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Luddites of the World, Relax!

News that Twitter's latest cash infusion values the microblogging site at $1 billion may have confounded twittering's critics, who say nothing worthwhile can be expressed in 140 characters. To them—and to those who think BlackBerrys enslave us, Facebook supplants real relationships, and texting makes us illiterate—Dennis Baron has this to say: Nonsense. Worries about new ways of communicating, he has found, have existed for millennia. (Socrates objected to writing, in part because this "invention" eliminated the need to exercise the memory.)

Baron, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has just published A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press). One reason he wrote the book, he says, was to remind today's Luddites of the skepticism that reliably greeted each new communication device in the past.

Consider the mid-19th century's Twitter: the telegraph. About America's "great haste" to establish instant transcontinental communication in the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau scoffed: "Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

Three decades later, the telegraph's inventor, Samuel Morse, declined to buy the patent rights for the next new thing—the telephone. It provided no permanent record of a conversation, he complained. In 1880, Western Union (WU) refused the offer, too, asking "whether any sensible man would transact his affairs by such a means of communications." When the typewriter came into widespread personal use in the 1930s, The New York Times editorialized against the machine on the grounds that it usurped the art of "writing with one's own hand." And, Baron writes, "because typing resembled printed texts, critics groused that typewriters gave too many would-be writers access to authorship," an argument that should sound familiar to today's blog bashers.

Baron acknowledges that we don't know what the long-term social and cognitive impact of the computer revolution will be. But he's clearly on the side of the technophiles. To people who don't "get" Tweets, he has this advice: "Just think of them as little haikus."

Why It Pays to Apologize

What's the best way for a company to disarm a disgruntled customer? A simple apology beats a cash rebate, according to a new study.

Researchers at Britain's Nottingham School of Economics worked with a large German wholesaler that sells goods on eBay (EBAY), tracking the lukewarm or negative comments posted on the site by the company's customers over six months.

They then responded to the 632 complaints—about defective salt shakers, say, or the late delivery of a leather belt. Half of the e-mailed responses offered a brief apology. Half offered instead a "goodwill gesture" of a small cash rebate (from $3 to $8). All the e-mails asked the customers to remove the comments they had posted online. For those offered the rebate, it was a condition of receiving the cash.

The result? About 45% of customers who received an apology withdrew their so-so or negative ratings, compared with 21% of those offered money to do so.

Johannes Abeler, a Nottingham research fellow and co-author of the study, says it's worth noting that the e-mailed apologies were effective even though they were brief and impersonal—and asked for something in return. His explanation? Despite the suspicions people might harbor, "apologies trigger this biological instinct to forgive that is hard to overcome."

Out of the Dustbin of History

Sharing space with the greenest and sleekest at the just-concluded Frankfurt Auto Show: an electric-powered remake of the Trabant, the boxy, smoke-spewing car produced in East Germany from 1957 to 1991. "It's a historic car," says Ronald Gerschewski, managing director of Wilkau-Hasslau IndiKar, the company behind the Trabant nT, still in prototype. Nostalgia for the old Trabi runs high—especially now, as Germany prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. IndiKar and co-developer Herpa, which sells miniature Trabi models, are seeking investors to bring the car to market as early as 2012.

A Break from That First Commercial Break

Will fewer commercials translate into better ratings—and, thus, higher ad revenue—for ABC's new fall lineup? The Walt Disney (DIS)-owned network is omitting the first ad break for the initial few episodes of some of its new shows, including the sci-fi drama FlashForward and two comedies, Eastwick and Modern Family. The idea is to draw viewers deeper into the story so that when the first commercial does come—after 15 minutes rather than the usual eight—they'll be less tempted to switch away. Marketing and media consultant Dennis Keene says while networks have no control over how engaging commercials are, one thing they can do is reduce the total number of ads "in the hope that engagement scores for the remaining ads get better."

Editor's Note: This item mistakenly said the network may continue the practice all season if ratings and advertiser response is good. The network does not have such plans.

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