I often have to remind myself not to think in terms of what’s happening on Twitter, but rather what’s happening in my Twitter feed. I only follow around 200 people — more than that and I get disoriented — and those people are scarcely representative of Twitter users as a whole. So take the thoughts that follow for what they’re worth, remembering that they’re based on a small sample size.
The past ten days saw two tsunamis sweep through my Twitter feed. The first was occasioned by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s massive essay “The Case for Reparations”; the second by the murders in Santa Barbara. At moments like these, moments of intensified attention, people tweet more than usual and they retweet a lot more than usual, so the activity level in my feed was at least three times, and maybe five times, more than I’m used to. (I haven’t found a way to track this: Twitter Analytics assumes that you’re only interested in what people are doing with your own tweets, which is telling.)
This kind of thing always makes me want to flee Twitter, even when I am deeply sympathetic to the positions people are taking. It’s a test of my charity, and a test I usually fail. To me these tsunamis feel like desperate signaling, people trying to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on the issue du jour. I can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads as they try to craft retweetable tweets, the kind to which others will append that most wholehearted of endorsements: “THIS.” I find myself thinking, People, you never tweeted about [topic x] before and after 48 hours or so you’ll never tweet about it again, so please stop signaling to all of us how near and dear to your heart [topic X] is.
So, you know: charity FAIL. I know that most — well, anyway, many — of the people tweeting about what everyone else was tweeting about were sincere and expressing genuine interest. It’s just hard for me to handle such exaggerated and repeated unanimity. When those waves sweep over Twitter, it’s probably best for me just to step away for a few days.
But they seem to happen more and more often, which makes me wonder how much longer I can sustain a presence on Twitter.
In any event, I’ve learned that when the tsunamis happen, adding to their volume is always — always — a mistake, for me anyway. I inevitably regret it later. Better if I take time to think. So I have taken some time to think about these two recent waves, and I’m going to try to say something coherent about them in my next post.
I feel you, Alan. Sometimes it’s best to step away from the computer, put down the iPad, silence the phone, and go drink a nice, cool, tall glass of lemonade under an old tree.
Sometimes it requires something a little stronger than lemonade, Matt. But thanks!
My suspicion is that this problem is especially acute for those who participate in the cultural conversation in other ways than Twitter– the bloggers, the writers, the journalists. Because their Twitter identity is their professional identity AND their personal identity, and for a lot of them, it's all the time– when they wake up until the go to sleep. There's never been much of a wall between professional and private life for journos and politicos, but whatever their once was is really and truly gone now. And I often wonder if that's healthy– if it's really sustainable for people to engage in political battles with someone at noon and to chat with them about Game of Thrones at 5 PM.
The thing is that whatever problems could be solved without having to abandon the service; it would just take boundaries and moderation. But part of the problem with the internet is that it is undermines our capacity for boundaries and moderation. By design– by economic necessity– services like Twitter and Facebook provide incentives for obsessive use rather than moderate use. It's a sticky problem.
The "exaggerated and repeated unanimity" is what gets to me, too — it's hard to take all that in and not recoil a little, because it starts to feel like such a groupthink machine. But I think you're right that it isn't really all signaling — it's maybe more like when an ambulance pulls up down the street and everyone steps outside their houses to see what's going on, gathers in little groups, chats while casting glances over at the EMTs. There's not a whole lot of point, there's not a lot anybody can do — but if given the choice, I would still rather be part of a species that steps outside for a few minutes to chatter than that just stays inside minding our own business. (This is not a great analogy. I guess I mean: The execution can be irritating, but it's nice to know that people do care, that people want to engage with this stuff.)
I think Twitter is really and truly fascinating. It gives us a much more granular picture of the zeitgeist than we once got from, say, newspapers and cable news. It's still not a perfect picture (I don't know what would be), and obviously it's especially slanted toward to a certain type of literate person. But thanks to Twitter I've learned an awful lot from total strangers, especially in the past year, and I don't know where else such a thing could have happened on such a scale.
Yeah, this really resonates with me. Especially when, on occasion, it's an issue I'm ambivalent about, where it feels almost as though one is on the outside looking in on a two minute hate–with the faint yet unsettling concern that one's lack of participation has been noted, somewhere.
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