"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Praise Of Twitter

I am ‘of a certain age’, and I am one of the few of my older generation who thrive on social media. I am a big Facebook fan and am ‘following’ over 100 people, institutions, and journals on Twitter.  I love to sit down at the computer in the morning and scroll down the feeds waiting for the juicy morsel that tempts me to click on the link.  It is a cornucopia of information, a grand feast of ideas, opinions, and perspectives.  I once was limited to online journals, and while the commentary of the NY Times, Manchester Guardian, BBC News, NYR, and the London Review of Books among others gave me ideas, they were nothing compared to Twitter.  Not only would these journals post tweets, but so would their individual columnists and reporters.  I could get personalized information from BBC correspondents in the field, thoughts of one political observer on another, commentary by CATO, Brookings, and AEI; and hundreds of retweets by their followers.  As Richard Cohen, writing in the New York Times (12.11.12) noted:

Twitter is like a wire service on steroids where you can cherry-pick input from the smartest people you know. It is a feast where you generally get to choose what is on the table and where you do not have to sit through some interminable speech over dessert. It is also a battering ram pointed at the closed systems that turned that old 20th century into hell for so many.

“I thought Twitter was used only by teenage girls who wanted to report on what kind of ice cream they were eating”, said an older friend of an equally certain age. 

“No”, I replied.  “That’s Facebook”.

Of course it is Twitter as well.  Teenage girls can and do follow both Justin Bieber and their hundreds of friends. In fact, according to a recent study, ‘pointless babble’ accounts for most of Twitter traffic:

San Antonio-based market-research firm Pear Analytics analyzed 2,000 tweets (originating from the US and in English) over a two-week period in August 2009 from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM (CST) and separated them into six categories:

  • Pointless babble – 40%
  • Conversational – 38%
  • Pass-along value – 9%
  • Self-promotion – 6%
  • Spam – 4%
  • News – 4% (Wikipedia)

These data underline the popularity and importance of Twitter.  At the same time as my quinceañera neighbor is tweeting about boys and leggings, I am following my Shakespeare critic hero Harold Bloom, or intrepid BBC reporters like Lyse Doucet reporting from Syria or Mali. Twitter is for everybody.  It is eclectic, democratic, and comprehensive.  There are tens of thousands of conspiracy theorists, gun lovers, bird watchers, cooks, S&M enthusiasts, tree-huggers, fashionistas, and holiday shoppers tweeting every day.

Twitter now has around half a billion registered profiles, with over 100 million in the USA alone. Collectively Twitter users now send 175 million tweets every day. And that the most popular events on Twitter generate (literally) tens of thousands of tweets every second? (AllTwitter.com)

In his Times column Cohen criticizes Twitter and other social media as depriving us of the solitude, repose, and reflection that enables us to to ponder, consider, and aspire.  Deprived of unmediated, unexposed, private moments, we become public beings defined only by others:

Twitter can be addictive in ways that may provide brief solace but militate against respect of our deeper natures. There is too much noise, too little silence. To share, that once beautiful verb, has become an awful emotional splurge.

One of Cohen’s readers wrote:

“I began to feel a sort of psycho-emotional nausea over even the things I myself would post. Over the way moments in life became more significant at times for the way they presented themselves as perfect photo-ops or anecdotes to be shared on Facebook, rather than as things to be experienced in and of themselves. It was as if there were two parallel realities at all times in my consciousness.”

This is total, self-absorbed nonsense.  No one is forcing anyone to create elaborate public self-images, to get into pissing matches about who has the most friends or followers.  For every Twitter addict who looses his moorings and flees to the cyber-world of fantasy, unrealistic liaisons, fictitious ego-boosting, and a responsibility-free world without parents, wives, and debt; there are those who find the explosion of information, the lightning-quick access to people, institutions, books, and business exhilarating. 

Cohen’s reader went on: 

“Now, I am back to reading books when I would have been Facebooking. I talk to folks at the café I frequent. People have started calling me on the phone again to catch up because they don’t know what is going on with me otherwise. I have a hunch that being DISconnected is on its way to being the new trend.”

What a loser! Is it really impossible for her to create a varied day with multiple textures, levels of involvement, modulation, excitement, solitude, and social interaction like most of the rest of us? I can scroll down 200 tweets in minutes, cherry-pick the ones that interest me, read the link, and write about it either on my blog, on Facebook, back on Twitter, or through email.  In many cases the tasty morsels pique my interest to read more extensively on a particular subjects.  I discuss many of the new ideas I have learned with friends over lunch; and on solitary walks think about the complex ways in which one new idea relates to others.

Somewhere deep inside everyone is the thing that makes them tick. The thing is it is often well hidden. The psyche builds layers of protection around people’s most vulnerable traits, which may be closely linked to their precious essence. Social media build layers of distraction from that essence.

Nonsense again. Simplistic nonsense.  Information via social media, books, journals, and conversation is the sine qua non of self-discovery or revelation. Except for the Hindu holy man in the last stages of his journey to enlightenment when he stops his mind from thinking, suppresses cognition, and joins the One in a pure spiritual existence, most of the rest of us need information to nourish our psyches.  Every day that I learn something about the perpetual cycles of history, I have learned something about human nature and about my own.  It is not the social media that are preventing us from exploring our inner selves, it is us. If we choose to use Twitter as a vehicle to fuel our manic and flailing attempts to create fantasy personae or to forget death, debt, and courage, so be it.  If we choose to use it as a tool to enrich our lives, so much the better.  If you are looking to blame someone, Mr. Cohen, blame us, not Twitter.

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