I'm on Twitter. As some of you may recall, I'd ridiculed Twitter before I joined, its notion that anyone outside of your head cares in any meaningful way about your individual thoughts and actions unless they're your parents or your stalker. But I did join, first, by setting up my office's account and then, familiarized, by setting up my own.
I've used it more or less frequently since joining. It's fun to craft a punchy statement while working within the character constraints, and it's nice to "publish" a quick thought that isn't substantial enough for a blog post. From the user standpoint, it's great to find content from a variety of providers, from friends to corporations to commentators on it all.
But, here's the thing: I follow just over 60 accounts, and, even so, I rarely have the time to do more than cast a quick glance at these tweets when I do access Twitter to post, clicking infrequently through the attached links and never scrolling down more than a few screens. As a consequence, unless I make the effort to see what one Twitterer has had to say over X period of time, I miss much of what's been said while I've been offline.
By contrast, at work, I use HootSuite throughout the day to track my office's tweets, as well as subscription tweets, responses and retweets, in a four-column configuration. To the casual observer, it looks as if I'm monitoring battlefield reports at a C3 bunker, new tweets streaming on constantly, the software chiding me if I leave it unattended for over an hour.
I'm sorry, but either scenario is more than a bit unsatisfying. I mean, I want to be as informed as the next fellow of Christina Aguilera's thoughts on a real-time basis. And, doubtless, some of you are far more efficient than I and effortlessly multitask monitoring your overflowing Twitter stream, even as you earn Foursquare badges and update your Facebook status. But the democratization of online communication and the concomitant multiple-magnitude increase in online content have made it, to my mind, almost impossible to conduct a casual online life, one that does not require constant care, attention and commitment if one is actually to use the social media for which one has created accounts.
Granted, even among this democratized twittering class, some voices, by dint either of celebrity or of the actual value of their content, draw eyeballs. The aforementioned Aguilera has been on Twitter for just under a month and has over 220 thousand followers. Britney Spears has been on since October 2008, has 7.4 million followers and follows 417 thousand others. That said, while it's understandable that more people than inhabit Massachusetts would want to catch such gems as "@rihanna You're such a tease! I like it, like it.... -Britney" drop from BritBrit's virtual lips, is Britney assiduously reading the tweets from all four hundred thousand-plus of her followers? Such as LovelyHooker's intriguing tweet "@holymonsterslut You didn't actually :') Like whaaaat? A PINK DILDO? :B <3"
or any of the tweets from the 12-year-old "Verified Beliebers" who also follow her?
In truth, is anyone listening to anyone else? Because from my perspective, it's the virtual equivalent to a stadium concert where everyone is too busy texting, talking and tweeting to actually watch the act onstage. Except that the act onstage is everyone texting, talking and tweeting. And if that's the case, then what's Twitter but the ocean into which everyone throws a message in a bottle knowing? assuming? hoping? that someone will not only find it, but take 30 seconds to read it?
I referred earlier to the "democratization" of online communication, but Twitter represents not so much the democratization of electronic media as the reification of the ego. The expression of each individual, however benighted or brilliant, is given form and life in a way unimaginable a generation ago. As a consequence, people, their dreams kindled and expectations raised, want to be heard--even if they don't want to hear others--and want to have even a little assurance that they are being heard. "Follow-me-I'll-follow-you" logrolling only goes so far (the rolled log being the remains of the tree that fell in the forest to no audience), because you, Joe or Jane Blow, may have a thousand followers, but can you say with certainty that any 100 are actually reading your tweets regularly? If others do this math, then I can see a near future when Twitter sheds its "social media" skin to serve as a customer service channel for merchants such as airlines and big box retail or an expedited channel for news dissemination, be it from media, the government or grassroots reporters. But the notion that everyone or anyone cares about each and every hair, mood, location or LOLZOMG!! tweet you squirt is likely, I think, to be discarded sooner rather than later.
Because, ultimately, you're not that interesting, and neither am I. Keeping that knowledge to ourselves is as essential to the social compact as covering one's mouth during a sneeze and faking an orgasm with royalty. Any system that reminds us, tacitly or otherwise, of the world's indifference to the minutiae of our mental lives is not fated to enjoy a long life.