Ashton Kutcher’s Got Four Million Followers

TwitterA few of my students have given me a bad time for ragging on texting. For the most part respectfully, they have said, “President Eaton, come on now, texting is the rage. The communication is fast, very fast. The connection is direct, immediate. We’re all carrying our iPhones and BlackBerrys, connecting all the time, connecting instantaneously. Twitter, Facebook , texting — they’re in. Email’s even out. It’s too slow.”

Well, they didn’t say all of this, but I get the message. They want me to lighten up about texting. They want me to join the real world of new writing. And I am reluctant.

I might respond to my students that, sure, I get it, things are changing in the ways we connect, the ways we write. I get it. And I believe the phenomenon of language has always produced subcultures of usage and style and words. It is cool to use an esoteric language that most people don’t understand. Only your friends. Or only the younger generation, or those trying to be young. I affirm this fact of language development; I affirm all of this swirl of new communication, especially among the young these days. I want my students to teach me more.

But I still want to argue that good writing is essential, for the future work and success of our students, for the future of the world. We’ve got to continue to learn how to write well, to write good and correct sentences, to use strong and effective words, to marshal a good argument. And we’ve got to continue to learn how to read sophisticated text. The Constitution of the United States comes to mind. Since we have been talking about them lately, some of Abraham Lincoln’s great speeches come to mind. The Bible, of course, is in this category. Not the stuff of texting.

Someone told me at dinner the other night that Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter following is the largest in the world. I didn’t know that. 3,983,000 followers, at the moment. Some 10 or so times a day, he lets these followers know what’s on his mind, what he happens to be doing at the moment, things like, “the more FUN something is, the more people will participate”; or, “someone is publishing my tweets in German (in addition to Spanish and Japanese) — cool”; half an hour later he wants the world to know, “I guess we’re rolling in French too.” Stuff like that.

It’s all cool. I get it. It’s all so CURRENT. And all the followers feel so included, I guess, in the life of celebrity. It’s what’s happening. NOW. But it’s also inane! Do I really need to know this stuff? Do I really want to be a follower of Ashton Kutcher?

There is another side to this, though. All you have to do is dip into the Twitter feed of someone like Guy Kawasaki, or into his website called Alltop, to know that some people are using these tools for something with a great deal more substance. I am dazzled and slightly overwhelmed by what I see Guy talking about and the speed with which he talks and the huge crowd that is checking in. I’m impressed. It’s not my world, but it is certainly effective communication to huge numbers of people.

But even recognizing the power and effectiveness and currency of someone like Guy’s way, is it possible still to make the claim for writing that slows down? We will need it in the long run, won’t we? I am fully aware that writing that slows down too much will not find an audience, especially these days. But writing that slows down and writes in full and good sentences, with words chosen with care, with substance that is full of vitality, with content that ultimately or even occasionally brushes up against what is true and good and beautiful — we need this kind of writing too. Don’t we?

This is a huge change going on in our culture today. The implications are huge. We’ve got to understand these things. We don’t blow off these kinds of shifts in the language of culture. We owe it to our young people to understand what’s happening. We need to learn what is effective and important in all of this.

But we also owe it to our young people to teach them other, older, more lasting ways to communicate. And that will require learning to write and to read great writing, sophisticated text, deep and resonant and meaningful and beautiful language and thought.

I’m searching my way through all of this swirl. Help me out.