Note: Substantial edits made.
Today, it was all lies. Everything I tweeted on Twitter, except for one Ficlet announcement, was bogus. Eventually, you figured it out—there was no fire, no blood, no parachute, no gunman, no circular saw. All lies.
This is my reaction to the hipper-than-thou, explain-your-fun, anti-Twitter talk that’s going around, I suppose. Specifically, it was this entry in Wired‘s Alt Text blog that got to me. I’m not alone. Wil Wheaton made mention of this article in the eleventh episode of his podcast, “Radio Free Burrito,” too.
In his article, Lore Sjöberg comes down on Twitter, and himself, with a kind of detached self-loathing that normally wouldn’t bother me. I’m all about the self-loathing; not so much the detachment. But Sjöberg equates an interest with Twitter with a kind of pathetic loneliness:
Like an elderly widow keeping the TV on for “company,” I keep a Twitter window open whenever I’m online, and accept that as sort of, kind of communication.
His simile’s good, but I say he’s missing one of the essential elements of the Twitter dynamic: We don’t have to be alone when we’re apart anymore, and we don’t have to be apart to be widowed. Twitter gives me a chance to keep up with people I seldom see (or have never seen in person), but whose work or lifestyle I find interesting or inspiring.
I work alone, and so do a lot of the people whose work I follow, not just through their publications but through their tweets. Twitter creates an odd, semi-translucent bridge between us, letting us work alone, together. It’s a semblance of the cubicle-wandering check-ins that go on in offices everywhere, but it happens despite workplaces or miles. Somehow, when I’m bored or tired of working, I find it encouraging to know that others either feel the same way… or I find it motivating to know that others are working at that same moment, even if they’re on the other side of the continent.
Twitter, more than blogging, makes me feel like I’m sitting around with people. The banality simulates casual reality in a real, weird way.
I think one reason Twitter leaves me unsatiated is that it asks the most boring question possible: “What are you doing?”
So, today I chose to lie to that question. Is that better?
I don’t think so. I think it’s the honesty of Twitter that makes it interesting—even comforting. Even the authors and designers, politicians and performers that I follow periodically send out a tweet that reminds us that, say, air travel is a pain in the ass for everyone. Or that we all have hard drives crash on us.
If Twitter asked a better question it would be a better app? What does a blank piece of paper ask? (You could say, “Everything,” Zen master, but bear with me.) Twitter ostensibly asks what are you doing, but people are using it for a lot more than that. What I love about Twitter, it turns out, is the way it’s appropriated by each tweeter. Even still, whatever you put into that empty box, whatever 140 characters you use, you’re still somehow answering that question. It is not the question that matters, but the answer, grasshopper.
But judging Twitter based just on its question and not on its method misses fully half the point. Twitter isn’t about every tweet being personally revealing or dramatically executed. Each one is an atomic component in someone’s larger life. A single Tweet might be telling or hilarious or whatever, but many Tweets over time contribute a larger picture that blogs and Flickr streams don’t get across. The rapid-fire style of an avid Tweeter, or even the casually occasional tweet of someone too busy to blog, can eventually lead to a kind of easy honesty that blogs and podcasts and photos might not. Instead of seeing just the best or most rehearsed parts of your cohorts’ lives, you get to see the moments in between, which have their own fascination.
One tweet may be a mundane snapshot of a banal moment, but put them together and you have something akin to a moving picture made out of words and time. A frame of film is to a tweet what a movie is to a Twitter stream. Not every shot is going to be a gem. Not everyone is going to have fun with Twitter. So it goes.
I think the genuineness off Twitter at its best replaces any shine the banality takes off.
Now mash that atomic quality together with the weirdly ubiquitous and equalizing nature of Twitter. Everyone gets the same 140 characters to make their point, whether it’s Barack Obama or Henry Rollins or you. The rigidity becomes part of the craft, like a haiku. (Coincidentally, haiku games from back in the day weren’t much more artful; the question was simply, “What do you see?” and played out in slow motion with paper and ink.) Riffing within a box is a part of so much play, and for some of us, Twitter is play.
This kind of friendly surveillance can provide a kind of neighborly oversight that spans miles and borders. Consider the kid who Twittered himself out of Egyptian jail with a single word:
On his way to the police station, Buck took out his cell phone and sent a message to his friends and contacts using the micro-blogging site Twitter.
The message only had one word. “Arrested.”
Within seconds, colleagues in the United States and his blogger-friends in Egypt — the same ones who had taught him the tool only a week earlier — were alerted he was being held.
And, so, sometimes Twitter is great because we share things in a moment that we can’t or won’t if we had to compose. We get to share in moments.
Yes, I find this kind of voluntary surveillance scary, on some level. Here we are volunteering to be both the citizen under the lens and the eye on the other side of it, watching each other all the time. When strangers follow me on Twitter, I look over my shoulder.
But it is voluntary, and it’s not so different from passing a neighbor on the street and seeing them painting their fence, or whatever. The difference is just that your Twitter-neighbors show you only what they want and might be half a planet away.