Rather than turn our noses up at Twitter, we should celebrate it and the internet as new platforms for instant communication and as drivers of literacy, says CanLit legend Margaret Atwood.
The internationally acclaimed author spoke in downtown Toronto Monday afternoon as part of nextMEDIA, a two-day conference for media professionals.
"A lot of people on Twitter are dedicated readers. Twitter is like all of the other short forms that preceded it. It's like the telegram. It's like the smoke signal. It's like writing on the washroom wall. It's like carving your name on a tree. It's a very short form and we use that very short form for very succinct purposes. There is a guy out there who is writing 140-character short stories — I just followed him today…but that's the exception. It's sort of like haikus [and] prose," Atwood said.
Thanks to the rise of the internet and of social media, "I would say that reading, as such, has increased. And reading and writing skills have probably increased because what all this texting and so forth replaced was the telephone conversation," she continued. "People have to actually be able to read and write to use the internet, so it's a great literacy driver if kids are given the tools and the incentive to learn the skills that allow them to access it." Atwood drew laughs on Monday for a cartoon-filled slideshow presentation and was interviewed onstage by digital expert McLean Greaves, vice-president of ZoomerMEdia's interactive division and also the man who first got Atwood to join the league of high-profile authors who are avid Twitter-users.
She is approaching 7,000 tweets and has amassed more than 280,000 followers on the micro-blogging platform. Twitter even played a part in spreading word of the writer's so-called feud with Toronto Counc. Doug Ford over cuts to the city's library system over the summer.
"If you're reading something, even a one-sitting short story or article, you're making a commitment. You're making a lot more of a commitment because reading is in fact extremely interactive from a neurological point of view. Your brain lights up a lot. Whereas [listening to] music is more like something that happens to you, reading is something you do," Atwood said.
The Toronto-based Atwood has had a busy fall. She published her latest book, the essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, in October and is participating in the upcoming Jennifer Baichwal-directed, National Film Board-produced documentary based on her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (which she delivered as the 2008 CBC Massey Lecture).
Though best known for her more than 50 books of fiction, essays and poetry, Atwood is no stranger to technology, having co-founded the companies Syngrafii (formerly known as LongPen) and iDoLVine, which allow authors, performers and artists to remotely sign autographs for fans and make appearances at events.
Monday's chat included Atwood discussing her approach to different digital platforms and tools, set against the backdrop of diminished print sales threatening the traditional book publishing industry.