>Out on a Limb: The Blessing and Curse of Twitter

>The other evening I was getting such bad eye strain from watching television and searching Twitter for interesting people, news stories, and connections at the same time that I tweeted, “I should have more seriously considered giving up Twitter for Lent instead.” Said tweet got no response. Yet it also sparked the thought process that led to this post which, admittedly, may seem at first a bit too Washington D.C.-specific, but I ask you, gentle reader, to bear with me.

Recently the magazine Men’s Health conducted a survey to try to find out which of the U.S. cities made the heaviest use of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The editors (reasonably) assumed that Palo Alto, unofficial capital of the Silicon Valley, would probably get the top spot. Instead, the winner was Washington, D.C., with neither Palo Alto nor New York City even making the Top Ten.

Any poll or survey is suspect, of course, depending on the methodology involved. As observed in the second brilliant BBC mini-series on fictional British Prime Minister Sir Francis Urquhart “To Play the King”, figures can be subtly and easily manipulated depending on how a question is asked or how a sampling is analyzed. That being said, Washingtonians spend a great deal of time engaging in social media interactions, increasingly through the use of Twitter, and it often comes as a surprise to those of us inside the Beltway how many of our friends outside of it either use Twitter infrequently or do not even have a Twitter account.

Those who view this result in a positive light pointed to how interconnected the professional community in this city is, from politicians to interest groups to journalists and all those associated with them. Among the various social networking tools, Twitter stands in the unique position of being almost custom-made for the Nation’s Capital. It is a sound-bite maker’s dream. Whether you are a lobbyist, a congressman, a lawyer, or reporter, if you are to be successful here you have to be able to distill down the point you are trying to make into a few key words and phrases which your audience will take away and, hopefully, act upon. Long-gone are the days when the public had the patience for listening to or reading blowhard speeches from the floor of the House.

Having personally made the migration back in the day from Friendster to MySpace, and then on to Facebook and A Small World (an invite-only site sometimes referred to as “Snobster” by critics, populated mainly by good-looking people with ties to Europe), Twitter did not seem to be much of a draw for me at first. The limitation of 140 characters and not being able to communicate directly with someone via a private message or email – which is often preferable to the full-out public statement depending on the sensitivity of the matter at issue – was a definite turn-off. However over time I warmed to it, recognizing that I could find diverse but kindred spirits through Twitter more quickly than possible on Facebook, and it could help me to find additional readers for these pages.

With more use of Twitter its benefits and drawbacks have become very apparent. Yes, I have met some interesting people through it, and through those virtual meetings I have made new friends and found new sources of information as well as new readers. In that respect, Twitter has proven to be very satisfactory. Yet in the very nature of Twitter itself lies what is the proverbial sting in the scorpion’s tail, for the enforced brevity of the medium leads to some muddling of the message, and at the same time the use of Twitter, if it does not develop properly, can lead to a deterioration of the self just as easily as any other pleasure taken to excess.

From a stylistic standpoint, there is something disturbingly egalitarian about the tweet, or at least what is considered a readable, acceptable tweet. For those who appreciate the verbal contortions imposed by the limitation of characters, but also try not to offend the mother tongue, the little countdown of available spaces is rather like a creative exercise of the OuLiPo literary movement. However since the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation do not typically apply to the tweet, or are given a pass, average joes who could barely pull a “C” in freshman writing may have ten times as many followers on Twitter as those with a proper but clever grasp of the English language and its possibilities in a limited amount of space.

The content then, is arguably more important than the presentation, but it remains true that no one cares what the main course is, if the appetizer is turds in a blanket. Putting aside the personal explanations of what one is doing or where one is headed off to – which we will return to momentarily – most tweets fall into the sphere of the “commentariat”: a re-posting of links to a news item with the tweeter’s brief opinion, or simply the posting of an opinion on a current topic. The grammar and spelling in the tweet is not infrequently poor, and the comment itself is either poorly thought out or so instantaneous that the tweeter has not taken sufficient time to reflect on what he is about to announce to the world. Like little hot-headed Martin Luthers, tweeters go about nailing things to their virtual front door in a fit of rage, and in the hope that someone will pay attention to them.

And therein lies the rub, for most tweeters – and I accuse myself of this as well – do not stop to ask themselves why anyone should care what team they support, what Presidential candidate they like, or what they thought of last night’s reality show-du-jour episode. They put themselves out on a limb, and in so doing have publicly invited their followers and (unless they protect their tweets) anyone else on Twitter to throw stones at them. Yet exactly what happens when we perch out on our limb varies depending on what we have to say, the level of active participation in Twitter among those who follow us or are searching for the topic we have written about, and so on.

The highest mark of acceptance is, arguably, the re-tweet or RT: it is an unequivocal endorsement of our opinion in which our follower climbs out on the limb with us, giving us an added sensation of being in the right, safety being in numbers. Moving down the scale we get to the MT or modified tweet (sometimes incorrectly called an RT which, if changes are made to the original tweet, it should not be), which can be good or bad. Then we have the Reply, which may be good or bad as well, depending on whether the replier starts throwing stones at us, hoping to knock us off our perch.

Then we have what can seem the worst of all possible responses, which is no response at all. In some cases it is understandable that we do not receive a response. A tweet to a movie star or head of state for example, unless you are a person of some importance in your own right, is likely to garner no interest from that individual. A tweet to a “tweep” from the Twitter world which goes unanswered however, goes beyond simply ruffling our feathers in an argument which tries to cast us from our perch. It can feel like suddenly discovering we were never perched out on a limb at all – we weren’t even in the forest.

The blog, longer and (comparatively) slower a means of communication as it is, provides a public forum for publishing what is essentially one’s own newspaper or magazine. It requires a greater involvement of time both in its creation and consumption. The tweet, on the other hand, can be so instantaneous that a thought flies off the fingers and out into the world without the writer giving due consideration to how his words are going to impact those who read them. True, it can later be deleted or modified, but it can never wholly be undone.

Taking a chance by tweeting means that you may come to find that your views are, in fact, incorrect, and you end up not only being knocked from your perch but completely molt your old feathers. The benefit of being a rational being rather than an instinctive animal means that one’s views can change. You may have started out as a fan of Mr. Obama, for example, perhaps because you were frightened by an elephant at the zoo when you were at the child, but later on come to embrace a Republican candidate for President in 2012. You are allowed to change your mind, and it is even possible that through communication with others on Twitter, that change of mind may come about.

However no matter how beneficial the connection on Twitter may be to your thought process, your cause, or even to the development of your business, it should be a spark to create, rather than a substitute for, the development of a human relationship. This is why tweeting can be such a dangerous thing, for it becomes all too quickly a substitute for actual conversation, and almost inevitably leads to worthless, disposable commentary with the value of a rice cracker: slight burst of airy saltiness followed by virtually no nutritional value or sense of satedness. Let it never be claimed that I despise the short, well-crafted, cutting remark: I have made a few in my day. Yet the face-to-face or telephone conversation, the thought-out blog post or e-mail, is less likely to devolve into something like passing notes in class – which is what Twitter very often seems most to resemble – and can help cement our relationships in ways which Twitter cannot.

Here in Washington, Men’s Health clearly recognized that we tend to work rather hard and often employ new media, but did not note that we do not seem to socialize as much in the evenings as perhaps is the case in other large cities. There are very few neighborhoods in D.C. with local gathering places that are as jammed as those in New York on any given Tuesday night, for example. Part of this also has to do with the fact that apartments in Manhattan are so much smaller, and the commute to suburbia so much more unpleasant and difficult. Yet as NBC Washington reporter Carissa DiMargo observed, in response to coverage of the Men’s Health story, “Maybe we’re #1 because we’re all overworked and lonely. There. We said it!”

Now that is going out on a limb, and one I suspect that quite a few of us hereabouts find ourselves on, at times. And perhaps this false community vs. self-imposed isolation dichotomy is something we ought to consider, not only with respect to our tweeting, but also with respect to the types of relationships we form. Are we only looking to meet people who are like us as much as possible? Do we pursue connections like two infants playing with each other in a crib, each acting purely out of self-motivation and not out of a genuine interest in the other?

Trollope once famously stated that a friendship cannot be preserved on the cost of a postage stamp. Yet neither can it be fostered and grow if we fail to take concrete steps to see that connection moves beyond flippancy and armchair quarterbacking into something of value. Twitter is a blessing, if we use it as a means to an end, but a curse if it is taken as an end unto itself. If I take my own advice – and we shall see how that goes – I will be tweeting less, but better. If you take mine however, use Twitter as a tool to meet new people, but at the same time take care not to turn it into a substitute for building real relationships.

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