John Is not a Twit

I am not a Twit.  I do not have a personal Twitter account (WITWAR has a shared one, for the express purpose of delivering posts too small for a full entry.)  I do not find the prospect of Tweeting my everyday activities remotely appealing.  Much to my dismay,  I’m apparently the only person left in the world who feels this way.  At the tender age of 24 I have become a luddite, a dunce, a dinosaur, and I have done it willingly.  I regret nothing.

Yet, despite my strong view, I feel the urge to prove my point, so I spent countless seconds scouring the internet for sage-like advice on why Twitter is or is not the “wave of the future.”

Penny Arcade .com’s Jerry Holkins, despite having one of the most widely-read webcomics on the internet, feels as though his “tweets” are not worth wasting other people’s time.  He writes,

The last “tweet” I ever did really explains it all, for me. I was up in Vancouver, and I put up a message saying so, and what kinds of activities I was engaged in. After I did it, I heard a voice – my own voice – saying, “Who the #$^% do you think you are? Who are you that you can force your #$%-damned minutia on other people, your stupid bull@$^&, your stone-ground artisanal condiments? How dare you. You should be ashamed.” And I was.

This is definitely the first hurdle for me on my journey into the “Twittersphere/Twitterverse.”  I live a thoroughly unexceptional and boring life.  Never before has technology been the only thing standing between my desire to tell everyone everything I’m doing all the time.  Were I to try, my own overdeveloped sense of modesty would stay my hand before I could finish “tweeting” that I had arrived at work in the morning.

Jeffrey Rowland, webcomic author and manager of TopatoCo (a webcomic merchandising company) makes an interesting point regarding the willful resignation of privacy that Twitter encourages:

Show of hands: how many of you who two years ago were freaking out about the government tracking your every move are now voluntarily telling every person on earth where you are and what you are doing several times a day? Yeah, me too. I’m convinced Twitter is an incredibly clever way for the New World Order to be able to track your every move without even having to ask your permission. Who needs warrants and wiretaps when there’s a thing that makes never shutting up cool? Nice move, New World Order. Touché.

There have already been news stories about people who have suffered negative consequences of Twitter honesty.  One particularly amusing case involved a potential employee who “tweeted” his impressions of his most recent job interview (writing that the work seemed tedious and dull, but the proposed salary was excellent) quickly received a reply from his interviewer saying that they would gladly find someone who enjoys the work, and that he need not concern himself with deciding between this offer and any others.  Combine this almost ludicrous level of honesty with a constant stream of updates, add in the capability to track by GPS and accelerometer (from iPhones only, so far) and you have Twits with nary a secret left anywhere in their lives.  Big Brother is following you…

A writer from Current.com who uses the handle  “Gnossos” cites some examples of clever, if a bit insulting, uses for Twitter:

CONVERSELY, I have noted the uses Twitter does have. I work at a coffee shop that posts the daily coffees/specials on Twitter for customers. Shockingly, even the Dalai Lama utilizes this gross misuse of modern technology. One would hope people would be curious or intelligent enough to want to read more than just one short sentence from him rather than merely glance at bite-size words of wisdom, but I can see how it would be useful for someone with no time to actually read.

Gnossos hits upon an interesting point that seems to be a central characteristic of Twitter for good and ill: The limit of 140 alphanumeric characters, 20 fewer than even SMS messages allow.  I may be a supporter of brevity, but I also think that forcing people to constantly construct their thoughts in soundbyte form will only serve to “dumb down” our cultural landscape even further.  It almost seems as though the typical Twitter user must have the following thought process: “Man, I really want to tell everybody what I think about whatever I’m thinking right now.  I guess I could blog about it, but writing is HARD!  If only I could get something that was to blogging what text messaging is to emailing, then I wouldn’t have to worry about what I write being clever or well-constructed.  Everybody will be too busy caring about how fresh and new and raw it is!”

William Bradley, a contributor to the Huffington Post, is no stranger to new technology, but even he is having trouble adjusting to Twitter’s inanity and lack of context:

If there is one thing our media culture has already been lacking, it’s context. Spend too much time watching American cable news, where you can literally see faddish and frequently groundless political views become a faux consensus in a matter of hours as folks rather hysterically talk themselves into a viewpoint that is totally at odds with political reality outside the echo chamber, and that’s already clear. Then add something like Twitter, and the hysteria can reach a fever pitch, with commentators, conventional and unconventional alike, tweeting feverishly away into the ether, hoping their info-bleeps capture a moment’s attention.

One part of the problem, of course, is that the format is simply too short. I value the blizzard of information I’m signed up for, distracting and tiring as it can be, because it comes in usually intelligible form. Which is to say, at least a paragraph.

Another part of the problem is what, for lack of a better phrase, I’ll call the inane factor.

If someone I’m not in a pretty close relationship with — or am at least having a conversation with — demands to tell me about their desire for a baked potato and a viewing of The Singing Nun, I’m not too happy.All this reminds me of the old Max Headroom TV series from the 1980s. Because the media culture in the Max Headroom universe of Britain and America was waterlogged with a cacophony of messages, the ad mavens created the “blipvert.” A 5-second condensed TV ad so compelling and so swift that the viewer had no opportunity to switch to another channel with the remote control. But they had one extremely unfortunate side effect: Blipverts caused the nervous systems of “particularly lazy, petulant viewers,” as an ad maven called them, to overload and their heads to explode. Overlay the current version of Twitter on top of our increasingly hysterical media cacophony, and there we are. Metaphorically speaking, naturally …

Max Headroom wasn’t on my radar at the time of its original airing, but his description does sound oddly prophetic.  I do agree with Bradley that Twitter is a great tool for facilitating ideological snowballing, as feverish Twits whip themselves into a frenzy that leaves perspective coughing in the dust.  It also smacks of the current tide of anti-intellectualism, especially in America.  Everybody on Twitter knows that ‘you,’ ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ are all spelled ‘ur’, and it will only be a matter of time before it becomes acceptable in non-Twitter contexts.

When it comes to Twitter’s relevance in the world of politics,  The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart provides court jester-like insight mixed with wry wit:

[Sorry, gang, I couldn’t get the video to embed.  Does anyone know how to embed comedycentral.com videos in WordPress?]

Unfortunately, like a Twit with no followers, Jon Stewart’s rants seem to fall on deaf ears in the “Twittersphere.”

All of this is not to say that there are no practical uses for Twitter, of course.  The Red Cross is currently using Twitter to provide real-time updates in emergency situations, and the “tweets” from people on the scene during the Mumbai attacks and the crash of A.S. Airways Flight 1549 proved to be invaluable.  I also find the efforts of the protesters in Moldova to be particularly inspired and impressive.  Unfortunately, there is one problem with using Twitter for this purpose, as David Weinberger inadvertently makes clear in a column for The Huffington Post:

Twitter in its native form assumes we’re ok with not keeping up with the abundance. Tweets are going to scroll by when you’re not looking, and you’re never going to see them. Twitter assumes you will let them go, the way most of us cannot leave messages in our email inboxes unread (or undismissed).

This characteristic serves to undermine its effectiveness as an emergency notification tool.  If, Heaven forbid, I get arrested and have only a few seconds to “tweet” for help, it is as likely as not that no one who follows my feed will even see the message amidst a barrage of inane drivel.  Perhaps something of this sort should be a separate service?

If there’s one thing that irks me even more than Twitter itself, it’s the current climate’s infatuation with it.  Sally Horchow, also from The Huffington Post, describes it in far more positive terms.  I was going to include an excerpt, but it would have ended up being the full length of the article.  For those of you who won’t bother to click the link, she posits that the buzz surrounding Twitter is more interesting than the technology itself, and that we should enjoy the novelty of it while it lasts, before the “Twortex” dissipates (which may not be very long at all.)

Perhaps the most insightful piece I’ve seen about Twitter comes from the New York Times, and tech columnist David Pogue:

Twitter is like a cross between a blog and a chat room. Your “followers” might include six friends from high school, or, if you’re Barack Obama, 254,484 of your most tech-savvy fans. (Incidentally, he hasn’t sent out a single Twitter message since taking office. Where are his priorities?)

Meanwhile, you sign up to receive the utterances of other people. Eventually, your screen fills with a scrolling display of their quips — jokes, recommended links, thoughts for the day, and a lot of “what I’m doing right now” stuff. Even so, I was turned off by the whole ego thing. Your profile displays how many followers you have, as if it’s some kind of worthiness tally. (See also: Facebook friend counter.)

Then one day, I saw Twitter in action.  I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)

So I signed up for a free account name (pogue) and stepped in.

It’s not easy to figure out what’s going on. Most people are supportive and happy to help you out. There is, however, such a thing as Twitter snobbery.

One guy took me to task for asking “dopey questions.” Others criticized me for various infractions, like not following enough other people, writing too much about nontech topics or sending too many or too few messages.

Determined to get the hang of it, I searched Google for “Twitter for beginners.” There were 927,000 search results … Most of these articles are lists of rules. One says to use Twitter to market your business; another says never to use Twitter to market your business. One recommends writing about what you’re doing right now (after all, the typing box is labeled, “What are you doing?”); another says not to.

One of these rule sheets even says, “Add value. Build relationships. Think LONG term.” Are we talking about Twitter, or running for Congress?

My confusion continued until, at a conference, I met Evan Williams, chief executive and co-founder of Twitter. I told him about all the rules, all the advice, all the “you’re not doing it right” gripers. I told him that the technology was exciting, but that all the naysayers and rule-makers were dampening my enthusiasm.

He shook his head apologetically — clearly, he’s heard all this before — and told me the truth about Twitter: that they’re all wrong.

Or, put another way, that they’re all right.

Twitter, in other words, is precisely what you want it to be. It can be a business tool, a teenage time-killer, a research assistant, a news source — whatever. There are no rules, or at least none that apply equally well to everyone.

Pogue goes on to list his own guidelines for using Twitter, which are fairly judgment-free and logically sound (insofar as I can tell).  In the end, he warns potential users not to get too absorbed in the phenomenon.  It is just an internet time-drain, after all…

To me, Twitter is just another example of technology advancing too fast for society to implement it properly.  There are potential benefits, to be sure (such as the nigh-instantaneous publishing and response time) but these seem like they would be better suited to a system designed to handle information in an emergency.  As it stands, highly important messages are indistinguishable from completely inane ones, and the sheer volume of the latter completely dwarfs the former.  As I mentioned earlier, if (Heaven forbid) I ever do get arrested and only have time to “tweet” a cry for help, my plea has about as much chance of reaching the attention of people who can help as a message in a bottle on the open sea.  So until the Twitter buzz dies down and there comes to be some sort of filter to separate the wheat from the chaff, I refuse to become a Twit.

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t have a personal twitter account. I have talkinboutcomx because my blog name is too long if I write it properly. I am loathe to put stuff out under that account that isn’t specifically on point, but I have, and occasionally will continue to. Here is what drove me to it (after I declared I would never use it). I think we are pretty much in the same camp on this.

    1. I wanted twitter to show when a new post was up on my comics blog.
    2. I wanted to be able to use it when I just had a snippet of info or opinion related to my blog, and have it show in a sidebar on my blog. (I would rather have a tweet that says hey guys look at this… than do a two sentence post on the blog proper.
    3. publishers distribute links to things that way, and webcomics people post links and updates, other creators often do as well, etc. so it’s useful to me.
    4. Some people are funny as heck to follow.

    That’s it mostly. I caved recently to peer pressure and have a personal facebook page now… that is the one I am sort ashamed of having.

  2. John, John, John…you don’t have to Twitter about your everyday existence…just because others do doesn’t mean you have to use Twitter for that purpose. And you are hardly the only one who feels that way, or in your words, a luddite or a dinosaur. Plenty of people, and plenty of young people, have shunned or use Twitter for other purposes.

    Having an exciting life doesn’t mean you have exciting tweets, just like a boring life doesn’t necessarily equal boring tweets.

    You’re also confusing the mediums. Blogging (in terms of a cohesive set of thoughts, usually put together into paragraphs) is very different from what I will refer to as status messages (texts, Facebook updates, Twitter and other microblogging services). I would venture to guess that most people who Twitter aren’t thinking that writing is hard, they just don’t have the time or enough to say on the matter that warrents a full post, but want to spread the information around. After all, you said yourself you do that for WitWar.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the scrolling messages from everyone I follow—I much prefer to go to that person’s individual page and read all their thoughts from the past several days together. It’s easier to keep track. It gives a sense of what that person likes, as you can see how it fits the larger pattern of what’s been happening in the world during that time (if they tweet about such things). It’s a good juxtaposition compared to the aggregate of others’ thoughts.

    The hype will die down; hype always does. The idea behind an emergency tweet—given that you had enough friends who followed you—would be that they could call 911. But it seems in that case that you’d just send out a text message to several of your friends anyway. All of these technologies can be linked, so I feel the point is moot, since you can tweet from your phone, IM from your phone, send a text from the computer to a phone, etc.

    BTW, the last two HuffPo articles aren’t linked.

  3. Egads! What horrible hyperlinking I’ve done! The links should be fixed now.

    As for the rest of your comment, expect a full response later.

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