by Matt Waller
Last Thursday morning, as the world was learning the tragic news of Oscar Pistorious’s alleged murder of his girlfriend, Darren Rovell tweeted (twote?) the following:
Pistorius was wearing a sweatshirt made by Oakley, his sponsor, when he was taken by police twitpic.com/c3p324
— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) February 14, 2013
Rovells’ tweets are usually inane, but this one had a slightly caustic twist, trivializing a deeply human story with his typical, mechanical corporate slant. The tweet was just another example of the sad spectacle that is Rovell’s Twitter feed. Last week, Will Leitch at Sports on Earth presented a strong argument for the top ten reasons why people hate Rovell, so I won’t get into those details here. What I’ve been wondering is how and why, despite the general disgust, does a thing like Darren Rovell’s Twitter feed exist, and why does it have such a following?
Darren Rovell’s tweets are a microcosm of Twitter at its worst. His formula is frequency over insight, information over knowledge. Twitter’s greatest utility lies in its ability to provide a real-time stream of valuable information. At its best — and depending on how one curates its content — Twitter offers an effective real-time hub for a virtually limitless network of useful and interesting information. At its worst, it’s a nihilistic stream of hackneyed “thoughts” and “insights” — a ceaseless flow of information that becomes impossible to comprehend. Rovell’s use of Twitter falls into the latter category.
In the conclusion to his (duly) critically acclaimed book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that “The volume of information is increasing exponentially. But relatively little of this information is useful.” To make any meaningful gains in the age of ever-increasing exposure to information, it’s essential to separate the meaningful from the meaningless (the “signal” from the “noise”). Rovell ignores any consideration of this distinction, and his tweets (all 39,000+ of them) devolve into an aggregate of meaningless babble (for example, this gem from February 16: “Just tested the 3 new Lays potato chip flavors. Cheesy Garlic Bread is the best.” )
So why does Rovell have over 300,000 followers on Twitter (including myself)? I described Rovell’s Twitter feed as a spectacle earlier, and I think that’s the appropriate word for it. Rovell’s Twitter feed is something we stare at rather than think about. In this way, it embodies the increasingly popular way in which people “receive” information (in the same way that a sieve “receives” water) — as an endless flow of data, unfiltered, generally incomprehensible, and presented for its own sake. It’s why I spend too much time staring at real-time stock market feeds, imagining that somehow the constant fluctuations in percentage points have some great significance.
It turns out that, in his 2003 novel Cosmpolis, the great Don DeLillo offered a prescient assessment of Twitter (the “bad side” described above), Rovell, and the other fonts of “information for information’s sake.” In a memorable passage, DeLillo’s protagonist contemplates all of the information on digital display in Times Square, “the streaming release of words, of multinational news, all too fleet to be absorbed.” As the character contemplates the information, he realizes
“The speed is the point. Never mind the urgent and endless replenishment, the way data dissolves at one end of the series just as it takes shape at the other. This is the point, the thrust, the future. We are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.”
In a similar way, Rovell’s Twitter feed attracts us as a pure spectacle; there is no larger point. Like that endless stream of information in Times Square, Rovell’s tweets are incomprehensible, examples of information for its own sake, and “ritually unreadable.” And there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. The dissonance — and the resulting revulsion toward Rovell by thoughtful humans — comes from the fact that Rovell is painfully oblivious to his status as a mere transmitter of meaningless information. He presents himself with an inordinate amount of self-importance, but he communicates like a badly programmed robot. But alas, before DeLillo, there was Shakespeare, reminding us that Rovell’s “journalism” is simply “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”