November 7, 2013
TWEEEEEET (These people are in an actual Twitter Opera, in London!) (Karla Adam -- The Washington Post photo)
TWEEEEEET (These people are in an actual Twitter Opera, in London!) (Karla Adam — The Washington Post photo)

I used to hate Twitter.

Actually, I still hate Twitter. But I used to, too. (To misquote Mitch Hedberg.)

The company had its IPO Thursday, coming roaring in at more than $45 per share. Which sounds, well, ridiculous.

I don’t hate Twitter the way people who never use it do, like Jonathan Franzen, frowning contemptuously at “the ultimate irresponsible medium.” Oh, hush. As Margaret Atwood quipped, “How would he know? Is he peeking?” My objection isn’t the usual flippant, “You can’t possibly hope to say anything sensible in 140 characters or less.” The trouble isn’t the 140 character limit. It’s the fact that most people have difficulty saying anything sensible in the first place. You can only blame the limitations of the medium so much.

I hate it the way you can only hate something you first loved, like a trendy haircut or your spouse.

I feel about Twitter the way I’m sure Anakin Skywalker felt when he was being buckled into that robotic Darth Vader suit with the red lenses and constant ominous breathing. “Well,” he surely said to himself, “I’m going to be stuck in this thing for the rest of my life. I can decide to think it’s kind of cool, or I can be miserable forever.”

It is cool. You can do things you couldn’t do before. It’s great for breaking news. It’s great for watching TV or movies with large crowds of strangers and shouting your jokes from the back of the classroom.It’s great for extremely public compliment-giving. No one ever unfollows you, unless you start barraging them with ill-advised puns at weird hours. (Even then they often don’t.) Where before you had to write physical letters and emails in order to be ignored by celebrities, now you can get close and personal on Twitter and be ignored by them in real time.

But most of modern life is defined by the creeping fear that everyone else is hanging out without you having a better time. And nowhere is that better brought to life than on Twitter, where you can watch your friends gleefully piling into “Twitter canoes” of jokes you missed.

Wait But Why recently noted that Millennials are more expert at unhappiness than any prior generation because, while our predecessors also spent their twenties wandering around in an unfulfilled daze, they at least were spared the requirement of posting daily cheery updates about it. Sure, our ancestors died miserably of plague, consumption and dysentery, but they never had to read notices from their friends that JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT JUST KISSED MY HAND AND IT’S ALL FOR THE BEST IN THIS BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS.

I hate that about Twitter: It requires you to watch people who are cooler than you, hanging out without you. I hate it because before Twitter you could suspect that other people had said everything that was worth saying, faster and better than you, but after Twitter, you know this for a fact.

I don’t hate it all the time. Sometimes I feel for Twitter the kind of Stockholm Syndrome-y affection that you have for anything you’re stuck with too long, be it another human being (“Quasimodo is a sweetheart when you get past the grunting and squinting and inability to take ‘No’ for an answer”), a small town in which you are trapped by the economy (“Everything here is much nicer than people say! They have wonderful salad bars!”), vinyl records (“Hear that crisp, warm resonance!”), or even New York City (“Elbowing smelly strangers while someone of middling talent sings on your commute is what we all STRIVE towards!”).

Twitter is a cafeteria where you occasionally bump into celebrities. It has all the flaws of a cafeteria with none of its advantages. In cafeterias you can leave. In the Twitter cafeteria, there’s a constant hubbub, everyone talking at once, little clans of friends talking together. You can see the corner where the cool kids are talking. And it’s just as awkward when you approach and they ignore you. Then there’s Weird Twitter, hanging out behind the bleachers, smoking some substance or other. There are all the journalists swapping notes and in-jokes. There are the celebrities. There are the crazy celebrities. There are the publishing people and the authors who are friends with other authors and the trolls and the #TCOT conservatives in their unironic bow ties and the people with cats for avatars and the people who think changing their names for Halloween is a hilarious joke and the people who think those people are an abomination and the politicians and the politicians who just deleted a tweet and hope no one will notice and Black Twitter and the obscure people on Twitter who say racist or sexist or otherwise terrible things and get put into compilations and fired from their Applebees positions. And then, periodically, it all falls silent and everyone gasps at whatever has just been “said”, and someone prominent (Anthony Weiner, Gilbert Gottfried) loses his job.

Sure, Facebook has more ad revenue. But what does ad revenue mean? Facebook’s uncool. Your mom is on Facebook. On Twitter, everyone’s a celebrity. Twitter lets you know exactly where you stand. Followers? Favorites? You know what table will let you sit down. You’ve got numbers. There’s something reassuring and terrifying about the numbers.

What’s the point of hating it? It’s ingrained in our lives.

In that famous graduation speech, David Foster Wallace uses the story of one fish asking another fish how the water is, to which the second fish answers, “What’s water?” His point was that it’s fantastically easy not to stay awake for many of life’s guaranteed experiences. Good or bad, you’re stuck. This is water. Notice the water you live in, approach it with some philosophy. Twitter is water. Good, bad? This is where we live now. I don’t know how much it’s worth. I can’t get that far away. In the course of writing this piece I’ve checked it eight times.

Follow me. Help.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.