The primary reason I do not "Twitter" is an aversion to the limitations of the format. Most things I think are worth saying occupy more than 140 character spaces, and I have zero interest in chopping words down to infant babble to squeeze something into those confines. A secondary and practical issue is that it's worthless. Demonstrably worthless. Though it is supposedly a driver of "traffic", few if any of the techno-utopians who heralded it as yet another social media Innovation that would spread knowledge and power and information and fresh breath throughout the world can demonstrate that it is ever useful as anything other than empty textual calories.

A new Atlantic piece demonstrates that under 1% of people who view a tweet click the embedded link. "That's not traffic. That is a rounding error." Couldn't have said it better. An annoying, blinking sidebar ad has a higher pass-through rate, if even by accident. Of the 1% who click through, what percentage of them actually read the story (in the rare instances in which an article, rather than a stupid picture or video, is linked)?

Years ago I was skeptical of the "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument. Today it seems more plausible to me. The Atlantic piece really identifies the fundamental, if not 100% literally true, problem: Nobody reads anything anymore. We scan, we scroll, we occasionally click, we perhaps take 0.7 seconds to comprehend the headline. But we don't read. Social media has made it possible to throw enormous gobs of content at everyone on the planet, and nobody's reading a goddamn word of it.

Often I feel like after ten-plus years of doing this I've really failed by having an audience of only 3,000-5,000 readers per day. In fact, since the vast majority of that audience is capable of (and generally interested in) reading a whole 500-700 words, I'm probably getting "read" as much as people who write for sites with six-figure traffic. Everything else is just gawking at pictures and headlines.

63 thoughts on “COGNITIVE DEFICIT”

  • Go to CNN, what do you see in the news articles? One or two sentence "paragraphs," a lack of situational summary/orientation, plenty of false balance and appeal to emotion. Professional news sites are a joke. They are not informative. They do not cover major national issues. And they lead with the most emotionally triggering, content devoid drivel imaginable.

    Let's not pretend it was ever otherwise. Content driven news has always been a small and often subsidized market. News magazines, investigative journalism, these have always been small markets. The question then is to figure out the cause and effect. Personally I think that there is and always has been a complete lack of demand for content. IMO most people want to come home and relax, not be challenged by the monolithic social or environmental issues of the day.

  • I get more of my news from Twitter these days than anywhere else. I don't care about people reading ME too much, but the people I follow know their shit and post smart stuff and good articles, many of which I read.

    The content is there if YOU want it. I gave up long ago on anyone actually reading what I say.

  • I've been reading Macaulay's History of the English People from the Accession of James II. Fascinating stuff, even though I know how the story ends. Some of the sentences are so beautifully constructed, I find myself parsing them in my head.

    I don't twitter, which lessens my interest in reading other people's tweets. It feels like listening in on conversations at a party, instead of joining.

  • I agree with punkdavid. Twitter is what you make of it. I resisted Twitter for a while for the same reasons as you, Ed, only becoming active about a year ago. But I've found that its networking capabilities are unparallelled – it makes it incredibly easy not only to follow what smart and influential people are doing, but to see who they're following, and so forth.

    Sure, many people (possibly the vast majority of people) use Twitter as an insipid log of their daily actions. But you don't have to interact with those morons. The format is open to so much more than that.

  • I'm also part of the 'Twitter is what you make of it' crowd.

    On the one hand, I view Twitter as a way to vent unfiltered. It's very much my ego talking, making unfiltered observations that would otherwise either languish in my head or would need to be refined and filtered to the point that their pointedness is lost. As a result, very few people I actually know follow me.

    OTOH, plenty of people post not only short observations, but links to longer ones that I invariably click on and read through. So I'm part of that "rounding error". I find the majority of my news from there nowadays as well.

    That said, I do find it shortening my attention span. Last decade I would consume over three dozen books per year, I'm down to about a third of that number nowadays. But I read a lot more articles.

    There's a place, and a need, for both types of communication. And whether or not you know it, Ed, some of your shorter Facebook entries (the non absurdist-satirical ones, at least) are more or less elongated tweets broadcast to an audience that would be as large, if not larger, if you were on Twitter to begin with. You could both leverage some of that humor and drive more traffic to your longer essays with a proper Twitter feed.

    Tl;dr "Lighten up. Francis."

  • I have a 13 year old son who's on the computer too much. He watches Youtube videos with idiot Brits navigating Minecraft and moronic pic dumps and god knows what all. He spends at least a couple of hours every day dealing with the information maelstrom of the internet. But he's also intensely curious and skilled at skimming the infoscape for the information he wants. The last couple of days he's been playing geoguessr – a website that drops you down in some random spot on Google street view – central Missouri, altiplano Bolivia, or Taiwan and you wander around and try to guess where you are. He's been playing Civilization and last night talking with him about that led him to a Google-fueled journey down a linkhole about the Bronze Age and Iron Age and Robert E. Howard and the Sea People's invasions and Egypt, etc.

    Yes, he's ignoring 99.999% of the information that comes his way – tl:dr – but in my less anxious moments I can see him as the swallow snapping up the occasional mayfly off the lake surface. There's a skill to it – and even a grace (which is truly hard to appreciate when he's giggling at fail-compilations on someone's feed).

  • Twitter seems awful except as a kind of conceptual performance art. Like if you signed up for Twitter as Carrstone and only Tweeted the same image of Ayn Rand's alleged labia, or choice Reagan quotes about Nancy's legendary blowjob skills. (On that note, track down a copy of Peter Lawford's autobiography; the fact that he was a Kennedy guy is the only thing that allowed Nancy to ride that out). Parody: Twitter's only utility.

  • I largely agree with your thesis, the format is limiting and context is lost. But on the other hand, a musician once pointed out to me why so many musicians tweet and don't facebook. There's something to be gained by distilling your thoughts into 140 characters. You really have to think about what it is you're trying to say before you say it, and say only that.

  • In order that you (hopefully) are relieved of a little bit of discouragement, I should note that I have been following your columns regularly for years now, but I have never previously posted.

    Generally I believe the existing comments to be of superior quality to what I would add, or that the column is self-explanatory enough not to require comment at all.

    I agree about 'twits,' though. Anything you could cover comprehensively in 140 character is probably already on an aggregator like Buzzfeed anyway.

  • i'm another "Twitter is what you make of it" person. I follow scientists, friends, science fiction writers, local newsies, some artists, and a mess of SJWs. I read about Ferguson and the immediate anger for two days before it started making national news. I followed the scene at Bundy's ranch while it was happening. I have gotten, in fact, LOTS of news before it reached the official news media this way. I click through on links on a regular basis. And if you click on hashtags like #tcot, or #AmericanSpring (remember that?), or follow a "conversation" with climate denialists or anti-vaxxers, you can get an eye-opening glimpse into real cognitive dissonance.

    It's not for everyone, but it's sort of like cruising a cocktail party until you find folks who are actually interesting, instead of standing around chatting inanities.

  • I used to be very anti-twitter until I got into journalism. Now I can tell you it is indispensable when I'm required to cover stories in a neighboring country. In the past couple weeks I've had to cover long stories, one of them being the 17-hour negotiations in Minsk. Guess how I kept abreast of that while still being able to do other stuff. Twitter.

    Also when it comes to traffic, Twitter definitely caused a permanent jump in my site's traffic. It started when I had just joined. A rather respected journalist gave my site an endorsement and about four hours later, over 1,000 came to the site that used to get about 130 on a good day.

    So it has uses.

  • Honestly, there's just so much shit. I feel bad some times, but I have to force myself to sit and read longer pieces as I subconsciously wait to click the next link to something else going on somewhere else. It's hard to focus if you've been raised on this over-saturation of shit, even good shit, but even if you're a person who can sit down and read a long piece thoughtfully, the temptation to be distracted is so strong.

  • Twitter is a great place for me to post new one-liners that I thought up rather than just putting them into my notebook and forgetting to tell them for the rest of my life.

  • Similar to what Arslan says, I just listened to an interview of the recently deceased NYT reporter David Carr from NPR's "Fresh Air" podcast, who stated that he originally thought the same about Twitter as you, Ed, But he began seeing it as a listening tool instead of a megaphone and changed his attitude.

  • As a university instructor I feel like it's a part of my job to train my students to actually fucking read a thing every once in a while. I should start swearing in my write-ups and see if anyone notices…

  • While I don't not agree with your argument, I'm in the "you're thinking about it all wrong" camp. Unless you're someone who already has a large real-life following (celebrity, network news journalist), of COURSE nobody is going to click through to linked content. I use Twitter with several accounts for different purposes to compartmentalize; my favorite is my asinine anonymous stupid joke account (GoodCerealTweets69). A lot of your Facebook joke statuses would be as well or better suited to the Twitter format, and there's a good crowd of intelligent people who would probably appreciate your jokes and click on a link in your bio to

    Perhaps the coolest thing about it, as somewhat mentioned above, is that you can much more easily find a community/ring of people who are your target audience than just using Facebook as a billboard.

  • Eric the Infrequent says:

    Chiming in with another, "Twitter is what you make of it" post. I mean sure it is a vast cesspool of pointless crap, but Facebook isn't? Tumblr? Whatever new thing I don't know about because I am cranky and aging? Fuck if I know, but like Kate I have found Twitter great for hearing others and keeping tabs on the world in a closer way than trolling CNN. Wether or not it works for making your voice heard is dependant on mostly luck.

  • I have been a volunteer judge at Maryland History Day for 25 years, usually in the “Exhibits” category (I am a museum director who came up through the ranks as an exhibit designer/installer). I have noticed a very disturbing trend over the years. In the late 90’s the process papers listed a wide range of sources – books and magazine articles of course, but also a lot of personal interviews, trips to historic sites, etc. Today I would estimate over 90% of the work is online.
    At least one team per year lists “Google” as a primary source. Books are still cited, but only online versions of them. A trip to the stacks in the school library is a rare thing.
    The internet is a wonderful tool – I’m glad it exists. But it is only one tool. Today’s students aren’t remotely interested in anything they can’t find on their computer.

  • Jeff Heikkinen says:

    "A new Atlantic piece demonstrates that under 1% of people who view a tweet click the embedded link. "That's not traffic. That is a rounding error." Couldn't have said it better. An annoying, blinking sidebar ad has a higher pass-through rate, if even by accident."

    [citation needed]

    As far as I'm aware, 1% is a pass-through rate almost any Internet advertiser would be delighted with. Those rates are *low*, but if enough people see a thing it still adds up to substantial traffic.

  • There is much vapid content being tweeted. I'm in the "Twitter is what we make of it" camp. I get timely, useful information regarding state and local government because of who I choose to follow.

    IMO it is like a bookstore. They may sell Charlaine Harris but it doesn't mean I can't go inside and choose to buy Gatsby instead.

  • GinAndTacos is one of the maybe five sites on the Internet that I not only read, but regularly refer to. Besides the other maybe four (The Trews, DemocracyNow! .. ), the Internet is basically either StackOverflow, Wikipedia or somewhere random to which Google refers me — with somewhere random increasingly being a site owned by Google.

    So.. Twitter "traffic"..? Mostly that nowadays is, for the lions share, just the people who recently jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. Not exactly high hanging fruit.

  • Twitter is like blogs.

    There are idiots and there are very smart people with very good, well thought out opinions and analysis.

    If you're an idiot you follow and read people who live in their mother's basements eating cheetos. And probably listen to hate radio and watch Fox.

    Twitter and blogs give me a helluva lot more (and many times faster) information than I can get by turning on the tv or radio. You just have to read the right people.

    The more liberal sites link to the original item that they are discussing. I read twitter on my phone most of the time and it's hard to read a link that I click on. Usually I will mail myself the tweet, either to my email account if I'm planning on reading it soon or to Evernote if I'm clipping for reference or for much later reading.

    A lot of news sites post video about stories. I don't want to watch a video story. I want to read an article.

    I get the New York Times delivered everyday, but read it mostly online. I subscribe to the New Yorker and The Atlantic in paper editions but read them on my iPad. I have lots of books on my Kindle. I can't keep up with everything that I want to read.

    I notice that I'm skimming a lot more than I used to.

  • I was wondering how you count your readership. I read you faithfully in feedly – are you counting rss subscribers as well?

  • I read you every day, and I read through the whole article, unless it's about sports. And I agree with you regarding 140 characters is not enough. I am passionate about my opinions and need much more space to voice them. We are a society that just reads the headlines~ I am guilty of this offense. But I do read articles that interest me.

  • Yours is the only one that I enjoy reading the comments in—INCLUDING all of CU's "word turds" ;). I may often disagree with the conclusions some arrive at, but in general what makes them enjoyable for me is that there's usually something there.

    Most of the time there's just no content in the content. Just a rehash of something gleaned from a wire "service". As a friend pointed out recently, The Oregonian's coverage of the Kitzhaber debacle is just a regurgitation of what's been in Willamette Week. So you get the click bait headline… and nothing. So they—msm—sort have helped pander to the short atten… Hey! A gnat!!

    But I find myself too easily distracted now a days.

  • bobbie the fig says:

    Bully for you, comrade. As one of your 2780 daily viewers (according to latest data), I applaud who do not use the twitter where mostly mindless drivel passes between equally mindless masses of people with too much time on their hands and little ability to comprehend beyond140 characters. Plus, in order to keep up with all the tweets, it becomes like another job considering the time it wastes.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    This is one of five or six blogs I check daily and devour. Popehat, Pando, Slate Star Codex, my own Buddhist stuff, The Kernel on Sundays… I'm surprised there aren't more. There were in, like, 2003 – at least, it seemed that way.

    I don't think Sully can stay away. The world demands Beltway hate-reading from unstable blowhards.

    I have no-shit considered writing a book on Twitter as theater.

  • I never got involved in facebook or twitter or anything of that kind. It sounds interesting, but I hate the thought of being submerged in that tank with all those wires stuck into my head.

  • I've tried getting into Twitter, but I really don't have the necessary attention span. A number of blogs have recommended various streams to follow, but most of the stuff is just background noise. Every hundred tweets or so contains something of interest, but that tweet usually winds up getting blogged somewhere.

    Twitter does have a search feature, so one can see tweets for a particular hashtag, but once again, the information density and quality level is too low. It's a lot of work and takes a lot of attention trying to get something worthwhile from Twitter. It's thin gruel.

    I suppose it might be useful to follow Twitter to get news leads, but those are for people whose work is aggregation. It's like the weather. Only the weather freaks at Wunderground read METARs. The rest of us just check the weather report.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I know the guy behind @GOPTeens, and, interestingly, he's also one of the principals at Small pond.

  • The reason I come to your site is to read your articles. Otherwise, what's the point. I don't trust MSM. Periodically, very periodically, I check on Fox, just to see what they're currently lying about.

  • I went to check out @GOPTeens but apparently China thinks it's porn, so I can't get it without my VPN, which is off at the moment because I'm downloading.

    I, too tried twitter, and as Kaleburg says, too much crap for the nuggets. Besides, I have things to do that require my hands so I can't be checking my phone every other second. (Seriously – don't those people have any kind of life beyond their phone?)

  • Hold on a scecond.

    Here's what Derek Thompson says in the Atlantic article (yes, I actually clicked through the link and read the article, fwiw):

    "…I had created something that 150,000 people had seen, 9,000 people had interacted with, and just 1,500 had followed to our site to actually read."

    In other words, a single 140 character blurb that took him, say, 1.5 minutes to compose and post, inspired 1,500 readers to the article he wrote on the Atlantic web site. How many of those would not have gone to the Atlantic that day/that week/ever? How many stuck around a bit? Well, with information like that, we might be able to draw some meaningful conclusions. Maybe if we had such information, though maybe I'm missing something, but some might well deem that a nice return for an investment of $0 and 1.5 minutes.

    Sure, I'm a dinosaur, never tweeted, but if you subtract all the whining in that article: what's the problem, exactly?

    What is the context, even? 1500 visitors can be a horrible or awesome thing, depending on, oh, everything. (are they additional? are they just a subset of the usuals? just for example.)

    (Re: the 3,000-5,000 G&T readers. Is that counting RSS readership? There are about 1,000 subscribers to G&T on Feedly alone, for instance.)

    And, sure, whether it's tweets, blogs, email, print ads, business cards, comic strips, paintings, 3-minute songs, sonnets, semaphore, etc., we can all think of uses for each that seem ridiculously inappropriate. So, what's the problem again?

    Context is also missing when people point out that we ignore 99.99% of the information we're exposed to. Well, guess what? We're exposed to 100 times the information we were exposed to 20 years ago, when we actually took notice of a whopping 10%, and at least 90% of that 10% turned out to be useless, irrelevant or worse. Again, what's the problem here?

  • I suggest that Ed and his community play a game. For some future post, Ed will conclude with "All comments for today's post will need to be 140 characters or less". See if resulting conversation is compressed and coherent or vapid and stunted. Just for fun.

    (ballpark count already above 140 for this comment. Harder than it looks)

  • Twitter is a way for people in social groups to check each others' opinions, styles, and attitudes.

    Also: Even if people aren't reading twitter wholesale, but the machines are. People aren't reading long articles, but the machines are.

  • Twitter exposes you to a greater diversity of topics, cultural and national origins than anything I've ever seen. Check what is trending worldwide, follow someone from the other side of the planet.

  • "The Atlantic piece really identifies the fundamental, if not 100% literally true, problem: Nobody reads anything anymore. We scan, we scroll, we occasionally click, we perhaps take 0.7 seconds to comprehend the headline. But we don't read."

    This is ivory tower shit, man. I read. The very nature of HTML and all the graphics and shit everywhere makes scanning necessary. Ever see what a web page looks like in plain text? It is a horrible mess of shit, mostly. That said, yours is one of the few individual/personal blogs I check out.

    Only 3-5 thousand readers a day? Come on. If you think you have failed, don't. And if the whole effort isn't sitting well with you, then what exactly is your goal at Gin and Tacos, may I ask?

    Change the world thru rock and roll? Cure AIDS/Sarah Palin? Stomp out childhood obesity before the Godless Liberals fill them full of Dreams of My Father?

    Like most gifted writers, you are WAY TOO hard on yourself.

    Consider that many talented men are stampeded by too-early and too steep success–and ARE NEVER HEARD FROM AGAIN.


  • I only really use twitter to see what people I follow tweet. I rarely post, because I too find the 140 character limit restrictive an annoying.

  • You are absolutely right. I have been noticing this behavior in myself lately. It gets increasingly difficult to read a complete article. There is always the pull of looking for the next story, the next headline, the next blog posting. The internet is becoming a fucking sewer. A time, and attention sucking sewer. I used to think I could stay away from it.

  • I always read you by rss, days and sometimes weeks after you've published. I suspect your readership is higher than your measurements indicate purely due to the rss factor.

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