Monday, November 2, 2009

Justifying the Ways of Twitter

A blogger has certain responsibilities, among these being thoughtful answers to Norm Geras's questions about Twitter:

(1) Why would I want to record my daily activities for other people to follow? (2) Why would I want to follow the detailed doings of anyone else over the course of a day, and another day, and another day? ... (3) Who has time for it?
As this is my blog, my answers will have to do instead, and I answer as follows, based on my own rich, creamy experience with Twitter, which stretches all the way back to March of this year, a veritable eternity in the context of online social media.

(1) I would want to record my daily activities because I am vain, small, petty, self-promoting, and damnnear boundlessly narcissistic. There, I said it. Anyone who claims higher motives in reply to this is attempting the tired maneuver of concealing self-regard in false modesty. Yawn.

To be clear, there may be genuine reasons in addition to pure narcissism -- promoting sales and brand recognition are common wellsprings o' tweets, trying to lure inbound links to other online thingies is another common one, luring men into thinly-veiled prostitution operations appears to be a very common one, etc. One could distinguish between these promotions and rank narcissism, but to a close first approximation, a strong element of rank narcissism is behind every tweet ever.

(2) This very much depends, of course, on the entity followed. I want to follow, say, PZ Myers, Matt Yglesias, and Glenn Greenwald for the same reasons I want to follow their blogs: because they often express things I find informative, interesting, or otherwise agreeable. I want to follow Pandora because I like what Pandora does and I accept a certain amount of money-chasing mendacity if it provides a quick way to see their news feed and technical updates. I want to follow everyday human beings I know because knowing them entails, with or without Twitter, the desire to wedge myself up in their business.

(3) People who have time to read and write tweets include the unemployed, the unemployable, and people stuck at keyboards or text messaging devices all day -- you know, the usuals. I would guess that most users of twitter are like me in this way: I don't go to great lengths to read every tweet that comes from the people I follow. I know I've missed plenty of good ones, but I do what I have time to do and don't spend any time agonizing over what I've missed, whether I am following the right entities, or whether I have done justice to my follows in the way that I'd worry over a book I purchased but haven't found the time to read. Twitter is free; easy come, easy go; what is not worth doing is not worth doing thoroughly, etc.

Adding to the above, I have come to appreciate how Twitter provides a window onto our fickle, mutable Zeitgeist. Granted, the Zeitgeist is what it is, and always includes a strong proportion of Complete Crap, but the momentary vagaries of culture are famously varied in quality, seriousness, usefulness, and so on.

If Something Truly Big is happening in the world, it can be expected to surface on Twitter quickly. Twitter may not tell a complete version of it -- it probably won't, though it can become entwined with events in important ways -- but it will point the way to resources that do not have the 140-character limit, and this surfacing will happen in real time.

Browsing through the "trending topics" list has frequently acquainted me with fancies I would otherwise miss -- today's include "#unseenprequels," which is a meme in which people tweet the titles of movie prequels that have never been made. Without Twitter, these ten minutes during which countless thousands of people try to think up unseen prequel titles would pass by unnoticed, and our collective cultural imagination would be correspondingly impoverished: I, for one, shudder to think of an alternate reality in which I would never have even thought to type "Awkward Hook-Up at Tiffany's #unseenprequels", "The Gradually Coalescing Gas & Dust Cloud of the Apes #unseenprequels," "Drafting Private Ryan #unseenprequels," or "2000: A Space Iliad #unseenprequels."

Sadly, Twitter is exactly as stupid and pointless as social interaction itself.


Elizabeth said...

It is not worth my time to go look up #unseenprequels myself, but I am eternally grateful to a blogger for highlighting these few for me. :-)

Dale said...

Elizabeth, you're right to suspect it would not be worth your time, though a few have been pretty good.