Sometime last year my ex-husband discovered Twitter and his ‘tweets’—mini-blog messages limited to 140 characters—started showing up on his Facebook page, dutifully proffering answers to the quintessential Twitter question: what are you doing? Frankly, I couldn’t see the point.
But then all of a sudden it seemed like the world was abuzz about Twitter. My curiosity got the better of me and I signed up to see what all the fuss was about. By this time my ex had lost interest and no longer twittered, and I expected to follow suit. In fact, as one who is not fond of inane conversation, the prospect of a flood of sound bytes from strangers left me quite cold. Even worse was the thought that you could not only twitter on the web; you could ‘tweet’ and be tweeted at via mobile phone. There’s even an ‘adult’ Twitter. Had humanity given up on the notion of peace of mind all together?
Twitter cuts a broad swathe across communities around the world, from soccer mums to celebrities, including Hugh Jackman and Ashton Kutcher, who beat CNN in a race to reach 1 million followers. Even Barack Obama twitters.
Sycophant that I am, I follow lots of famous people, including DAVID_LYNCH and stephenfry. Although there are fake celeb twits, the real deal often grant their followers a refreshing sense of their humanity—they eat, they breathe, they tweet, just like the rest of us. They admit to nerves before events, talk about their daily chores, their kids and their projects.
JohnCleese posts tweets like ‘Weighing up minty plenitude against tongue-cavorting freshness’; yokoono is delightfully Yokoish with updates such as ‘Remember, we are all water in the same ocean’; and ben_stiller tweets about his obsession with sea monkeys and his ‘mini man crush’ on the latest Star Trek Captain Kirk, Chris Pine. Never before has there been such a direct route of communication between the famous and the un-famous and such an instant avenue for contact between widely diverse people. It unsurprisingly stands to reason that the famous are not as sure to follow us as we are to follow them but I am being followed by the writer JohnBirmingham and KevinRuddPM (or whichever intern is busy maintaining his Twitter form).
Some celebs on Twitter are confirmed, others not so much. I decided to follow isla_fisher, whose credibility has been debated among twits, when I caught a tweet teasing that her pal Nicole Kidman had just joined up under an alias. Some ‘Isla’ tweets sounded convincing enough but when she began sending me direct messages, tweeting in sloppy English and sounding plain obsessed with Our Nicole, I took side with the sceptics. On this count I feel for the famous. Not only are they hounded and photographed and gossiped about in magazines but now their very identities are being hijacked. It’s hard to imagine how it would feel to have someone spouting all manner of nonsense not just about you but as you.
I am also being followed by an array of spambots including VAGINAPOWER and myteethwhiten. Those with a professional agenda range from individual artists, bands and journals (Meanjin tweets) to aggressive sales people peddling their many wares. The beauty of Twitter though is that I don’t have to follow them back. Marketers can knock themselves out but I have the option of not listening. I can even block selected entities from following me.
There are times when Twitter’s superficial and opportunistic qualities are outweighed by its powers of good and its importance as an instant and uncensored form of communication. When violence broke out in Iran following the defeat of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what many claimed was a rigged count, Iranians turned to Twitter. AAP reported that after the Iranian government shut down media and banned foreign journalists from covering protests, Twitter was one of the only ways those inside Iran could relate events to the worldwide community. The US government even took the incredible step of asking Twitter to hold off on site maintenance to ensure the twitstream remained open to Iranians.
When I first started I knew personally only one dedicated twit: my old friend ‘First Dog On the Moon’, a cartoonist for Crikey. Having joined up a year ago, Firstdogonmoon has become a popular twit, partly because of his adoring fan base and partly because when News Limited tipped him as one of Australia’s most interesting twits several months ago his followers jumped from around 600 to more than 1300 in a week.
Firstdogonmoon’s cartoons are available daily to subscribers of Crikey and once a week they’re offered free. This gives Firstdogonmoon an opportunity to throw his loyal Twitter admirers and new followers alike a proverbial bone by linking to the free ’toon. This is the kind of subtle promotion strategy artists, media and organisations are routinely employing on Twitter, and there’s no denying Twitter and other online forums can boost public profile. ‘I didn’t go on specifically to promote the cartoons but I assumed I’d be able to do that,’ says Firstdogonmoon. ‘Some people just think I’m a nice guy but the majority know me as the cartoonist.’
But for all the stars and snake-oil salesmen, the heart and soul of the Twitter experience is 140-character interaction with mere mortals who, just like me, ponder the issues of the day and exercise brainpower before an audience of etherised others.
For Twitter virgins let me explain. To get started you select a username, which is what shows up when you tweet, along with a thumbnail image. You log other optional information, such as a real name, location and bio, and this shows up on your profile along with your list of followers, followees, number of updates (tweets) and your history of updates. Tweets, once twittered, can’t be edited but can be deleted. If someone follows you and you follow them you have the option of sending a direct message (DM) to each other. If you want to direct a tweet to someone in the twitstream rather than send a DM, you tweet in the usual fashion but with what’s called an @reply ahead of the message. This means the tweet shows up with an @ followed by the username of the person you’re addressing. And thus do tweets become more like snappy conversations than simple reportage on activity. The tweets of a user and their followees are relayed in a continual live stream. This is referred to as the ‘timeline’.
Tweets aren’t limited to simple text—an entire culture is now evolving. You can post links, reference Twitter groups (trends and groupings of special interest twits and tweets indicated by a ‘hashtag’ that shows up as the # symbol followed by the name of the group), and you can blip songs. This involves becoming a Blip.fm DJ, which enables your track selections to post on Twitter as a song others can listen to. You can give ‘props’ to blips you particularly like or even re-blip them (done by posting RB @ reply original blipper) before the blip. There is a ‘Follow Friday’ custom, which involves recommending who others should follow, as well as a convention of acknowledging good tweets by retweeting them, which is done by typing RT @reply the original tweeter, followed by their tweet.
But enough Twitter 101. So it was that @firstdogonmoon was the first twit I followed. He promptly received email notification that I was following him, under the handle of Gertrudesteinjr, and though I’d withheld my real name on my profile I had posted a photo of myself in the thumbnail so he quickly followed in return. I DMd asking how to get going on the following front and next thing I knew Firstdog had posted this tweet to his 2500-plus followers: ‘Follow @Gertrudesteinjr because it is my birthday. Also, she is a special big brained rabbit.’
In no time I had a flurry of followers whom I immediately followed back. Thus my Twitter life was born. I confessed to my new friends despite my Twitter name that I was not a frumpy dead Jewish-American lesbian genius and I watched baffled as jargoned messages sailed by with acronyms and emoticons I didn’t understand, such as tyvm (thank you very much), 😛 (tongue poke) and 😀 (grin), and the in-jokes of established conversations.
I looked down the list of welcoming tweets and caught sight of an attractive guy in thumbnail called sswayze. My thinking went to the obvious.
‘Do people flirt on twitter and even fall in love?’ I tweeted, followed by: ‘Hey sswayze, want to have my babies?’
‘Lol,’ he replied [laugh out loud]. ‘Usually the flirting comes before the babies.’
And so, with a slightly compulsive back and forth of DMs and tweets, my twittership with sswayze flourished complete with lashings of witty repartee, intellectual camaraderie and a shared love of music. We impressed each other with unpredictable blips. He gave me props for The B-52’s ‘Give Me Back My Man’, ‘I Want You to Want Me’ (Cheap Trick) and the Frente cover of New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’. I gave him props for the Tommy highlight ‘See Me, Feel Me’ (The Who), Peter Frampton’s moment of greatness ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ and Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Though we remained keenly aware of the enormous geographical distance and the impossibility of a friendship of the normal variety, it was, for all its limitations, a downright fun exchange.
The man behind sswayze is Sean Swayze, a Canadian computer scientist, certified genius, hard-core twit and avid blipper. Beginning with comic flirtation, our preliminary banter morphed into a curious twittership, one of several that brought to light the inherent and deep-seated need for connection and validation common to all humanity and very evident in the Twitter revolution.
Sean, who has been tweeting regularly since the end of last year, had started a Twitter account a few years back when it first began. ‘It was very slow and there was almost nobody on it, no followers. The whole idea was immature and people hadn’t latched onto it or built a community,’ he says.
When Sean and I progressed from DM to email and live Skype chats I asked him outright if he was a geek Lothario, a Twitter Don Juan. He was offended and protested that no, he most certainly was not. He had just emerged, battle-scarred, from a 15-year relationship that produced a now nine-year-old child and in which he had been staunchly monogamous. He preferred the company of women, he said, and perhaps engaged in harmless flirtation but nothing more nefarious. And harmlessly flirt he did, most notably with Blackittyblack, an attractive 27-year-old single mother and artist from Okalahoma City. I had no interest in viewing sswayze, charming though he was, as a prospective partner so I was embarrassed to register illogical and ridiculous twinges of jealousy over his attentions towards kitty. How was it possible to experience even a hint of such feelings in relation to someone you’ve known less than two weeks, whom you’ve never met in person, and on whom you have no designs?
Herein lies the magic of the internet. One cannot know or love another online in the usual way and there is an unavoidable unreality and spectre of absence in all online relationships that denies closeness in the normal sense. At the same time, as if we are masked at carnival, the internet loosens inhibitions and tempts us to reveal ourselves more quickly and in ways we might not day to day. People do cyber-porn in place of real-life sex for two reasons: it both suggests eroticism and refuses it. It offers the form without the content. The content is frightening: exposing yourself to another, and not just physically, requires outrageous courage and maturity. When that courage and maturity (or the opportunity to develop them) are lacking but the desire remains, the form can become fetishised and accessed 24/7 on the internet. In short, online connection provides a facsimile of what’s possible, an illusion of relationship without the usual risk or challenge.
So it is that online relationships, with their suggestion of what’s possible, however remote, can trigger strange reactions. Internet friendships can be a genuine meeting of minds, and heartfelt connections made online, via Twitter or other forums, often result in real-life relationships (there are Twitter meet-ups taking place all over, including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) but so long as they are limited to an online existence these relationships, like cyber-sex, offer a concentrated form of connection without its full-bodied, complex and unlimited potential, which creates a condition of confusion. When you hit it off with someone, like I did with Sean, without the solidity of bodies and the boundaries they establish, free-floating vulnerabilities can come into play that are more to do with a facsimile of possibilities than reality or intention.
Might Twitter then, like internet porn, be seen as addictive, a substitute for concrete engagement, a sign of ailing spiritual health? When I first joined up and tweeted that I probably wouldn’t stay long I was met by a knowing and good-humoured reassurance that I too would end up hooked. I asked Sean, who seemed to be constantly tweeting, for his thoughts. ‘I’d like to think it’s not addictive but I have spent a fair amount of time there,’ he admitted, before adding, ‘Anything that feels good and doesn’t hurt anybody—I don’t know if that’s a problem.’
The thought ‘classic denial’ came to mind. I do think Twitter’s addictive but then I’m of the view that almost anything and everything can be and that rather than being the exception in this culture addiction is the norm. As I told Sean, in my experience addiction is located in the person rather than in the substance or process itself (though some substances are also, of themselves, physically addictive). And so when I noticed a somewhat compulsive quality to my tweeting in those first couple of weeks I recognised it as an old tendency to seek connection to avoid feelings of loneliness and seek validation to avoid feelings of inadequacy.
After a couple of weeks of regular contact sswayze seemed to disappear. Not entirely—he still tweeted at times, though much less frequently and he was absent from the timeline and Skype for long stretches. I fretted that maybe I’d said something that bothered him. I recalled a previous discussion, about Aboriginal art, and a comment I’d made about taking him to see some if he ever made it to Australia and I cringed at the thought that my friendly, throwaway offer might have been misconstrued as romantic hope. Finally, after some days I emailed and asked why he hadn’t been around. He replied sweetly about being busy with offline work, spending quality time with his daughter and being consumed with RL (real life) ‘nonsense’. And so, after its heady beginning, and in the face of respective RL demands and the time difference, our twittership slowed to a more evenly paced dialogue maintained by blips, spots of jousting in the timeline and occasional Skype conversations.
My twitterverse is largely inhabited by American and Australian twits due to the fact that the majority of Twitter users are American and Firstdogonmoon’s introduction of me ensured a substantial Australian base. Though Twitter is, by nature, global, individualistic and non-nationalistic, there are notable differences between the styles of American and Australian twits. Americans are prone to earnestness and the circulating of profound quotes and pearls of wisdom, while Australians tend to be dry, ironic, cynical and above all irreverent.
For example, in response to the #followfriday trend, in which Americans tweet a string of recommendations of who to follow, fulltimecasual, a Melbourne-based, self- described ‘New Media Fucktard’, posted the following tweet: ‘@people @who @do @a lot @of @these @tweets @are @really @fucking @annoying #followfriday.’ Once, after I had tweeted that I had things to do I didn’t care for, followed by the statement ‘fuck the chores’, OkayStill excitedly suggested we start a group called #fuckthechores.
One of the lovable smart-arses, sicsicsic, started a ‘twibe’ called #cuntards, of which I am a member along with Glebe2037, SylviaDiscount and several others. The group is supposedly about being mindless lemmings, dental floss and genetic mutation but mostly it’s to do with being silly and taking the piss.
It’s easy to see why a novice would be unimpressed. In May Nielsen Online released a report stating that though people were signing up ‘in droves’, more than 60 per cent stop using Twitter after a month. This research cast into doubt the hoopla about Twitter taking over the world, particularly when it made the point that Facebook and MySpace had double Twitter’s retention rates when they were starting out.
Needless to say this news was tweeted and TheMonkeyBoy summed up the attitude of the core community: ‘Good riddance. The best ones keep going 😉 People that give up stick to their status updates on Facebook.’
Firstdogonmoon has a different take on those who fail to get the Twitter point. ‘To people who don’t understand Twitter I say to them, “Do you sit in front of a computer all day?” And if they don’t—tiddly pom. For someone who does you run it as another application in the background and why wouldn’t you?’
Like Firstdogonmoon I spend most of my Twitter time with those who share my date and time zone and who sit in front of a computer for much of their waking life as we do. There’s Brisbane-based sweetheart kissability, photographer and all around good guy Glebe2037 and resident wise guys yonderboy and ninjamoeba. OkayStill is a smart and funny earthmother who tweets from Townsville and TagAlongTess is, like me, currently manless and catless; we exchange blips and quips about singledom. Then there’s SylviaDiscount and middleclassgirl, the adult embodiment of the cool kids at school. They tweet warmly to each other and to certain other twits but not so much to me.
I want to be Sylvia’s friend and appreciate her droll one-liners such as ‘Covered in cats’ and ‘Listening irritably to young people talking’. She also relays announcements about her ‘fella’. Once she tweeted, miffed, that he’d returned from having spent the day with his ex, another time he was giving her grief for accidentally melting his hat in the dryer. Indeed Sylvia, more than any other twit I know, makes a kind of art form of her tweets, which I sometimes think of as one-sentence novels. I am surprised by the evocative poignancy of tweets like ‘Once a girl that worked in a shoe shop told me she hated people’s feet’ and ‘Train. Financial planner explaining in detail to his companion how his pay rises are structured over 3 years.’
It’s hard to know to what degree you’re being deliberately shunned or rejected on Twitter because the twitstream moves fast at times. People are often multitasking and regularly moving away from their desks, so tweets inevitably get missed. Sylvia and I do tweet occasionally but middleclassgirl and I rarely engage.
For those of us who like to think of ourselves as too evolved and highbrow to be seeking the approval of faceless, sometimes nameless ‘entities’, it can be confronting to experience moments of self-doubt in a medium that is at once meeting that human need for connection while also frustrating it. As well as being enjoyable and compulsive, Twitter can be boring and hurtful, though I’m yet to witness any serious spats or bad behaviour, perhaps because I tend to follow a more mature and literary crowd. Firstdog, who also blogs at Crikey, has written about Twitter, specifically the business of following and being followed and the insecurities that surface when favourite twits don’t follow you in return. This is no small point: the crux of Twitter is whom you follow and who follows you. This is what will define your Twitter experience. ‘You find your community,’ says Firstdogonmoon. ‘Mine is a geeky, cartoonist, weirdo, lefty community and we reinforce each other’s fabulousness.’
For some Twitter becomes a popularity contest that promises vital affirmation. These twits are driven by a need to get as many followers as possible and seem to dedicate their online life to recruiting and campaigning to that end. There are those who might rather die than have fewer followers than followees. Some seem obsessed with being useful. Java4Two, a young mother and educator from Minnesota, posts such a dizzying number of helpful links I get tired just watching her. I imagine her furiously negotiating countless open windows, searching, cutting, pasting, updating. Twits like Java4Two often list ‘social networking’ or ‘social media’ as their raison d’être in their bio.
There are even tragi-comic Twitter guides and videos available that offer tips on successful twittering. One guide promises to show people how to ‘have relationships like rock stars’. I posted the following tweet in response: ‘Twitter guide says, “Have relationships like rock stars”—what, you mean do coke and fuck 15-year-old virgins?’
What is it then that we get from a community like Twitter? Why tweet?
‘I like the immediacy of it. I like that I can drop in and out of conversations. I like that I laugh at it all the time because people are funny,’ says Firstdog. ‘People say it’s micro-blogging but I say it’s mini-showing off. You go on there and say, “I thought this. Aren’t I clever?” ’
‘This is the first time we’ve ever been given the opportunity to communicate freely and easily with each other. Before the development of the internet communication was slow and controlled,’ says Sean. ‘There’s a global consciousness awakening and people are becoming more aware we’re in a fishbowl and the differences between us are mostly trivial. I think it’s a positive force in the world and that’s why it has such a huge uptake. It’s building a beautiful communication network where like-minded people get together and solve problems in a way that’s quite egalitarian. Everybody has a voice.’
It’s not hard to imagine some serious-minded philosophy student working up a poststructuralist or post-poststructuralist reading of Twitter. If I were such a student where might I begin?
One could go old school and employ Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ notion of the lifelong structure of subjectivity, the ego-ideal ‘I’, and the sense of self established through the identification with the images of others (or narcissistically with a reflection in the mirror, which becomes a kind of other), with which to posit that desire (born of lack) for the Twitter timeline is the desire for the Other as a locus in which speech is formed.
One might reinforce that with a spot of deconstructionist theory by way of Derrida’s analysis of différance, which, like Lacan, views the ‘I’ (along with all signifiers) as generating its ‘self’ relationally. One could take a different route and try on some Deleuze and Guattari for size, dressing Twitter up as a ‘body without organs’, the ‘virtual’ dimension of the body that houses potentials not manifest in the actual body and which may be actualised through union with other bodies by way of ‘becomings’. Or one could ponder Twitter keeping in mind Nietzsche’s statement ‘Talking about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself’ but that might make for a very short thesis.
It’s hard to imagine the young philosophy student going past Jean Baudrillard, whom Nicholas Carr refers to as ‘technology’s prophet’ in his March Encyclopaedia Britannica blog entry <http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/03/technologys-prophet-its-jean-baudrillard-not-marshall-mcluhan>. Baudrillard, suggests Carr, is the obvious guru of the ether age, beginning with the premise that ‘Those that know the technology cannot see beyond it, and those that don’t know the technology cannot see into it. Both end up trafficking in absurdity.’ Baudrillard, asserts Carr, described ‘the twitterification phenomenon ten years before it became a phenomenon’, before concluding that ‘Mass media reaches its natural end-state when we broadcast our lives rather than live them.’
Twitter is a contemporary community like no other in the history of humanity and yet sometimes I find myself staring at the scrolling timeline, weary of wordplay and small talk, unmoved to join in. There are moments when I feel empty and lonely in the face of it, when I long to say or hear something more than potted platitude, textual posturing and nano-confession, when I pine for not just connection but intimacy. This is when I know it’s time to go offline for an experience not available on Twitter or anywhere on the internet—that of going deep within and far beyond the performative self.
Some say Twitter jumped the shark when Oprah joined in April, that its hipster movers and shakers are poised to bail as its moment of glory is consumed by the baser aspects of mainstream culture, but Paul Boutin, writing for the New York Times, insists ‘that’s like saying the Beatles were over after they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”’ and that ‘Twittermania has only begun.’ Only time will tell.