Sound bytes and the cyber village

Updated: 2011-07-08 07:49

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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I signed up for Twitter on Tuesday to make sure I would be able to send a question to US President Barack Obama when he became the first head of state in the world to host a "Twitter town hall" on Wednesday.

Obama did not sit in front of his computer, as I had expected. He sat face-to-face with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in front of an audience in the East Room.

Instead of tweeting answers to the thousands of questions sent to #AskObama, he treated the "town hall" like a traditional televised interview. He expounded at length on issues ranging from education to clean energy to unemployment to the debt ceiling, ignoring Twitter's limitation on length.

This partially negated Twitter's usefulness. Twitter enables people to exchange brief thoughts or observations, regardless of their location or status. Instead, the "Twitter town hall" was a one-way street, with President Obama doing all the talking and apparently finding it a bit difficult to get beyond his usual "talking points".

Of course, this also reflects one of Twitter's limitations. It allows only 140 letters per tweet, hardly enough for a head of state to explain his policies.

That seems to be the norm these days, however. Each new platform for social networking - from e-mail to blogs to Twitter - encourages people to use fewer words to communicate. In China, the equivalent to Twitter is weibo, which has more than 230 million users. Each micro blog is limited to 140 Chinese characters.

This encourages people to be succinct and to stay on point. But will it also cause our children and grandchildren to lose the ability to express themselves more fully, or to create full-blown works of literature?

No one seems to be worried about that. In fact, a professor at the University of Iowa once told me that visual arts will prevail over written languages in the long run.

Nowadays, people are increasingly drawn to photography and video. Everywhere you go, you see people taking photos with cameras and mobile phones.

At 4:30 pm on June 23, the heaviest storm in a decade hit Beijing. China Daily sent out five photographers to take pictures. At 5:04 pm, a photo editor discovered a photo on, showing a torrent of water pouring down the stairway of a subway.

Editors on the night shift later decided that the photo, shot by a college student with a 2-year-old mobile phone, was the best photo of the day, good enough to be the featured photo on the front page of the next day's newspaper.

Even as individuals, I think it is difficult to cope with the onslaught of technology, bouncing between the multiple sites via laptops, iPads, e-readers, and iPhones.

As a reporter, it is even more daunting. I've seen journalists carrying video cameras, cameras, and tripods, as well as laptops and other small mobile devices that enable them to send stories and photos to their organizations. And yet they may be scooped at any moment by a college student with a cell phone.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily and its chief US correspondent. E-mail: