Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama held a Twitter Town hall, where the president responded on camera to questions from Twitter users. That was novel, everyone said, and exciting! And at least the president responded to the tweets in complete sentences, out loud, with some semblance of dignity.
Then there was this week’s @140townhall, hosted by Tea Party activists, for a few hapless GOP 2012 candidates using their Twitter accounts, which wasn’t worth the power to blow it up. It was a joke, and everyone involved was the punchline.
I don’t think enough attention has been paid to how terrible, asinine and embarrassing the debate was. It was almost funny. The only way it could possibly have been worse would have been if Mitt Romney had showed up.
To give you an idea of the level of discourse, which you can read in less time than it took the candidates to mistype, Bachmann’s opening statement began: “TY for this forum. I’m running 4 POTUS 2 bring the voice of the people back to DC.”
Isn’t anyone else even moderately mortified by this?
Would it have killed the candidates to debate via Gchat? At least on Gchat you don’t have to say “I’m running 4 POTUS 2 bring the voice of the people back to DC.”
Wasn’t this a joke somewhere: “What if the presidential candidates had to debate on Twitter? Wouldn’t that be silly? You can’t say anything in 140 characters, and they’d all sound like idiots!”
Everyone who praised this debate used phrases such as “it is so rare that you get short responses from politicians.” Short is one thing. But this was subatomic. There is a bare minimum of characters required, it turns out, to make a thought, and 140 is definitely below that number.
If this debate was good for anything, it was to show the limits of Twitter. Farhad Manjoo pointed them out recently: A communications network created for swift updates and knee-jerk responses is not equipped for conversation. It’s like trying to play Beethoven’s Ninth on one of those eight-key plastic pianos. What makes it even worse is that no one has heard what you’re trying to play, so they think that is all there is to it.
And maybe that is all there is to it. That’s the trouble with the atomization of discussion. It atomizes thought as well.
Does anyone remember the Federalist Papers? I bet Gingrich does, but he was incapable of working the Twitter and kept typing things like “We don’t need Obama’s ‘balanced approach’ (code for raise taxes). We need a balanced @140townhall townhall.” I’m sure whatever he was trying to say was important and interesting, though.
The public has no patience for Lengthy, Elevated Discussions, they say. If they did, they would watch “Masterpiece Theatre” and wait for the feeling to pass. But this debate was worse than if the candidates had said nothing at all. If those monkeys who have been locked in a room to re-create the works of Shakespeare were only allowed half an hour at their keyboards, they would have generated something more productive than this debate.
I know everyone wants things that are shorter and easier to understand. Herman Cain is going to veto those long, complicated bills! But this is a bit much, even for me.
Why didn’t they debate via Tumblr? I would have derived infinitely greater value from a series of animated GIFs. Gingrich could have sent a picture of himself shaking his head (or smh, if you want to use the lingo) and then Herman Cain could have sent a GIF of some jobs being created through pizza, and then whoever this Thad McCotter guy is could have sent an image of America’s greatness being destroyed, and then we could have all gotten headaches and had to lie down, except of course for Michele Bachmann, who never gets really serious headaches.
This was either hilarious or sad, depending on how you feel about watching older people struggle with technology. Next we’ll force them to play “Mario Kart” for the presidency. Why not? I’m just glad no one tried to type anything funny that got autocorrected to lewd words, although that might have gone unremarked on given the level of discourse these days.
In-person debates are embarrassing enough, as everyone knows. But at least you don’t have typos — for instance Santorum’s “i proposed gettting Am making things again. A 0% corp tax rate on all manufacturing, cut regulations and drill for oil and gas” with three t’s in “getting.”
I would suggest a Google+ hangout instead, but Newt Gingrich actually had a Google+ hangout later in the evening: “If u have more questions, join my Google+ Hangout @8pm ET tonight. Leave a comment on my latest G+ post to participate @140townhall,” he tweeted at the debate’s close. Poor Newt. Few people have used so much social media to so little effect.
This made me almost nostalgic for when debates consisted of meaningless sound bites. At least those contained more than 140 characters.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.