At 7:45 A.M. on June 4, Steven Johnson sent a tweet to his more than 500,000 followers on Twitter, informing them that he had written this week's cover story about how Twitter is changing the way society communicates. That tweet is also this week's cover image. I know this is all a bit meta and like trying to capture digital lightning in a jar, but we thought it was a way of illustrating how new platforms and social networks are changing the way we communicate and live.
While I can't write what I want to say about Twitter in only 140 characters (the maximum number you can use in a tweet), there is an admirable brevity to tweets that is increasingly rare in our culture. I would argue that Twitter is a uniquely democratic form of communication--that is, it's open to everyone, there is no central authority, and people vote on whom and what they like by signing up to be followers. It's about the wisdom--or folly--of crowds. It's also, as Johnson observes in his superb piece, a prototype of a new kind of shared national experience: people talking to one another in real time about real events.
Some argue that Twitter is a form of digital narcissism, the toy of the moment for an attention-deficit-disordered culture. But as Johnson notes, the Twitter platform is ultimately about an accretion of tweets, the way hundreds of thousands of pixels form a detailed and complex digital image. Twitter underscores Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism that the medium is the message--the idea that technological form shapes and determines the culture. McLuhan challenged the traditional notion that content--whether in print, in film or on television--is automatically more significant than the medium through which it is delivered. What we now accept is that the medium changes the nature of what, and how, we communicate. Twitter does that too.
Historically, the most powerful new mediums have changed the way we perceive the world--and how we relate to one another. The telephone, television and Internet have done that in ways we are still processing. But technology itself is neutral. It's a tool, neither good nor evil. It's all in how we use it. Twitter itself may continue to rise or it may go away, but its characteristics--real-time conversation, instant links, groups of followers--will affect the platforms that come after. There's a lesson in that for all of us in the media, for we must adapt to new technology, and not simply by putting the same old wine in new bottles. We need to adapt by creating our content in a way that is organic to those new mediums. TIME was on to this idea when we made user-generated content (that is, You) the Person of the Year in 2006, and we have continued to monitor how individuals are changing the media and how we communicate. At the same time, we're focused on bringing you the information you need in new ways that are adapted to new technologies.
TIME Tweets TIME.com has close to 700,000 Twitter followers and sends updates every hour
Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR