Let them eat tweets.
Twitter — the microblogging service that lets you post and read fragmentary communications at high speed — is fun, but it’s embarrassing. You subscribe to the yawps of a bunch of people; they subscribe to your yawps; and you produce and consume yawps for the rest of your days. The me-me-me clamor brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem about the disgrace of fame, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”: “How public — like a Frog — / To tell one’s name — the livelong June — / To an admiring Bog!”
Now that I inhabit the Twitter bog, though, I don’t complain. Twitter can be entertaining, and useful — and, really, who doesn’t like the illusion, from time to time, of lots of company? I have only lately begun to wonder whether I’d use Twitter if I were fully at liberty to do what I liked. In other words, I’m not sure I’d use Twitter if I were rich. Swampy, boggy, inescapable connectivity: it seems my middle-class existence has stuck me here.
These worries started to surface for me last month, when Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk writer, proposed at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin that the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on “connections” like the Internet, Skype and texting. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” he said.
In his speech, Sterling seemed to affect Nietzschean disdain for regular people. If the goal was to provoke, it worked. To a crowd that typically prefers onward-and-upward news about technology, Sterling’s was a sadistically successful rhetorical strategy. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” had the ring of one of those haughty but unforgettable expressions of condescension, like the Middle Eastern gem “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
“Connectivity is poverty” was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling’s bold theme. Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.
Nice, right? The implications of Sterling’s idea are painful for Twitter types. The connections that feel like wealth to many of us — call us the impoverished, we who treasure our smartphones and tally our Facebook friends — are in fact meager, more meager even than inflated dollars. What’s worse, these connections are liabilities that we pretend are assets. We live on the Web in these hideous conditions of overcrowding only because — it suddenly seems so obvious — we can’t afford privacy. And then, lest we confront our horror, we call this cramped ghetto our happy home!
Twitter is no longer new. It’s nearly three years old. Early enthusiasts who used it for barhopping bulletins have cooled on it. Corporations, institutions and public-relations firms now tweet like maniacs. Google has been rumored to be interested in buying the company. The “ambient awareness” that Twitter promotes — the feeling of incessant online contact — is still intact. But the emotional force of all this contact may have changed in the context of the economic collapse. Where once it was “hypnotic” and “mesmerizing” (words often used to describe Twitter) to read about a friend’s fever or a cousin’s job complaints, today the same kind of posts, and from broader and broader audiences, seem . . . threatening. Encroaching. Suffocating. Twitter may now be like a jampacked, polluted city where the ambient awareness we all have of one another’s bodies might seem picturesque to sociologists (who coined “ambient awareness” to describe this sense of physical proximity) but has become stifling to those in the middle of it.
A typical hour on my Twitter account, which I use to follow the updates of about 250 people, has some wonderfully cryptic tweets from Murray Hill, a drag-king entertainer, and Touré, the novelist and critic, alongside some less-inspired posts from P.R. people and cultural institutions trying to pass as normal Twitterers. I myself mostly post links to this column, hoping that the self-promotion is transparent enough that people can easily ignore a link or click it if they’re curious. But don’t get me wrong: I’m also just shouting my name the livelong June to a subscribing bog.
If this way of using Twitter bothers you, never fear: people like me get their comeuppance. If you hang out in the bog, a Twitter search might turn up commentary about you like this: “X might be the dumbest person I’ve encountered in print” and “X writes like a dog about to be gassed at the shelter.” (X here equals, sadly, “Virginia Heffernan.”)
I used to think that writers on the Web who feared hate mail and carping bloggers were just being old-fashioned and precious. But now, while I brood on the maxim “connectivity is poverty,” I can’t help wondering if I’ve turned into some banged-up street kid, stuck in a cruel and crowded neighborhood, trying to convince everyone that regular beatings give you character. Maybe the truth is that I wish I could get out of this place and live as I imagine some nondigital or predigital writers do: among family and friends, in big, beautiful houses, with precious, irreplaceable objects.
If I’ve come to be wary of social networks, which I once embraced with zeal, maybe it’s because I take my cues from those very networks. In the old days, Facebook updaters and Twitterers mostly posted about banal stuff, like sandwiches. But that was September. It’s spring now. Look at Twistori, a new site that sorts and organizes Twitter posts that use emotionally laden words like “wish” or “hate” or “love,” thereby building an image of the collective Twitter psyche. The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter.
“I wish I didn’t have obligations,” someone posted not long ago. “I wish I had somewhere to go,” wrote another. “I wish things were different.” “I wish I grew up in the ’60s.” “I wish I didn’t feel the need to write pointless things here.” “I wish I could get out of this hellhole.”
And finally, “I wish I was rich and had personal assistants.” Right on. And those assistants, presumably, could do our Twitterwork for us.
Original article here.