I was at first excited about Twitter… well, “at first” after I had surmounted my initial prejudice about its just being an occasion for people to sling epithets over the airwaves. I decided that it might have several benefits, if properly used. I could announce my publications through it. I could run a flag up the masthead and see if anyone saluted; and if the response was good, I might actually make contact with other “like-minded people” (though don’t ask me to parse that phrase). In some cases, I could also receive genuine news scoops from sources I trusted or be directed to articles of special interest to me.
That said—and Twitter does indeed possess all of the benefits that I just rambled off, in its better moments—I’ve also begun to grow very disappointed in the whole operation. I suppose I understand now that I was looking for something like the growth of an intellectual community. Yes, I’m back to “like-minded”. It seems to me that I’ve been looking high and low for that community all my life. In practice, here is what I find on the “tweeting” platform.
- Nationally recognized authors and columnists use the platform to announce their latest post or publication, just as I do—except that they enjoy followings well into the thousands, and mine… a little over a dozen.
- Seeking out a “community of interest” is an almost haphazard undertaking. Now, one may theoretically reach more than my faithful dozen, thanks to the notorious hashtag… but I rarely seem to be able to find two or three words for squeezing in after the # that attract a feeding frenzy. This is the familiar pattern I noticed decades ago when people were hailing satellite-delivered TV as à la carte channel service. A phenomenon that I call “mainstreaming” occurs even on shopping or rerun or sports channels. Within the given “specialized” market, everybody is making the same pitch, doing the same thing. I have tried several times to start or enter a discussion on Twitter of our unprotected power grid. Ironically, we might as well already have been struck by an EMP: no hashtag banner draws any attention, though the issue in question could involve the greatest cataclysm in our national history.
- The “celebrity dressing room” effect seems very visible. That is, one finds names to conjure with sharing intimate moments (sometimes far too intimates) or off-the-cuff comments (sometimes far too off-the-cuff) with their adoring thousands. I suppose it’s a little like touching the hem of the Messiah as he passes… for them. Not really what the word “community” signifies to me.
- Links to YouTube videos abound that show a goldfish riding a bike… or whatever. My wife seems to see more of this kind of thing on Facebook, but it has obviously carried over into the other platform.
- And, yes, there’s a lot of the, “You stupid—ing dirtbag —hole!” species of meditation. And perhaps the most depressing thing about these is the 3.5K “likes” that they attract. So we’re back to the left-field bleachers in the eighth inning, from which empty beer bottles are starting to rain upon the visitors’ bull pen.
For a while, I would draw as many as twelve or fifteen “likes” for a comment that I had mulled over carefully and compressed with a skill that would have stirred La Rochefoucauld’s envy. (Now there was a guy who knew all about envy!) Yet none of this effort translated into “followers”, so the next day I was back at Square One. I was once again entrusting messages to bottles (speaking of empty bottles) that I cast into the wide gray sea from my desert island. No one really knew I was there, and I hadn’t found anyone else who was “transmitting” steadily. On a certain day and on a certain issue, I just happened to have collected a certain two dozen words that a certain dozen people thought were well chosen (and they weren’t, sometimes; my most thoughtful comments would usually pass unnoticed). To the extent that loneliness in a crowd is harder to bear than loneliness on a mountain peak, I had magnified the frustrations of the castaway.
I’m sure there must be some “hack” or two that one may use to build the snowball. Comment only on Tweets that are mere minutes old, my son advises (who never uses Twitter). But if I start chasing after posts with a view to directing notice my own way, then I undermine the purpose for which I originally decided to give a few minutes a day to the thing. And it’s alarming, frankly, to catch oneself choosing a particular post or tailoring a comment in a particular way because one thinks it may turn out to be a lightning rod for attention. We get all over our politicians for playing the popularity game before their bags are even unpacked in DC… but the temptation is universal. You tell yourself, “I’ll work on my following with this one: then I’ll have more eyes on my next genuinely profound gem.” To hell with that.
Indeed, it’s happened to me a couple of times that I am “followed” for declaring an opinion that somebody liked and then “unfollowed” within days for declaring another that he doesn’t like. It’s a strange feeling to older people like me who spent their lives dealing with warm bodies. In that world of yore, you didn’t just befriend a person for displaying values you endorsed and then refuse to speak to him the next day for contradicting your opinion about marijuana or health care. Welcome to e-Society.
I’ll continue on Twitter, I think, in a reduced capacity. I feel very gratified about possibly having steered a woman to someone who can effectively work toward getting her wrongfully convicted husband released: at that instant, I was in the right place at the right time. But I have too few years left to spend half an hour (or more) every day micro-editing a thought that poses a target for a snarky drive-by sniper… or, much more likely, that suffers the fate of a pebble cast into the ocean. The bottles with messages at least float. There are new platforms, I hear, where one may pre-select a cozy little fishing hole organized around a topic or set of principles. I’ve had enough of trying to bait hashtags over the Mariana Trench.