Maybe too much has been written about Twitter. Or maybe not enough. For a phenomenon which has not only captivated us on the internet but has also sprouted its roots into our cellphones, so dearly carried by us at all times except when we shower (any other aspects of our lives that can be penetrated? a way to hook it up to our jugular veins perhaps? we will have to wait for the engineering and marketing students to finish their studies…), I would suggest that not enough has been written. At least not enough beyond a superficial account of its popularity, or the extreme irony behind its apparent ability (and promise) to ‘bring people closer together’. This is one of the ways it is promoted, and one of the elemental reasons why it is used and accepted. I will not attempt to disguise my distaste for the rapid shortening of social discourse that is at the very least augmented by Twitter, with its 140 character word limit. I will also not portray Twitter as some kind of culprit that sprang from nothing and paralyzed its users. I wish merely to provide a very short account of the deep underlying feeling of alienation of people in the West and their struggle to find meaning in their lives.
Most of the information that is shared on twitter concerns the actual, daily events and experiences of its users. They constitute primarily observations of personal circumstances and physical surroundings. Plenty have commented on the idiosyncrasy of what is shared, and the lack of relevance it entails for other people. “Finding it difficult to get out of bed this morning.” A cynical reaction: “So what?” One might be inclined to denounce a large portion of ‘tweets’ as essentially meaningless, and argue that if no one knew any of what has ever been posted on twitter, it would represent not even the slightest of losses. Read a book by Nietzsche and you’ll be infinitely better off than browsing through Twitter posts. I reject this view, at least in the sense that Twitter posts are meaningless in essence. Far from lacking in meaning, Tweets painfully and forcefully create meaning. Not in the literal sense, and not even in the sense that it provides some form of understanding for those reading the posts (about the post’s author or about the situation being described for instance). In order to fully appreciate the kind of meaning that is being generated, a further point must be stressed in the form of a question: “Does it matter if anyone reads what you wrote on Twitter?”
I offer that no, it does not matter in the slightest. The mechanism which has made Twitter so popular is not that it has brought people closer together. It is also not a result of the intrinsic value of the shared information. What has really made it indispensible to so many people is that whatever they happen to post is acutely provided with meaning, significance, and relevance. By projecting into the world, to an only somewhat differentiated and delineated but mostly invisible audience, mundane daily events of questionable importance, the author’s experience is validated and transformed into a ‘social fact’. Two levels of irony can be unveiled here. The first has been discussed quite widely and is not particularly interesting to me; the notion that the concept of ‘sharing’ has been transformed and displaced, from physical proximity between two or more people to the proximity of a website where information is conglomerated. Sure we ‘share’ things, but we share them in virtual and temporal rather than in spatial propinquity. Taken to the extreme, some might argue that you are only close to someone when you can put your arm around them; virtual interaction is a farce.
The second level of irony is more concealed, less obvious, and more intricate a mechanism. It starts from the twofold notion that (1) people in the West are feeling increasingly alienated from one another and (2) people in the West have little to live for in terms of ideals. In support of (1) I propose that people are talking to each other considerably little. The fetishism surrounding happiness as the ultimate goal of life, with sadness, depression, and loneliness having reached a kind of moral status – a pathological condition for which you see a psychologist rather than your friends, your mom, your dad, siblings (or which you accept for its underlying value) – people are finding it challenging to express themselves when what they desire to express is not easily socially communicable. For (2) I offer the observation that in Western Europe, life is to a great extent (and paradoxically) externally organized by others for us. Tell me which profound decisions you have recently made that you deem to have influenced ‘the current state of things’? In an oppressive totalitarian society you at least have something real to fight and something real to fight for. What do we in the West have to strive for? I am certainly not arguing that we in the West have nothing to contest, far from it, there is so much to change for the better still, but what I do feel is that there is a paucity of ideals in the collective consciousness of the people. This, I believe is a source of major frustration, albeit not always consciously, since the need to lead a meaningful life – which includes validation of the entire spectrum of emotions and a steering of moral directionality – is rudimentary to us all; how is it being satisfied?
By this logic, though, would people not use Twitter to express all these deeply ingrained, bottled-up emotions? Twitter as a handmaiden of catharsis? Venting is certainly common, but is usually not directed at the true object, toward what really needs to be expulsed vehemently. Although Twitter breaks down the social barrier slightly, by sidestepping the often overwhelming reality of speaking with another person (especially when it comes to intense emotions), it is at the same time inexorably bound by the very people constituting society itself – we cannot change an issue by changing the medium through which it is expressed if the source of the issue is not the type of medium through which it is expressed!
What is left? The sharing of daily activities, no matter what they are, provide a substitute, a way of vicariously satisfying the deep need for finding meaning in experience as well as sharing this discovered meaning with others. “Finding it difficult to get out of bed this morning.” Sent. It is now a social fact. My thoughts have become real. People will read my thoughts. And because people will read my thoughts, they must be significant. Everyone becomes a writer, everyone gains the idea and feeling of having eternalized themselves through words not just to the one person they actually talk to at breakfast time (after all, spoken words are fleeting in space; written words are fixed in space – was Plato right to hold the fixed as fundamentally more real than the changing?). The 140 characters of Twitter are aimed at an invisible crowd, and more acutely, are aimed at yourself; does it matter who reads you?