Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I don't wish to sound like a twit, but...

For the life of me, I don't yet "get" Twitter.

I was thinking about this as I read an story this morning about how Facebook and Twitter have attempted to work a deal to combine their companies: Facebook, the increasingly ubiquitous social networking platform that must be making money hand over fist thanks to advertisers who yearn to connect with 40 year old male Ayn Rand fans, and Twitter, which has yet to figure out how to make a dime.

Certainly, Twitter provides an elegant application, the means to convey 140 character missives to "followers" via web and mobile phone. And the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai showed just how much information can be shared in 140 character bursts as Twitter-users updated friends and family around the world with eyewitness accounts of the assaults as they unfolded. Twitter, I'm told, is coming of age in a world when we don't seem to have much time or inclination to send long messages.

Ever willing to experiment, I started a Twitter account sometime last year, even though none of my friends seemed to be interested in receiving "tweets." It wasn't too long, though, before strangers started asking me to follow them and for them to follow me. And, yes, I did follow Mad Men's "Don Draper" for a while too. But nothing about the experience resonated with me.

Perhaps I'm using the wrong platform.

I carry a MacBook with me most of the time. It's thin enough to fit in an interoffice envelope, and its battery-life lasts long enough for a medium-sized airplane flight. I like the click of the keys and the size of the screen. My mobile Mac is my primary window on the world. When I want to check the web (which is pretty much all the time), I use a web browser. Heck, I even send regular "status updates" though my Facebook account. And when I want to write something more developed than that, I use a word processor. Thus I tend to write in paragraphs, not in "tweets." I have an iPod touch, too, and it comes in handy in a pinch - as long as I'm in a wireless hotspot. But I'm used to using a full sized and full-powered computer.

That said, I get the sense that Twitter is best used on a mobile phone. And I can see why.

These days on campus, I must navigate a shifting maze of phone-tapping students who shuffle from class to class, eyes locked on those tiny screens. I can't imagine one of them reading this blog post on her phone; she'd walk into a wall. But mobile telephony is how younger folks seem to stay connected to each other and to the world. Twitter was made for those phones. I so want to know what those messages entail, whether they are Tweeted or simply texted. What do people tap on those tiny devices? Are the messages anything more than a ceaseless flow of updates? "Leaving class." "Hungry. "Bored. "Lonely."

Here's my concern: I fear that those short screens and short messages lead to short attention-spans, the same kind of limitation that produces panic at the prospect that someone will actually answer us honestly when we ask, "How ya doing?" in passing. We've been practicing Twitter-speak for a long time; the technology is finally catching up.

Now I hear that Twitter is best understood as part of the micro-blogging phenomenon, sending bursts of witty repartee everywhere at once and processing an endless stream of witticisms, rejoinders, and bon mots in return, each of us wandering amid our own private Wordles. In this world, an essay of multiple paragraphs might seem as archaic as a thank you note. Readers who still write thank you notes may therefore share my unease at Twitter and what it represents.

Here, I should note my own diminishing horizons of thought.

I write blog-posts mainly while riding the bus. It's a nearly one-hour trip. Thus, I dedicate about one hour to my most developed entries. Sure, I'll do some editing later, and I'll add updates as events warrant. But I can hardly presume to write a meaningful essay in an hour. And if that's so, how can I censure Twitter and the whole micro-blogging craze? All of us have come to tolerate ever more constricted bursts of data, we who drown in the stuff. Maybe Twitter is an inevitable next step.

Moreover, my tech-geek friends will admonish me to avoid writing in generalities, "Twitter leads to short attention-spans, blah, blah, blah." One may write books, compose articles, whip out blog-posts, and jot tweets, each medium fit for each message, they'll say. Twitter does not kill thoughtful prose, it simply augments our day-to-day lives. This seems reasonable to me.

But around campus, on the bus, in airports, in coffee shops, and elsewhere in public life, I see fewer people reading books or even perusing newspapers. I see more folks tappa-tappa-tapping on their phones. Maybe they're reading War and Peace. Maybe they're writing something equally dense and meaningful. Maybe they live lives of thoughtful inquiry and deep reflection.

I just don't quite see it yet.

Follow-up: OK, I kind of get it now

No comments: