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June 22, 2011, 3:30 p.m.

I happen to have that research right here, Mr. Keller: The day sociologist Zeynep Tufekci dropped a bundle of knowledge on the New York Times’s Bill Keller (with help from Twitter and a whole lot of scholarship)

Last month, The New York Times’ outgoing executive editor Bill Keller trolled all of Twitter (including plenty of journalists at his own paper) by posting a single tweet: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Today, Reuters’s Anthony De Rosa posted an interview with Keller where (among other things), De Rosa asked him about it.

While repeating some of the stranger accusations he’s previously leveled at his critics (“My view of social media is that it is a set of tools, not a religion”; “digital evangelists and cyber-puritans… treat any hint of skepticism as heresy”), Keller also spelled out what he thinks social media is (and isn’t) useful for:

At the Times, we embrace social media, we use it, we experiment with it. We have a staff dedicated to figuring out new ways to make the best journalistic use of it. We have staff seminars on social media. I encourage reporters to look at Twitter and Facebook and to figure out if there’s a way these services can be helpful to them. Like many tools, Twitter will fit some people’s toolkits more naturally than others, and will be used more skillfully and creatively by some people than others…

The point of my column was that most technological progress comes at a price, and it’s okay to consider the price along with the progress. For some people, Facebook is a way to engage more openly with the world. But there’s an opportunity cost. The time you spend keeping up with your 200 Facebook friends is time you are not getting to know someone really well in person. Twitter is all the wonderful things I said above and then some, but Twitter is mostly reductionist. It does not lend itself to deep, rich conversation, with context and persuasion. It CAN be a stimulus to serious discussion, but that is not the nature of the tool, which is reach rather than depth.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, I do not believe that Twitter literally makes people stupid. If you read the column, you know that I posted a hashtag — #twittermakesyoustupid — followed, please note, by the word “discuss.” The point was to throw out a subject for discussion, and see how the medium dealt with it, which was pretty much the way I expected. (A hashtag is a topic, not an argument. ) I think Twitter can encourage distraction, superficiality, short attention spans, bumper-sticker-level discourse. It can make you SOUND stupid. But, no, I don’t think it makes you stupid.

Now, the long-standing, well-known rule of thumb on the web is “Do Not Feed the Trolls.” In other words, when an Internet user posts something with the deliberate intention of starting a fight, don’t give them what they want. “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss” has all the telltale marks of a troll. Even Keller says that the argument went “pretty much the way I expected.”

But in this interview, Keller doesn’t seem to be looking to troll the web, but asking for a different kind of engagement. I don’t think he was expecting that different kind of engagement to happen on Twitter. But that’s exactly what happened.

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No one on Twitter is going to let any one person set the conversation agenda. But still, we all hope Mr Keller responds. Whenever he’s ready. We know that just like us, he’s a busy man.

Update: Keller responds. And yes, he and Tufekci are both very busy. (Good thing there’s a popular medium for very short messages written by busy people.)

POSTED     June 22, 2011, 3:30 p.m.
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