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SXSW Watch: My Twitter-Crit Panel, or, A Lot of Words About 140 Characters

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Mike Kemp / In Pictures / Corbis

I have survived my first South By Southwest panel appearance. On my Sunday-morning panel, “Arts Criticism in 140 Characters or Less,” my fellow panelists and I used far more than 140 characters at a shot to explain how social media, especially Twitter, have changed the way we write about the TV shows and movies we write about.

As usual before such panels, I was worried there wouldn’t be enough to say. As usual, on a panel full of professional opinion-havers, there wasn’t nearly enough time to say it, and more great audience questions than we had time to answer. And the whole thing went by in such a blur, I can barely recall what I said, much less the other panelists.

So in the spirit of the topic, I’ll rely on the quotes that our audience tweeted on Twitter to jog my memory:

* One of the first questions our moderator, NPR’s Linda Holmes, asked was how we used Twitter as a writing medium. Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, said she considers Twitter more of a “cocktail party” than a writing medium, a good analogy. (Although, she added–improving the analogy–one where your every drunken utterance is preserved forever.)

* Another difference, I added, is that Twitter, an immediate and two-way medium, encourages a different kind of criticism: you tend to write in a more off-the-cuff and personal way, and you tweet more often about things airing live on TV. In other words, it gets TV critics–who usually write from the privileged position of seeing screeners in advance–to write about watching TV the way regular civilians do: live viewing, channel surfing, watching the TV on mute while on the treadmill at the gym.

* Likewise, Linda said, Twitter opens up critics to opine on more diverse subjects: she’s probably not going to write an entire essay on Dance Moms, but she’ll do a couple tweets on it. (Point taken, but I would totally. Read that essay on Dance Moms. And I think sometimes Twitter leads you to realize that little shows like that are worth writing about.)

* Our movie-critic panelist, who goes by the pseudonym FilmCritHulk, took on the recent complain by novelist Jonathan Franzen that Twitter is too brief and reductive a medium to take seriously. Hulk argued that it’s just the opposite: having started his writing career as a Twitter critic has led him to start a blog where he writes lengthy, thoughtful essays on film that go well beyond thumbs up or down reviews.

* We were also joined by Alex Iskold, CEO of GetGlue, a social media network for entertainment, talked about how his company and those like Twitter have expanded the global watercooler of fans watching and discussing shows at once, which can drive both increasing positivity—”People are more willing to shout if they like something,” he said—or, in some cases, a loud voice of negativity. (I made the case that commenting online through Twitter et al tends to reward the most intense statements, whether positive or negative: “Nuance doesn’t get RT’ed,” I said. It was a glib, un-nuanced statement, and therefore it got tweeted more than anything else I said.)

* Since anyone can be a critic on Twitter now too, is the job of critics irrelevant? Maybe ironically, social-media Iskold was the panelist most effusive about the continuing importance of critics—readers, he said, will still want to look to authorities they trust, and networks will still care about critics’ influence (to the extent they ever did). The critics on the panel were more likely to say that there’s not necessarily an absolute difference between their opinions and those of Twitter civilians and blog commenters; we just have to try to bring something more to what we write. (My take: the importance of a critic is not to be an expert in any particular show, because there is always a fan who knows much more than you do about your favorites—something I learned long before Twitter. Instead, critics have to be the generalists—not specializing in a few things they love, but synthesizing and drawing comparisons between a lot of different works, and well as other arts and the larger society. We’re the few, the proud, the big-picture-ists.)

* But it’s not just other fans who are out there are Twitter now too. As Linda Holmes noted, the people that critics are critiquing are often right there on Twitter with us—actors and show creators, sometimes vocally active. Each of us agreed that we don’t try to actively engage, or online-socialize with, TV-makers in general. (I believe in the Lester Bangs attitude, “The rock stars are not your friends.”) But we will generally engage back when they tweet at us, and, as Holmes noted, other critics and bloggers make a point of addressing their subjects, as in, “Hey @danharmon! Come fight with me!” (The Community creator is one of the most active showrunners on Twitter.)

Of course, not long after an audience member tweeted the quote, Harmon soon replied: “WHO SPEAKS MY NAME.” See? Twitter works!