Today is Twitter’s fifth birthday.
No, Twitter, I don’t hate you. As a gesture of protest, I’m not going to tweet this piece line-by-line, sometimes being forced to stop mid-sentence because, for crying out loud, who is able to have a coherent or nuanced thought in fewer than 140 characters?
No, Twitter, you haven’t ridden roughshod (can Web sites ride roughshod?) over the only skill I’ve ever acquired: the ability to string sentences together in a way that is sometimes logical, infrequently beautiful, and never requires fewer than 140 characters.
I’m not bitter.
Well, maybe I am.
And I’m on Twitter. I was initially hesitant. “Get on Twitter?” I asked. “But I don’t have anything to say!
Now I still have nothing to say, but every day I say it to dozens of people.
Twitter’s a haven for jokes, sure, but it’s depressing if you want to engage in the Sondheimian labor of putting hats where previously there were not hats. It does for new thoughts what Google NGram does for old thoughts: reminds you that nothing is original, ever. Want to joke about NPR? Someone else already has. Want to quip that the 3D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” will allow you literally to feel the boats bearing you back ceaselessly into the past? About eight seconds too late! Every time I think I’ve made a new hat, I discover that Rob Delaney has already made the same hat six times!
Twitter is shouting into the whirlwind. It’s great for a couple of things — Hive-Mind Puns; news, if you only like headlines; vague principled support for revolutions. Sure, it’s helped gin up real enthusiasm for change in some regions. But reports of its actual role in revolution are somewhat exaggerated. Real change still requires feet on the ground, not tweets in the ether.
And Twitter has been at the center of more than its share of controversies lately — from Nir Rosen’s ill-timed thoughts about Lara Logan to Gilbert Gottfried’s ill-timed jokes about the Japanese catastrophe. This isn’t a coincidence. Twitter provokes this: It wants you to jump into situations tweet-first. “Hey,” it says, “do you have a thought you think might be profound? Want to share it with EVERYONE WHO HAS INTERNET ACCESS? Hurry! If you don’t, someone else will!” This is bad.
Worse, it plays perfectly into our collective fantasy that we are All Somehow Special And Different and Celebrities In Our Own Ways. You don’t need to be somebody to be somebody. You can have followers from around the world. Followers! Pre-Twitter (a scarce five years ago) followers were a concept associated only with cult leaders and mother ducks. Losing one was once the exclusive concern of, say, Jesus or Moses, and it was a big deal that involved pieces of silver and at least one Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Even Buddha didn’t have any followers before he was 30, and to acquire them he had to occasionally leave the house and experience a major spiritual awakening.
Sure, Twitter could be useful, for those times when you sit down for an entire day with a book and a flagon of coffee and manage to generate about a tablespoon of actual thought. “Get over here!”you tweet frantically. “Listen to this! Eureka!” But for the most part, it’s devoid of revelations. “I think it’s pretty loud in this bar,” you tweet. “Loud like it might be in a loud bar in Ancient Rome, or something.” We’re too busy being active on Twitter to do any, well, thinking. We can’t read on the bus! We have to stay plugged into the Social Media Conversation! We can’t talk to you! We have to participate in the #thingsIwanttosaytothepersonimwithrightnow hashtag!
Ogden Nash once wrote, on the demerits of a sense of humor:
“How can anyone accomplish anything immortal
When they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?.”
Replace “chortle” with “tweet,” and that’s the problem in a nutshell.
(Please follow me on Twitter!)