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Tweeting for Content

Editor's Notes
Photo of editor Jason A. Smith

I recently received a telephone call from a longtime friend who lives in Boston. We were discussing family and work, and when he asked me to explain, "in a nutshell," what we do here at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, I found myself struggling to summarize our story so it would fit into a proverbial nutshell. "How would you tweet what it is you do?" he asked.

Well, I began haltingly, thinking about our four core programs, plus many other side projects (such as the Voices of Rural Wisconsin project). I stumbled through a boilerplate explanation, condensed enough to fit in a tweet—140 characters is the maximum—but it lacked enough cohesion or appeal to elicit more than a semi-confused grunt and an observation that the Academy seems to be "doing a lot."

In my verbal muddling I was reminded, once again, that I have yet to successfully resolve the issue of how we briefly tell the uninitiated what the Wisconsin Academy does. Though we have a tagline-"Connecting people and ideas for better Wisconsin"-that seems fitting for the soundbyte world we live in, it doesn't suitably outline the many ways we spread good ideas across an entire state, acknowledge the tens of thousands of people who have participated in and benefited from our programs, or even begin to touch upon our 140-year history. Whew.

In addition to my job as editor of this fine publication, I am also the communications director for the Wisconsin Academy. This means it is my duty to communicate the mission of the Academy—the Academy's story, if you will—to the entire state of Wisconsin. This story includes sharing with Wisconsin Academy members and ordinary citizens alike the ways they can, and do, engage in the ideas that we identify and clarify through our Academy Evenings lecture series, our James Watrous Gallery of Wisconsin visual art exhibitions, and our magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

My friend, who works for the Boston Globe (their mission as a newspaper is, apparently, self-evident and easily nutshellable), went on to talk about his job; this led to a larger conversation on how the print newspaper industry is struggling to compete in a fast-paced multimedia environment. This struggle, he noted, is no secret, and has much to do with the Internet and the rise of nonstop cable news channels. I agreed, pointing to how objective news coverage is suspiciously absent these days and the fact that journalism jobs are an endangered species. The majority of small communities can no longer rely on a print daily—or even weekly—to keep them informed about what is going on in the world, no less their own community, and they often turn to the Internet or TV in their search for information.

"An informed citizenry is the cornerstone of our democracy," I said with a cluck of the tongue. My friend wondered aloud: what we will stick in there to prop up our rickety republic when print journalism finally crumbles? "Nonstop Tiger Woods coverage," I joked.

He retorted with, "tweets from Miley Cyrus on the set of her new movie: 'OMG! No strwbry crm chz 4 my bgl?!?' " [Editor's note: A translation for the ill-Twitter-ate: "Oh my God! No strawberry cream cheese for my bagel?!?"]

We both laughed, but soon laughter gave way to silence and the unsettling feeling that perhaps the Internet's lofty promise of a free-and-fast exchange of information and ideas is being swept away by a tidal wave of garish tabloid journalism and lazy intellectualism that comes in the form of "content." My friend and I uttered a simultaneous sigh, said our "goodbyes," and hung up.

Sitting at my desk and staring at my open MacBook Pro, I thought about the words information and content, and the growing chasm between them: One is a sought after, substantive, and necessary component of a democracy; the other is fed to us in a barrage of image and sound that can, over time, blunt our critical faculties.

The paradox here is that one of the Internet's greatest values is its ability to filter content for actual substantive information. A kind of virtual sifting and winnowing. The danger is that when an individual begins this process of computer-aided information selection, the Internet makes it easy to select and gather only the voices and images that reinforce preconceptions. What coalesces is a group of "ideas" with little intellectual merit, ideas that do not challenge but, instead, provide smug satisfaction fueled by the accumulated rightness of one's opinions. These ideas are comforting, but have little to do with the sometimes difficult and usually messy task of critical inquiry—something that we aim to stimulate at every Wisconsin Academy lecture and art exhibition, as well as foster in the pages of this publication. Important ideas need fertile ground and space to grow. Through our programs, this what the Wisconsin Academy provides.

While none of this solves the issue of how to better explain our mission in 140 characters or less, it makes me think that, for now, the ideas coming from the Wisconsin Academy might not be tweetable. This is fine by me. Good ideas should be eminently discussable and respectfully debatable, and it takes space to do this. Perhaps in the future there will come a technology that allows this to happen in a soundbyte. For now, the good news is that I get one character for each of our 140 years to think about how to make it work.

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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