I still don’t know what to make of Twitter – the microblogging web site that seems to be all the rage these days. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Twitter web site is little more than a blank text box, with the question “What are you doing right now”? You type in whatever you like, as long as it’s fewer than 140 characters. And that’s it!
It doesn’t sound particularly useful, yet everyone seems to be using it (at least according to the media). After much hesitation, I decided to sign up with my own account and see what all of the hype was about. I’d like to share with you now, some initial observations about Twitter: two positive and two negative.
The negative one concerns the 140-character message limit. Twitter is often described as “microblogging”. As I’m sure you know, a “blog” is the shortened term for a web log, an online journal. You can write as much as you like in a blog, however each message in Twitter (known as a “tweet”) is limited to 140 characters. Why 140? That’s because a cell phone text message is also limited to 140 characters, and the developers wanted people to be able to receive tweets on their mobile devices.
I remember one of my sociology textbooks, called “Jolts”, by Morris Wolfe. In it he states that our collective attention span is growing shorter all the time. Television commercials in the 1950s used to be two minutes long; when he wrote the book, TV commercials were 30 seconds; now, 15-second commercials are common. The average length of newspaper articles has also been decreasing over the decades, although I’m afraid that I have no references for you. Today, television news concentrates more on easily-digestible “sound bites”, rather than lengthier or developing stories.
In my opinion, a short attention span gets in the way of genius, and a good example of this is in the movie Amadeus. After a performance, Mozart meets Emperor Joseph II on stage. Joseph exclaims “Your work is ingenious! It’s quality work! …and there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” To which Mozart replies “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”
Twitter is the natural extension of this decrease in our collective attention span. Now we have to get our ideas across in 140 characters or fewer. This, in my opinion, means the end of insight or introspection, and the beginning of insipidness. I’ve read hundreds of Twitter messages, and I must say that I am underwhelmed. These authors, on the whole, have absolutely nothing of value to say. But can we blame the format? I don’t think so – brevity does not necessarily have to equal inanity. The Japanese have a similar terse form known as Haiku – a style of poetry made up of three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively – which often convey profound thoughts. Why can’t Twitter be the vessel for our own pithy form of poetry or expression?
The second criticism is the emergence of a shorthand in order to circumvent the character limitation. I like to call this “Prince-ifying” the text, since the pop singer Prince was the first person to use numbers to represent words in his lyrics (e.g. I Would Die 4U). Admittedly, this space-saving measure does allow for longer messages and slightly more complex ideas, but technically speaking, it shouldn’t be necessary. You’ll never see “Thx2AllMyPeepsLuvu4evr” in a Japanese Haiku, because the authors were able to use the language properly and effectively.
Why aren’t we making better use of this new form of communication? I think part of the blame lies in our own collective shortcomings, and our susceptibility to one of the Seven Deadly Sins – specifically, hubris. I believe that the terminology of Twitter is partially to blame for awakening this egocentrism within us. Twitter users don’t have “friends” (Facebook) or connections (LinkedIn), they have followers. This, in my opinion, sets the stage for an increasing sense of hubris and self-importance. In real life, unless we are a cult leader or the titular head of a major religion, we don’t have followers. Renaming our friends and acquaintances as such will make us believe that everything we say or think is worth listening to. This, in my opinion, has made the vast majority of tweets devolve into little more than an endless “stream of consciousness” rather than a collection of useful ideas or thoughts. Shakespeare could very well have been speaking about Twitter when he said (in Macbeth) “It is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
I was in an elevator the other day, with a mother and her young daughter. As we ascended, her daughter said something that I couldn’t quite make out. However as they were leaving the elevator, the mother admonished her daughter and said “Just because you think something, doesn’t mean that you have to say it”. That was a very wise mother – she should work for Twitter’s marketing department.
Having said that, I do have some positive things to say about Twitter…
There is a reason for Twitter’s seemingly inexplicable popularity, because I believe it taps into our basic primal needs on two levels: one for the author and one for the reader.
We’ll start with the authors. Twitter operates on the same principle as blogs, and even our own club’s speech repository. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and all of these things are tapping into a basic human need: to have a witness to our existence. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, has it made a sound? Similarly, if a life has been lived on this planet and no one has appreciated (or even witnessed) witnessed the contributions of the individual, has s/he really lived? Only a generation ago, media used to be an exclusive club, but now it is open to almost everyone. Every one of us now has a potential global audience for our thoughts and ideas. Twitter offers us this potential audience, and at no cost – all we have to do is create an account and start typing. Sociologists call this “the democratization of media”, and in principle it’s a good thing, because it allows for a wider range of points of view
The second advantage is offered to the readers. First of all, there is the somewhat voyeuristic thrill in reading the candid (if uninspiring) thoughts of others. We get a brief glimpse into the lives of strangers, or at least the portions of their lives they wish to share.
There is an apartment building less than a block away from my home, and for some reason, no one living in the ground floor apartments seems to draw their curtains. When I walk by, especially during the twilight hours, I can see right into their units. One elderly lady was lying on a couch watching television; a young man was sitting at his computer, his face lit up by the monitor; someone else happened to be peering into his fridge as I passed by on the street.
Twitter is the cyber-equivalent of what I just did – observing the day-to-day activities of others – or at least those who have made their activities visible to outsiders.
Secondly, there is a “self-evaluation by comparison” aspect to social networking. This is meaningful because, as Ambrose Bierce noted, happiness is relative. He said “Calamities are of two types: misfortunes to ourselves, and good fortune to others”. Comedian Paula Poundstone exposed our collective yet deep-rooted adult insecurities in her stand-up routine. She said that adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because the adults are looking for ideas – we’re unsure of the choices we’ve made, and are now examining the life choices of others. Another comedian takes this “grass is always greener” insecurity further when he reveals to the audience that he is never happy ordering something from a restaurant menu. As soon as his dinner companion orders something, he’ll be filled with regret and wish that he had ordered the same thing as his friend. “I’ll be ready to dig in to some bacon-wrapped filet mignon with truffles and a delicate bearnaise sauce, and then I’ll look over at my friend and say “So what are you having? A peanut butter sandwich? Aaaawwww man! I should have ordered that!”.
Twitter gives us the opportunity to see miniscule pieces of the lives of others, and then compare their life choices to ours. Unlike celebrity worship, these are glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, which means that these could have been our life choices as well. Hence every “tweet” we read is theoretically attainable.
Some people claim that they often read about breaking news stories first via Twitter. Personally, I don’t find this application particularly useful as a news-dissemination medium, because the sources are all unverifiable. Anyone can post a message about anything and watch it spread. Unlike standard media, there is no actual news gathering, researching of facts, or verification of the stories. Anyone can “publish” or forward a news item simply by clicking a mouse, making Twitter more of a giant community bulletin board or graffiti wall. The popularity of Snopes.com and its analysis of e-mail-borne urban legends proves to me that we are not especially good at separating the wheat from the chaff.
Despite the hype, I believe that Twitter is a novelty, and is turning us into a society of voyeurs, rather than a society of movers and shakers. I don’t presume that anything I do is interesting enough to have followers, and personally, I would much rather live my life contributing something useful to the world than merely watching others go about their lives.
In conclusion, I’d like to offer some advice to the developers of Twitter – sell now! Strike while the iron is hot; recognize a mania when you see it, and get as much money as you can for your company before this novelty wears off.