When Shakespeare’s Lord Polonius intoned “brevity is the soul of wit,” he could have well been talking about Twitter – a most grandiose leap given the 400 years separating the publication of Hamlet and the launch of the Internet’s most popular micro-blogging site. The restrictions of Twitter are part of its charm, and a large part of why it continues to be successful. It feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for news, gossip and humour in the form of quick, easily digestible snacks in lieu of full word banquets. For someone like myself who can tend towards long-windedness, it forces us to compress our thoughts down to the salient details – it mandates the economy of language favoured by Ernest Hemingway, particularly if one harbours as much (well-documented here) contempt for textspeak as I do.
Someone wiser than I opined that sending a tweet is like crying out into the darkness hoping that someone else will hear it and respond. If one can forgive a foray into existentialism, that is more or less life in a nutshell, isn’t it? Human beings are by nature solitary creatures craving community by any means necessary – at the most basic, genetic level, life must bond with life to create more life. So must ideas be expressed and countered with other ideas to create new ideas, lest they stagnate and die off. A social media concept of which I have recently become aware is ambient awareness; this is the idea that you can have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of what is going on in the life of a friend through periodic exchanges of short bursts of information, that is, texts and status updates, without ever sitting down for a full face-to-face conversation. I have never met most of the people I follow on Twitter, but I have still developed a rudimentary sense of who they are through reading what they have to say, even in 140-character increments – I imagine some of those strangers who follow me may also have gleaned an awareness Graham from my shared thoughts and more-than-frequent smartass remarks (at least the followers who aren’t spambots trying to get me to click on dubious links with the promise of the glimpse of silicone breasts).
There is a purity to Twitter that Facebook doesn’t have, because Facebook is a closed, invitation-only club based on who you are and who you know (and all those pictures of your kids and status updates about their eating habits). Twitter, by contrast, allows you to interact with anyone, regardless of their status, physical location or social strata, based only on your words. It’s loquar ergo sum – I speak, therefore I am. You are defined by what you say, how you say it and also, what you choose not to say or respond to. In an age when it is increasingly difficult to separate art from our perceptions of the artist, Twitter’s constraints allow your words to stand on their own, on equal footing with people of renown and infamy. I think of it as carving one’s thoughts upon the blank slate of the public consciousness. It can be argued that by acting as a leveller of opinions, Twitter equates the statements of both the learned and the ignorant. But the choice of the Twitter user of who to follow and who to ignore ensures that you are the one deciding who gets your attention – not some anonymous producer with ratings and ad revenue on his mind rather than the enhancement of our collective conversation. It’s raw communication – and as multiple visits to Epcot’s Spaceship Earth have reminded me, finding new ways to communicate has been the epicentre of humanity’s greatest achievements.
Not bad for a little birdie.