Twitter, Tweets, and for all who love them2
[I am a subscriber to The Weekly Standard and look forward to its appearance in my mailbox. Yes, that’s right, I actually read the hard copy, you know, the sort made of paper (such dinosaurs do still exist). On May 6, 2013, there appeared a lengthy article by Matt Labash, a senior writer at the magazine, entitled, The Twidiocracy: The Decline of Western civilization, 140 characters at a time (Vol. 18, No. 32). Although I didn’t have time to read it when it first appeared (my friend Justin Taylor carried a brief reference to it on his blog, which stirred my interest), I finally did so today.
My strong recommendation is that you read it in its entirety, especially if you are on Twitter. Short of that (after all, Twitter is all about “shortening” things), I’ve got some especially juicy sections for you below. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe even do something about it! Warning: the language is a bit obscene in places; his, not mine.]
If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m not a Twitter fan. In fact, I outright despise the inescapable microblogging service, which nudges its users to leave no thought unexpressed, except for the fully formed ones (there’s a 140-characters-per-tweet limit). I hate it not just because the Twidiocracy constantly insists I should love it, though that certainly helps. Being in the media profession (if “profession” isn’t overstating things), where everyone flocked en masse to the technology out of curiosity or insecurity or both, I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness. I hate the smugness of it, the way the techno-triumphalists make everyone who hasn’t joined the Borg feel like they’ve been banished to an unpopulated island, when in fact the numbers don’t support that notion. Even after seven years of nonstop media hype, only 16 percent of Internet users tweet, the same as the percentage of 14-49-year-olds who have genital herpes. The difference being that the latter are not proud of their affliction, while the former never shut up about theirs.
I hate the way Twitter transforms the written word into abbreviations and hieroglyphics, the staccato bursts of emptiness that occur when Twidiots who have no business writing for public consumption squeeze themselves into 140-character cement shoes. People used to write more intelligently than they speak. Now, a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet. If that’s a concern—and all evidence suggests it isn’t—you can keep your tweets private, readable only by those you invite. But that reduces your number of “followers,” so almost nobody does it. A private Twitter account cuts against the whole spirit of the enterprise—a bit like showing up at a nude beach in a muumuu. . . .
I hate that Twitter makes the personal public. That conversations between two intimates that formerly transpired in person or by email become conversations between two intimates for the benefit of their followers. I’ve actually been to lunch with people who have tweeted throughout, unbeknownst to me. (The fact that they only looked up from their iPhone twice in two hours might’ve been a tipoff. Though that’s pretty much par for the course, even with untweeted lunches these days.). . . .
Being driven to distraction by the steady dopamine-drip of attention on Twitter and other social-media sites is hardly unique to megalomaniacal leather enthusiasts. A recent survey by Boost Mobile found 16-25-year-olds so addicted that 31 percent of respondents admitted to servicing their social accounts while “on the toilet.” And a Retrevo study found that 11 percent of those under age 25 allow themselves to be interrupted by “an electronic message during sex.”
A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets, Twitter causes Twidiots to ask one fundamental question at all times: “How am I doing?” That’s not a question most people can resist asking, even in their offline lives, but on Twitter, where tweeters are publicly judged by masses of acquaintances and strangers alike, the effect tends to be intensified. Even the most independent spirit becomes a needy member of the bleating herd. It’s the nerd incessantly repeating what the more popular kids say. It’s the pretty girl, compulsively seeking compliments.
As a friend of mine says, “It’s addictive and insidious. I see it even with smart people who ought to know better but can’t help themselves. They give wildly disproportionate weight to the opinions they read on Twitter, mostly because they’re always reading Twitter. Which fills them with anxiety, distorts their perceptions, and makes it almost impossible for them to take the long view on anything. Every crisis is huge, ominous, and growing. Every attack requires an immediate response.” . . . .
Of course, most tweets don’t land you in prison. Most of them, in fact, are just inconsequential crap. Don’t take my word for it. Take science’s. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper said upwards of 80 percent “of posts to social-media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements of one’s own immediate experiences.” Rutgers researchers found that 51 percent of mobile-posted Twitter messages were “me now” messages, and that 80 percent of tweets analyzed could be classified as “meformers” (informing about yourself). After Pear Analytics collected thousands of tweets over two weeks and broke them down into six categories, the leader at 40.5 percent was “pointless babble.” Even Twitter users, in a study conducted by MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgia Tech researchers, said only a little over a third of the tweets they receive are worthwhile. . . .
[Labash also describes his experience while attending The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference that, according to its official website, offers “the unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.”]
As I walk through the convention center to attend my first panel, I see that exactly nobody else has my smartphone reticence. Everybody is on theirs, pretty much full time. Entire hallways and lounges are silent as the inhabitants ignore each other, lost in their own iWorlds. Their heads are tucked and rocking like those of trance-induced madrassa students, their thumbs pistoning as fast as they think, tweeting and Foursquaring and iHate-ing and working any number of other apps that will go from being the World’s Greatest Innovation to MySpace (the universal term of derision for all things obsolete) before you’ve ever heard of them. . . .
Evan Fitzmaurice, an Austin-based lawyer and longtime friend who until recently was the Texas Film Commissioner, has attended many a SXSW. He tells me one night over dinner that while he’s wired to the hilt (“I’ve gotta connect to the Matrix”), he sees the downside of perpetual connectedness. “You’re truncating natural thought. Things don’t gestate anymore. It’s instantaneous, without the benefit of reflection. And everything’s said at volume 10. Nothing’s graduated anymore. It’s a clamor.” Though not religious himself, he says what I witness at SXSW would be recognized by any religious person. “They’re trying to supplant deliverance and redemption through religion with civil religion and technological redemption—the promise of a sublime life on a higher plane.” . . . .
At a session entitled “The Tangled Web We Leave: Digital Life after Death,” we’re warned to get our online affairs in order. (Give those passwords to your loved ones, because if you get electrocuted dropping your iPad in the tub tomorrow, how will your family access your Instagram account?) But we’re also told of a new app called LivesOn, the logical terminus of the Twidiocracy. It’s a service that studies your pre-mortem Twitter feed for tastes and syntax, and then keeps tweeting in what it assumes is your voice after you expire. (Company slogan: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”) . . . .
When I catch up with Hillstrand and the other captains later that night at a Deadliest Catch party, he declares his feelings for Twitter straightaway: “I f—in’ hate it. It takes all your time, and now people expect you to be doing it. I work my ass off, the last thing I need is another multimedia activity to do. . . . I see people who will go to lunch, and the four of them will be typing the whole time. And they probably leave and type, ‘that was the greatest lunch, let’s do this again.’ And they didn’t even f—in’ talk!” . . . .
In fact, a SXSW meetup that I attend on the back patio of an Austin bar—titled “I Am My Own Social Network”—proves just how acute the problem has become. Dave Hepp, the creative director at CreativeFeed in New York, has decided to conduct what these days passes for a brave and radical social experiment: He forces attendees to hand over their phones for 45 minutes and actually talk to each other. There are placards posted all over the patio with helpful conversation-starters for the human-interaction-impaired, such as “What is your earliest memory?” or “What did you want to be when you grew up?” Questionnaires are handed out, so that people can catalog their conversations, forcing them to listen.
People circle each other warily, their iThumbs twitching, yearning to make contact with their newly amputated digital appendages. But for most, the old muscle memory of analog life gradually returns. It becomes too much for one guy, who has to grab his iPhone and bolt—a pending dinner reservation swings in the balance—but he quickly returns, rechecking his phone at the confiscation desk. People introduce themselves, leaning into sometimes awkward small talk, tepidly feeling their way around each other, like accident victims learning to walk again. After about 15 minutes, they make what passes for real-live human connection. Nobody is looking over his shoulder for someone more important, since talking about your job is forbidden.
Many talk of their experiences at SXSW. How impossible it’s been to strike up conversations with the iDistracted. How at panels they’ve sat through, they’ve admired the live-tweets of people they know are sitting feet away from them, but how they wouldn’t think of introducing themselves afterwards.
[I’m curious: among those of you who are on Twitter who actually read these excerpts from the article, how many paused periodically either to tweet your experience or to read someone else’s? Interesting!]