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.

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Categories: Culture

5 replies

  1. Dr. Eaton,

    I’ve been sharing your most recent blog post on my Facebook page. In short, this message is a revolutionary in your going against the grain of popular culture. When I think about the wonderful prose that Atul Gawande and Julie Chen use to express their thoughts on medicine, I’m reminded that good writing increases one’s ability to influence others.

    Please continue to challenge us to slow down and pen well-written sentences. It’s greatly appreciated.

  2. It’s well and good to argue for better writing, and the reading of it, but it seems the Twittering of Ashton Kutcher and his posse of poseurs is just displacement — moving their inanities from fanmags to the internet — without the intervention of hack journalists.

    I remember at least a few studies that show the young understand context and the appropriate level of verbal formality required for that context.

    Good writing is a rare and precious thing, not necessarily achieved even when one is paid quite handsomely for one’s wordsmithing — ask any editor or book critic. My 40 years as an editor lead me to the conclusion that the best writing is neither taught nor learned, although basic competence can be inculcated, to a degree. And in my 55 years experience as a reader, there are few educators whose prose I would hold up as exemplifying the ideal held out by Dr. Eaton, who does write well, indeed.

  3. For lack of a more elegant way to say this while retaining my enthusiasm, I agree! At what point did technology grant us an excuse to write poorly? I’m not going to pretend that I am above texting (even “txtng”), or contemporary ways of communication such as Facebook. However, I literally cringe at the sight of students’ writing that lacks any sense of purpose, clarity, or even the basic rules of grammar! Your comments on the Ashton Kutcher followers are spot-on, and remind me of the large portion of America that voted “because Oprah told them to.”

  4. I bet the reason for Ashton to have so many followers is that he keeps tweeting pictures of Mrs Kutcher , by the way I am his 4,ooo,oo1 follower.

  5. Funny that one poster mentioned “moving their inanities from fanmags to the internet — without the intervention of hack journalists” as I think many of these ‘celebrities’ have people writing their tweets for them. I guess at least Kutcher writes his own tweets. I wonder how much thought he puts into them as the topics are not always completely inane, as the Brittany Murphy tweet shows.

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