do some horrible things. The page title is perhaps a bit more accurate: “Vanessa Grigoriadis on Twitter”. These words are used by people who use Twitter, but they’re like nicknames: Friendly and funny among friends, but condescending or insulting when spoken by a stranger.

There’s an overwhelmingly condescending tone to the article, articulated nicely by Felicia (it seems strange to call someone I don’t know by their first name, but it’s also bizarre to write “Day” and not have it be me; besides, I follow her, so it’s kind of like we’re best friends) . But more than that, Grigoriadis really doesn’t seem to understand what any of these women have done.

The article barely acknowledges that these people have actual jobs. Describing Felicia Day as “a geek-Webisode actress” dramatically understates the popularity of The Guild and Doctor Horrible, never mind appearances on Dollhouse and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She knows how to use Twitter effectively – she’s personable, her tweets are frequent and often interesting, she interacts with followers – but she hasn’t just been sitting in her basement tweeting about Twilight while waiting for corporate sponsorships and “newfangled web synergies,” as Grigoriadis suggests. Twitter is an effective tool for promotion, but you’ve got to have something to promote.

You could probably stop reading when Grigoriadis suggests the Women of Twitter work in socftcore emotional porn: “It so happens that they are nice girls–the Internet’s equivalent of a telephone chat line staffed by a bunch of cheerleaders–and it’s all free.” But Grigoriadis saves the best for last: After worrying about hug-starved tweets infiltrating Google’s search index, she speculates “Those of us who still read are hoping this is a jump-the-shark moment–could this be the Internet’s version of reality TV?”

For one thing, comparing Twitter to reality TV isn’t particularly helpful if you’re hoping it goes away. Reality TV may have jumped the shark – a phrase that has itself jumped the shark – but Survivor is coming back for its 20th season, just like Jaws 4: The Revenge: Even Less Plausible and Logical than Before, Including The 3D Stuff in the Aquarium.

Those of us who still read. If you weren’t sure how Grigoriadis felt, she slices away any doubt. There are those who read and there are those who tweet; those who digest literature and those who belch out abbreviations describing what they ate for breakfast.

But at some point, Grigoriardis seems to have forgotten she’s writing for Vanity Fair, a fashion and arts magazine that is full of ads, and this month sports a cover featuring a professional golfer who cheated on his wife. This is not The Canterbury Tales, it’s a lightweight, easily digestible, intentionally disposable medium. Those of us who read are still waiting for magazebrities to get over their fascination with the inane lives of celebrities and their obsession with Twilight.

Twitter brings out strange reactions in people, particularly among those who have never used it. My lovely girlfriend was at one point so annoyed by Twitter that I set up an appropriately named account just to spite her. Then she had to work with Twitter professionally, and then she got her own account, which makes my username much less funny, even though I do any number of things every week that make it relevant again.

There is, of course, a lot of crap, a lot of extreme narcissism and self-obsession. There are lame celebrities, like that Obama guy, who have Twitter accounts yet rarely tweet themselves. There are ridiculous people and companies that do nothing but follow others and then try to sell products and services to anyone who might be listening, which is no one because everyone just auto-followed everyone else and then stopped paying attention.

You could write a book – not just this flimsy magazine article – on how people act like idiots on the internet. But Grigoriadis had a bunch of smart and successful people who know how to make social media work, and she still wrote the story about ADD and illiteracy. There are several million people who are at least kind of interested in what these women have to say, but Grigoriadis already knew what the story was: The culture of twilebrities, and whether it’s just kind of weird, or a danger to the world of literature and normalcy.

One response to Vanity Fair to Twitter: Get Off My Lawn!

  1. Lizz said:

    For the record, I may have over-judged it a little, but I still think it is completely inane. I haven’t really been able to figure out what to do with it besides linking to articles I like. Perhaps it is because I am not a celebrity, or maybe it is just because I am not very interesting. Although, I would bet it is because I am long winded.
    That being said, I can respect someone who can make it work for them. Except you. I still “hate” you. šŸ˜‰