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May 2009

Twitter: a witness projection program

Twitter-WhatAreYouDoingTwitter has become the ultimate (or at least current favorite) tool for addressing the fundamental human need to matter, to have a witness. The increasingly popular web service "for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" is, more than any tool before it, providing a platform through which we can all bear [and bare] witness to - or follow, in Twitter parlance - others, and others can bear witness to us. And the ability to project our witnesses and witnessees (or followers and followees) into a public sphere - the Twitterverse - adds interesting new dimensions to the satisfaction of this primal need to matter.

Naomi Pollack recently wrote a great Biznik article on Understanding Twitter: Why Twitter is Less Like Facebook and More Like Email that generated more comments - 118, last time I  checked - than any other article I've seen on the Biznik site (I'm not sure how many tweets it has generated). A few of those comments were mine, including one long one connecting Twittering and witnessing that prompted me to take the topic offline - or at least migrate it over to my "home" soapbox, this blog.

Shall_we_dance The comment centered on my favorite quote from the movie Shall We Dance [I just noticed the subtitle: "A new comedy about following your own lead"], uttered by the character Beverly Clark (played by Susan Sarandon):

We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness'."

Although the quote is referring to marriage, I think the general human need to be noticed, to be witnessed, to matter, is behind much of the popularity in all social media, and is captured - or projected - most acutely in Twitter. I don't mean to equate the Twitter follower / followee relationship with marriage - indeed, with most Twitter users having multiple followers and/or followees, this would be akin to an extreme case of polygamy - but I do believe that this quote captures the spirit of the ambient intimacy afforded by Twitter (and intended by its designers).

T.S. Eliot, sums this up in a quote that is short enough to fit in a Twitter post (or "tweet"):

To be of importance to others is to be alive.

Of course, any medium that becomes sufficiently popular will have some who take it to the extreme; online social media just makes the pool of potential extremists much larger. Ashton Kutcher's recent "achievement" of gaming gaining over 1 million followers on Twitter is a noteworthy example. At first, I thought this was another example of someone becoming Internet famous (a la Julia Allison, an online[-only] variation of what I might call vacuous celebutantism - being famous for being famous - perhaps best represented by Paris Hilton). I had never heard of before - I don't follow him in social media or more traditional media - but in reading some of the reports about the 1 million Twitter follower milestone, I discovered he already enjoyed some measure of celebrity before this stunt. All the same, it strikes me as much ado about nothing.

I don't know what it means to be ambiently intimate with over a million people. In a quick perusal of Ashton Kutcher's tweetstream, I see that he discusses Paula Abdul, going trap shooting, going to dinner, riding horses drunk and forgetting things when he leaves the house ... nothing particularly remarkable (or retweetable) ... with the possible exception of this, somewhat ironic, tweet:

“Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.” -unknown

250px-The_Million_Dollar_Homepage I'm reminded of the million dollar homepage, created by an enterprising 21-year-old college student (purportedly to help pay for his education), on which people could purchase any number of its 1 million pixels for $1 each. It was an interesting idea, and the million pixels were all sold, but I don't know how the money was actually used ... or how anyone else benefited from this achievement. I'm also reminded of Stephen Colbert's Wikipedia stunt, in which he urged his viewers [/ witnesses / followers?] to edit the Wikipedia entry to say that the population of elephants had tripled in the last 6 months. Of course, Stephen Colbert also engages his followers in many, more positive - or at least more benign (and definitely more amusing) - ways, e.g., offering his perspective on the "912 project" initiated by Glenn Beck of Fox News (what I would call a fear projection program ... and network), and urging his followers to join with him on his own "scare and balanced" 10.31 project. I wonder what great ideas Ashton Kutcher will rally his followers around.

A recent article by Simon Dumenco in Advertising Age about The Real Meaning of Ashton Kutcher's 1M Twitter Followers offers further insights into the Ashton Kutcher, Twitter, and media in general:

My point? Just that the utopian rhetoric of social-networking aside, the lesson of media history is that, regardless of the rise and fall of media conglomerates, media is almost always about The Few profiting at the expense of The Many's attention. To put that another way, The Many are actually investing their mind share -- their currency in the Attention Economy -- in a way that leads, for the most part, to the enrichment of The Few. To put it rather cynically, a certain portion of The Many are getting ripped off -- deprived of more and more of their mind share for little or no gain (or possibly a big loss).

There's a parallel, of course, to the housing bubble. At some point it suddenly dawns on millions of people that they've paid way too much for way too little actual value. (If you're one of the people who has read every one of Mr. Kutcher's more than 1,400 Twitter updates ... well, just realize that you'll never, ever get that time back.)

However, I do think there is some good to be found in social media ... although I think it is telling that I often discover the good in social media via more traditional media. Shortly after encountering Naomi's article on Twitter, I listened to an episode of NPR's series This I Believe, entitled Dancing to Connect to a Global Tribe, in which Matt Harding, who has become famous for his videos of dancing "terribly" in exotic locations, (with 41K subscribers to his YouTube channel, and over 13M views of his compilation video, Where the Hell is Matt?).

In stating his belief(s), Matt reported on what he has learned from his travels (and dances):

People want to feel connected to each other. They want to be heard and seen, and they're curious to hear and see others from places far away.

Interestingly (or, perhaps, curiously), another famous person from Seattle, Robert Fulghum, author of a number of essays and books exploring personal beliefs, most notably including All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, also talked about dancing, witnessing and sitting on the sidelines his This I Believe essay, entitled Dancing All the Dances As Long as I Can:

I believe in dancing. ...

The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines, when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. “Don’t make a fool of yourself,” I thought. “Just watch.”

Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down beside me, and said, “If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish. If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?”

And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, “If you do not dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think well of you for trying.”

ListeningIsAnActOfLove I was listening to NPR's Fresh Air this week, where Terry Gross was interviewing Gabriel Byrne who plays a psychoanalyst on the HBO series In Treatment, about the art of listening. Terry suggests that his character, Dr. Paul Weston, has "heroicized the act of listening". Byrne has some interesting insights to share on listening (a form of witnessing ... and, as noted in the StoryCorps series broadcast on NPR, an act of love):

We have a real need now, in these times, to be listened to. And I think when people identify with these characters, or reject them, they feel connected in a way that sometimes they don't in these fractured communities that we live in. ... Listening is one of the most profound compliments you can pay to another person - to truly listen - and to feel that you're heard is deeply fulfilling in a deep human way. ... Really, truly, profoundly listening is to be unaware of your self at a deep level.

I don't think anyone would accuse a Twitter user - especially one with an unnaturally large number of followers - as being "unaware of your self at a deep level" ... at least not in the context of posting a tweet (although another recent NPR story, Your Brain on Twitter, reported on a brain-computer interface that may eventually allow people to directly post tweets based on neural activity). In fact, I suspect deep listening - or deep thinking, reading or writing ... or depth of any kind - is the antithesis of the ambient intimacy promoted by Twitter.

WiredSnackCulture I suspect that's what bothers me the most about Twitter and other manifestations of snack culture - the embrace and celebration of shallowness. I recognize that there as many uses of Twitter as there are users, and that it really does represent a social media platform for the masses ... unlike blogs. One of the reasons I think there are so many "dead blogs" is that so few people are willing - or able - to take the time to write in much depth ... and, as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his great Atlantic Monthly article on "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", "the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle" for him, and a growing proportion of other "readers". But, hey, anyone can write - or read - a 140-character tweet!

In the interest of full disclosure [on this topic], I will note, in closing, that I am a Twitter user (@gumption). I was an early adopter of Twitter, and wrote about it in the context of attention, inattention, appreciation and depreciation at Foo Camp 2007. However, I soon grew weary of reading about what my ambient intimates were wearing, eating or thinking. It's not that I didn't care about the people I was following - in fact, I deeply cared (and still care) for some of them - I just didn't (and don't) care all that much about their activities of daily living. I stopped using Twitter entirely for about a year, but re-engaged with the tool during the closing months of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, when I was obsessed with staying on top of the latest developments in the most exciting political contest of my adult life. During the campaign, I wrote a few politically-oriented blog posts, but given my penchant for depth (or, at least, length) in posting blog entries, I wanted another platform for processing my thoughts, feelings and judgments about some of the actions taken by the candidates and their supporters ... a platform that I could use for shorter, more frequent venting. Twitter was just the ticket. I also started following some newly found (and appreciated) sources for news, such as NPR Politics, The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and Think Progress

Since the end of the election, I've shifted my use of Twitter to [mostly] posting inspiring quotes that I encounter in my reading and listening (very few of which, I might add, are retweets, i.e., Twitter is not currently a major source of inspiration). I've added a Twitter widget to my blog (in the right column), and my primary motivation in using Twitter is to have the 5 most inspiring quotes I've encountered (interspersed with occasional short rants) appear on my blog. This helps compensate for the depressingly decreasing frequency of new blog entries. I've been surprised to learn that several people have recently begun following me (or, more properly, my tweets). I hope they are not offended by my lack of reciprocity: it's nothing personal, I just generally don't like following people on Twitter (for reasons noted above). In addition to not following people, I hardly ever check for replies (tweets with "@gumption").

Although many people seem to see and/or use Twitter as a platform for conversation, for me it's primarily a soapbox, a broadcasting narrowcasting platform. I prefer in-depth conversations ... like the kind I enjoy through the comments on this blog. In an earlier post, commenting on commenting, I noted that my blog posts and the comments people post on them represent projections of sorts (and, in so doing, I suspect I may have discouraged some comments - and commenters - that I very much enjoy). In a subsequent post, commenting on validation / validating comments, I admitted that "I really do appreciate (and feel validated by) comments from people who are in some way moved by what I write". In a way, those comments represent a public witnessing to what I've written (and my comments responding to others' comments represent a witnessing to what they've written).

So, it's not that I'm against witnessing or even the projection of witnessing ... it's just that I believe in depth and meaning ... and, frankly, I just don't find - or project - much of that on Twitter.

[Update, 11 May 2009: Prompted by Praveen's comment, I finally re-found a blog entry that danah boyd had posted a while back (December 2007) about valuing inefficiencies and unreliability that effectively elucidates my concern about depth in Twitter. It is the very ease with which anyone can post a tweet that diminishes the meaning of the medium.

The more efficient a means of communication is, the less it is valued. ... Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I've found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they'd give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

FWIW, danah is on Twitter (@zephoria).]

[Update, 15-May-2009: Tyler (@phillipi) sent me a link to some interesting video commentaries on the Twitter phenomenon: the Twouble with Twitters and Celebrity Twitter Overkill, embedded below.]