NYT editor Bill Keller on "The Twitter Trap" (tl;dr: "Get Off My Lawn")


Ah, we should have known it was opinion piece fodder. Last week New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who has tweeted all of 20 tweets since joining Twitter in 2009, wrote, "Twitter makes you stupid. Discuss." It was trolling, and many picked up the bait; some of what ensued was lulzy.

Today, a piece by Keller in the New York Times Magazine which says roughly the same thing as his tweet, but with 1100 more words.

Starts out with understandable anxiety over introducing his 13-year-old daughter to Facebook ("I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth"), continues through "we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud," and lauds various "internet makes us dumb" pundits as "digital Cassandras."

Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

Was this man not on BBSes back in the 1980s? Concise bickering is not a proprietary feature of Twitter. Anyway, lord have mercy, don't let him find 4Chan.

Have fun with it, commenters, if the paywall doesn't block you from reading it.

"The Twitter Trap" (nytimes.com)

Update: Mat Honan at Gizmodo replies to Keller, in kind.



  1. Why do we give this man a(n even bigger) platform for his obviously not very well thought out comments?

    He seems like a trolling bully indeed.

  2. Of course I didn’t read the article, it is far too long, but that’s ridiculous!

    Twitter is constantly urging me to “be more clever”!

  3. For someone who writes about tech stuff he should know the difference between characters and digits:

    My clever, concise wife, @emmagkeller, invents book reviews in 140 digits. #bookreview.

  4. Well, Twitter does make it hard to sit on information that one’s source, an unnamed senior government official, thinks would negatively impact public acceptance of an administration policy and/or hurt chances of re-election, or make it too easy to call out a notoriously complaisant star reporter for pipelining government propaganda that the government can in turn point to as objective support for their policy. And by policy, I mean gearing up for an upcoming war that nobody wants or needs.

    Hey, Mr. Keller’s right! That won’t fit in a Tweet!

  5. @ Utenzil

    The article is “far too long”? Really?

    I may not agree with all of Keller’s points, but his thoughts on loss of attention span may well be justified!

  6. I think he has a point, at least in the “outsourcing our brains to the cloud” bit.

    I feel dumber since the internet became mainstream, because I know the information I need is close at hand.

    And my less internet-literate colleagues rely on my ability to search for stuff, rather than my knowledge about things. I’m a cog instead of a… whatever the important bit is. Wait, I’ll Wikipedia it.

  7. He introduced his 13 year old to Facebook?

    I don’t think so.

    She may have wisely allowed him to think so, however.

  8. Given the limited number of hours during the day and our finite cognitive capacity, there is an inherent trade-off between time spent acquiring new information and time spent contemplating the information acquired. Twitter is rather heavily biased towards the former, but a balance needs to be struck regardless. Abuse of Twitter would certainly make one stupid, but then again abuse of ANYTHING is bad.

  9. I just hope that some day soon the internet and cell phone networks completely go down for just a few days.

    I would love to kick back and see what young folks would do without instant access to everything.

  10. I think it’s instructive to consider the parallel he draws between Facebook and the Gutenberg bible. The Gutenberg bible changed society massively for the better, because for the first time people didn’t have to believe what the guys in robes told them the bible said.

    And consider the pocket calculator versus the slide rule. We think the technological advances of the post-slide-rule era are normal because we lived through them, but they’re really mind-boggling if you examine them closely. The advent of cheap computer simulations has had an even more powerful effect on the rate of innovation in applied physics.

    I think it’s wise to think carefully about how we use the new tools that we have, but I also think it’s foolish to see the mere presence of a new and unfamiliar tool, used in new and unfamiliar ways by the younger generation, as evidence of the impending Death of Reason.

  11. So wait… He has been spending so much time on Facebook and Twitter that he is getting dumber?

    That must explain the NYT paywalls, and why he can not figure out a way to profitably monetize the content at a digital property that receives well over a million plus visits per day.

  12. I’m not a huge Twitter fan, however if I’m going to be annoyed by something that’s poorly written and offers me zero insight, i’ll take the 140 characters over his. The NYT employs plenty of dumber people than your average Twitterer. For fuck’s sake, Thomas Friedman has a column.

  13. the paywall wouldn’t block me, it does however make me not care about the article at all.


  14. The real reason is he has to clear everything with the government first, that’s why he dosn’t tweat more often. That’s what he says he does for everything else anyway, so probably twitter too.

  15. Someone send him a copy of “The Information” so he realize that we’ve been outsourcing our brains for millennia, it’s what thousands of years of progress are based on.

  16. Twitter (or FB or the internet in general) does not make one stupid. It makes the stupidity already present more obvious to others.

  17. When he says “we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves”, he’s right. But so it has *always* been.

    He goes on to describe Gutenberg allowing us to remember less, and pocket calculators causing a decline in some types of math skills. And he likes his library, so he understands both upsides and downsides.

    Then the disconnect happens, and he goes off on directions that don’t seem to be supported by his examples.

    There are many other examples. As long as horses pulled wagons with harnesses, anyone who drove one could likely fix most of the pieces, and might, in a pinch, be able to build a new one. But it’s going to be a rare driver indeed who can fix all the parts of his car, and likely a non-existent one who can actually build one. Something is lost there, for sure.

    I think that – *eventually* – we keep those trade-offs that provide a net benefit and ditch the ones that don’t. But that’s *eventually* – in the moment, we try everything new, and only later will we winnow out the stuff that doesn’t help.

    Right now – well, this isn’t later yet. If anything, he should look back at the past couple decades and realize that we are likely winnowing faster than ever. We are living with the cruft for much shorter periods of time. And *that* – that should be a good thing.

    I’d expect the NYTimes to be better at keeping above and forward looking, to help pick off the large scale patterns. But this appears to be carefully written and editted complaint about how life isn’t like it used to be – and thus isn’t as *good* as it used to be.

    Sorry you’re so bummed out, Bill.

    Next problem?

  18. Was this man not on BBSes back in the 1980s?

    No, he was not.

    More to the point, has he ever read a day’s worth of unfiltered mail to his own paper?

  19. Ya’ll know about the “delete everthing after the question mark ‘?'” trick for the NYT’s stupid paywall right? or is that an open and unspoken secret? Shhh…. don’t let BKeller hear you cheating him.

  20. Look, a little perspective might help. I’m 48. When I was a whipper snapper, typewriters shook and thundered (wouldn’t a great steampunk/survival research project be to make a typewriter that smoked and shot out flames in time to typing?). I had a slide rule! 8-track tapes and 8 bit were chic!

    That’s where most of my peers are coming from. I’ve long ago given up trying to persuade them about anything regarding the net, tcp/ip, cyberspace, the web, etc. I’ve been immersed in that world for a long time; I read Neuromancer when it came out, and it’s pretty good guide to what was about to happen, but that’s my schtick, and I’ve learned to keep it to myself. Mostly, I was concerned with telling CEOs 10 years older than myself that a $100 hard drive was a pretty good investment considering the $100,000 a day x 2-3-4 or 5 days they’d lose if nobody could work ’cause they didn’t really know what a hard drive was.

    It’s really hard to persuade people about the social utility of new things. They just can’t grasp the abstraction of, ‘well, this happens, and that happens, and therefore everything changes’. Thus, we watch in wonder as the AOLs, the Time-Warners, the telcos, and the newspapers bumble their way into the future. They’ll get it, +/- a few hundred millions here and there.

    “Men must be taught as if you taught them not/ And things unknown propos’d as things forgot” — Alexander Pope

  21. Let’s not be stupid about calling people stupid. Please do not forget that this is the individual who, when told by G.W.Bush that publishing information about the White House’s NSA secret wiretapping program would mean he (Keller) would have “blood on his hands,” the editor stuck to his belief in the public service role of the media and published the story anyway. Calling someone stupid because they have a personal theory about the effect of the current information age on future generations is, well, not what one would call thinking critically (c.f. George Carlin).

    1. Anon #31,
      what you apparently don’t know is that he sat on that story for over a year before publishing it because… the Bush administration ask him to. :) Yes, that sounds insane, but that’s what he did. Look into it.

      So stupid? Maybe not. But calling him a good little dog or coward would be very accurate.

    2. I wasn’t name calling I was responding to someone blaming twitter for their stupidity.

      I recognise him from his January article decreeing Wikileaks to not be a news organization.
      At a time when US and Canadian civil servants were trying to rationalize assassination squads against Wikileaks journalists this struck me as either foolish or bloodthirsty. The action not the man.

  22. he makes a familiar argument. it’s the same thing that Socrates said about the invention of the written word.

    “…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

    Socrates c.450 B.C.

  23. And what exactly did the mass of the population do before they were reading, thinking and writing on the internet? I think I’m just about old enough to remember it – it was called TV.

  24. So just because Keller can’t handle Twitter–can’t self-regulate the fire hose of incoming and outgoing messages, can’t use Tweetdeck (which he is running) to analyze data and discover patterns and trends (which I find amusing, what with his whole day job in journalism and all), can’t express himself in 140 characters–it’s a trap?

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