Nonsense Technology

Socializing on a shoestring: or, telling people in Europe that you just ate a sandwich

cool graphic, not designed by me
I just found this old article about Twitter, a service that I can only assume (or hope) is used mostly by 14-year-olds but lately is used by, well, me. The article is really excellent and makes very valid arguments against Twitter. If you don’t know what Twitter is or why it is a sorry replacement for human interaction, you should check it out. (Credit for this graphic also goes to the author of the article.)

Twitter does offer some features that make my life happier. It lets me send free text messages to Barcelona from my cell phone. I can use it to instantly update people in Barcelona as to my whereabouts, should they be waiting at home for me to log onto Skype for a phone call. The Twitters go simulataneously to web and cell phone with one text message. Very convenient. And sometimes it is nice just to say “I just ate the best cheeseburger ever! Wish you were here” while waiting for the bus.

This last case is silly, and quickly condemned by the article I’ve cited above. After all, why does the world need to know about my most recent meal? But with a six-hour time difference and 3,834 miles between us, I’m going to allow myself to be silly if it gets me through the day. Besides, cheeseburgers are important to certain people in Barcelona.

There is something very important in the final paragraph is this article:

I am not in the target audience for Twitter…I don’t want to be that connected. And I also have a huge appreciation for the art of keeping the mystery alive. I don’t want to know that much about so many people, and I sure don’t want people to know that much about me… mundane or otherwise. So, that puts me in the minority, and my Twitter fears are probably based solely on my own–quirky and less common–personality traits.

I think that the power of Twitter is not in the ability to update thousands of people, both friends and strangers, about my cheeseburger habits. The power of Twitter is the ability to update one person (or a very small, specific group of people). I am absolutely not interested in using Twitter to tell the world about the minute details of my life. In fact, I think that even this blog is an abuse of the internet’s publishing abilities. How many people really care about my feelings on Twitter?

No, I think the power of blogs and Twitters lies in their ability to connect people who already share a relationship “IRL”. I think people are only just beginning to understand the ways that technology can keep them connected to friends and family, relatives in other countries, groups of peers from work or a bygone stint at summer camp. Facebook, myspace, and photo services like Flickr are helping people learn about the possibilities. But I think what this article points to is that trap that most people fall into when using these services. Just think about the word “twitter.” It means a short burst of sound, such as a bird makes. The sound is released into the world and is essentially meaningless – except to other birds. Or to those wackadoos who try to interpret and mimick them.

Let’s go back to my cheeseburger. If a stranger finds my Twitter page and starts following me, my snacking habits will seem like so much nonsense and wasted internet space. But some people might know that cheeseburgers played an important roll in my life in Spring 2007. So this update, rather than seeming frivolous, would have a deep meaning for those people. This way, the word “twitter” makes sense.

But twittering (along with instant messaging, texting, blogging, photo blogging, and my favorite, the Facebook “poke”) tempt us to fill in what the author of the above article calls “the mystery.” In other words, it is sort of sad to try to document each moment of our lives and fill it with some activity for teh sake of staying connected. You don’t need to know I ate a cheeseburger. I don’t need you to know that I ate a cheeseburger to feel that I am alive and have some significance on this planet. The danger of twittering and these other technologies is that it makes us feel like we are communicating, when really we are periodically reminding the world that we exist. It’s too easy to click send/submit/update/poke and send a short and content-poor message to the entire world. It requires no discipline and no reflection, and most significantly, no personal risk. You are putting yourself out there, but only in the most superficial sense.

Birds twitter; people can do so much more.

So I would suggest this. Twittering/etc has its place. Good for emergency updates, inside jokes, and cheeseburger-type messages. (And if you have a significant other living on another continent, you can use it for whatever gets you through the day.) But don’t let these services make you feel like you are really a part of a human network if that’s all you’re using to connect. The web is vast, and you don’t need to reach out to every person on it in order to participate. In order to have rich communication online, you need to narrow down your audience. Start a facebook group for all the members of your family. Make a pbwiki for your work team or class project. Create or say something original. And the next time you want to poke someone, take pity on their bruised shoulder and write them a letter instead.

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