I’ve been using Twitter since last summer. I mainly use it as a pleasant time-waster (as if I don’t waste enough time!), but over the last couple months – weeks even – it has ramped up into a national mania. You might have noticed that I’ve already incorporated two different Twitter streams into this blog, including one called “nycotweets” (see above) that primarily offers quick links to interesting New York-related links and blog posts. These are items I want to bring to people’s attention, but don’t have enough time to blog about (and, I fear, many people increasingly don’t have time to read blog posts about).

Everyone’s moving into social media – enthusiastically or uneasily. Sean Kirst blogs about his new experiences with Facebook addiction. His post got me mentally picking around the edges of the social media trend. I remain slightly skeptical about it, and this is why:

I can’t help feeling like we’ve been here before. When our society experienced a shock to its system on 9/11, we should have slowed down and had a time of deep national reflection. That didn’t happen. Instead, we got increased spending — on wars (the ultimate spending spree), on gadgets, and especially on houses we couldn’t afford. It produced a busy, bubbly economy that proved not to be real.

Now, with another shock to our system — the economic decline that picked up speed last fall — we are again ramping up in frenzied activity. Social media nirvana, like the Ownership Society, is the new American dream. “Friends” and “followers” are amassed in great quantity. But what value do these so-called networks really have? Perhaps they subtly steal more time and energy from us than they give back. And if the last bubble resulted in an economic crash, what sort of crash might this next bubble end in?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides much food for thought:

Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection… Friendship may be slipping from our grasp, but our friendliness is universal.

Even wordy blogs might be growing as obsolete as the much-lamented newspaper business, which is why I grudgingly accept that a little side project I’ve long wanted to do has got to be Twitter-based and not blog-based. It’s a Twitter stream called OutdoorsNewYork, and offers items of interest about camping, wandering wildlife (with an emphasis on unexpected encounters — think: Fairmount’s bear), and the New York/DEC parks system.

Because… you just can’t fight social media.

15 thoughts on “Twittermania

  1. Josh

    I sat on a social media panel with several other Central New Yorkers about a week and a half ago. While I had known one of them in real life before I signed up for Facebook or Twitter, and another I had “known” because we’re colleagues (although we hadn’t met face to face), we were all primarily familiar with each other’s work through Twitter.

    One of the running themes through the night was that those who were just learning about social media but not yet involved in it felt it was being forced on them, and that once they signed up, they would be tied to it.

    My analogy is Twitter is like a river. You stand and watch it for a time, and when you’re ready to come back, it will still be there for you. It won’t be exactly the same as last time you looked (it will be different water, the height will vary, the speed will vary, maybe there are sticks or rocks or litter in your view), but it’s there when you choose it. Nobody’s forcing you to stare at the river, and nobody’s forcing you to take it all in, reprimanding you should you decide to step away for the weekend, for a cup of coffee, for a movie, or whatever else.

    It’s all a matter of remembering, as Jill Hurst-Wahl put it, Facebook, Twitter and the like are *tools* for our use. They are not slave-masters. You use what makes sense for the purpose you want it to. You wouldn’t use a hammer to grout your tub – if getting outside to run at sunrise fulfills you, getting on Facebook as the sun comes up is not going to make you happy, running is. Your shoes are the proper tool for that time, use them.

    When you want to play Scrabble with your kid who’s a 4-hour car ride a way, that’s when you use Facebook as your tool.

  2. woodd00

    This really is just the evolution of our society and technology. Like everything over time those who are not early adopters always feel that things are being forced upon them. However, once it becomes a ubiquitous part of our society and way of life they just accept it and move on. I think Josh’s analogy (and his reference to Jill’s comment) are spot on. People felt the same way about email and I am sure the horseless carriage. :-)

    The part that does have me concerned is that I do believe our attention spans are slipping away. I wonder how long it will be before we are all zipping around acting like that squirrel on Over the Hedge when he is given caffeine. The fact that your outdoors project has to be Twitter rather than blog based is the perfect example. I think you are right though. I love my Google Reader; however, I find myself reading my Twitter feed a lot more these days and my Google Reader a lot less. I don’t think this means a full loss of blogging, just a reshaping.

    It’s funny how this notion of the cyber celebrity is getting so much press this past week or two. With SXSW going on we kept hearing about how these people who have a lot of Twitter/blog followers are becoming so full of themselves and people are treating them like celebrity. I believe they have a ways to go before they are real celebrities; however, how are they any different than the mass produced musical one hit wonders?

  3. Ellen

    I agree that they are great tools. I had been puzzling over how do to this new little project in a way that might seem useful and sustainable, and realized Twitter, not a blog, would be perfect. It’s kind of ironic I want to use this new social media technology for a channel devoted to “getting away from it all.”

    But, I do think the author of the Chronicle article I posted also has a point: Just as natives in the Amazonian forest didn’t know they were naked until someone suggested clothes to them, just as kids didn’t know they were bored until television told them they were, we didn’t think we were isolated until the Internet came along. Or (to use your analogy, Josh) we didn’t think we were standing still until we saw the river. I think the feeling of having something forced on one, of having to choose between cultures, is real, and is a serious choice we all have to make.

    There is a force in the world today (and maybe always has been) that militates against stillness, solitude, and nakedness (if not physical, than emotional). I can’t help seeing social media as part of that; but neither do I reject it like a Luddite. When it gets too much I just come back here to the stillness of “Fortress NYCO” and write a big fat post about something. Although i really should be scraping the carpet tape off my hardwood floors today (here at my actual fortress…)

  4. Small Pines

    I adore Josh’s analogy – a river. It’s so apt in so many ways. If you see something valuable floating by while you’re watching the river – better grab it, for it will soon be gone.

    Eh, maybe that’s a little too poetic.

    Twitter is great fun, and yep, an amusing time waster. However, while participating in the Adk twitter boom, I’m find that it really sort of can be all things to all people. The biggest complaint right now is needing to dodge marketers and advertisers. With the addition of filters and such, I am now only reading what I want, and having a grand time chatting with new friends, business owners in my area, and all kinds of folks of my choosing.

    Yeah, it’s pretty neat. But above all (and much like anything else) I’m discovering that it is only going to be what you make of it. Fly little Twitter! Fly!

  5. Kelvin

    To be in honest, IMO, everything you’ve said is true to some extent. I’ve often said that blogs — now very popular– give people with absolutely nothing to say, a perfect place to say it. But you can’t deny the overwhelming amount of information and knowledge and awareness that is passed on by blogs.

    The same is true of Twitter and other social media devices. A certain amount of trivial chit chat –and every other level of conversation– will go through, but there are people and companies building lives and livelihood, connecting with people of like minds, advancing causes and education, and building worthwhile Tribes — Seth Godin book, oh so worthy of reading. As Josh says, it’s there. You do with it what you will. You tune in and out of the streams that are relevant to you — as you do television channels.

    The bottom line of it all, however, is relationships. And these tools — Twitter, Facebook et al — are helping us build or rebuild relationships, and in many cases making them easier to maintain and sometimes even flourish, on personal *and* business levels.

  6. seanpeterkirst

    i heard from balogh, who made a great point about tradeoffs: he blogs less since he went to facebook, where he uses more energy for what might be a smaller but more passionate ‘audience.’ here’s kind of a strange point: i think i may write in a more intrinsically ‘true’ way on my blog – where i feel my audience is both intimate and universal – than i do on facebook, which is being read by a small collection of people who know me well in many cases from different points in my life – and thus know versions of myself that in some ways are only peripherally relevant to who i am today. thus i tailor responses on facebooks to those times … where my blog is me, today, what i feel, here, now.

    all of this skirts the issue that remains at the center of my thoughts: the fate of newspapers, print or electronic, amid the upheaval.


  7. Robinia

    Interesting post and comments. The short and speedy aspect of all this does seem to work against a reflective way of life, deep thought, well-researched journalism.

    All irony and contradiction, I am a fan of Wendall Berry on Facebook… but, I read his books and poems, too.

  8. sean

    i love balogh’s family baby pictures. there is just something that kind of makes your dad about someone who takes that much sheer joy in his kids.


  9. Brian Cubbison

    I’ve been thinking about how Facebook and Twitter feel different to me, and I have a theory. I find Facebook to be more scattered and less comfortable to use. But it’s more like a place, like hanging out with friends at the food court. Quizzes, games, jokes, photos and news come into your place and are scattered all around you.

    Twitter is hardly a place, since you can reach out from anywhere and get messages back from anywhere. Twitter is more about publishing your thoughts than about hanging out. People pick on Twitter for mundane text-message chatting, and there’s plenty of that, But I’d say it’s more about micro-blogging these days.

    People like to say that anyone can be a publisher, but most people, especially in high school and college, would rather just hang out with friends. Maybe that’s why highly expressive people in various fields love publishing their thoughts on Twitter and are surprised that “the kids” don’t take to it right away. You can publish on Facebook and chat on Twitter, but Facebook got its start as a college social place and Twitter is such a streamlined publishing tool.

    If had the time, I think I’d start a blog about the history of new media, beginning maybe with how the telegraph covered the sinking of the Titanic and how that changed everything …

  10. Ellen

    You should write more about new media. (Weren’t you blogging back when they still called them “weblogs”?)

    Agreed about Facebook’s “tavern” appeal. On Facebook, people come to you because of pre-existing relationships – some of them no longer relationships but everyone is labeled “Friend” on that system! – and on Twitter you go out and find new contacts. Take the new outdoors thing I started: finding an audience likely to be interested in the topic requires some pounding of the digital pavement, some searches, some reading of their past tweets, and then following them so they notice you and follow you. They won’t just come to you. Facebook is much more passive: you get found, or maybe you do a quick search on your email address book, or Facebook even suggests people for you.

    In that way, Twitter is more potentially subversive: it cuts across existing circles. Facebook widens the existing circles. Facebook does have an aspect I don’t particularly like: the sense that the good-time tavern is a single, self-contained artificial environment run by one group of people. It doesn’t seem to connect to anything on the Internet but itself. Twitter seems more porous and less interested in your personal information.

    As for newspapers and society… if Facebook is a tavern, newspapers used to be like church. The congregation would file in and listen to the sermon. I don’t mean that in a negative way. (lots of good churches out there.) I read an interesting foreword to a book called “Eyewitness to History” that pointed out that religion used to fill the role that reportage does today: a constant backdrop to daily life, and the means by which everyone felt connected to the “whole world.” As opposed to listening to the news (or what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter or a blog).

    As for where blogs fit in, if they’re not a raucous tavern or a church maybe they’re just late night snack and conversation at the kitchen table or after-dinner in the drawing room. (Not that anyone has drawing rooms any more…)

  11. sean

    a newspaper as church? sort of, but with the ‘letters page’ throwing the pulpit open for a while to the congregation.

    i am glad for blogs. i am glad for the joy people clearly show in twitter. but as the water laps around our ankles, i also struggle to see the replacement for newspapers, if they collapse. people have always griped and moaned about papers, but despite all their flaws, i am frightened by the idea of our republic without them. as david simon has written, citizen bloggers – and i mean this as a compliment – are a gift to democracy and ought to be applauded. but papers offer a central voice, a kind of stake in the ground, to a vast civic audience. they also pay reporters to spend a lot of time providing detailed public information that will simply vanish from public inspection once that venue gone. i honestly don’t say that as a guy clinging to the past; if i saw a logical successor, i’d embrace it, in the way i embraced the p.c. over the typewriter. but i don’t see that successor. i just see a void.

  12. Ellen

    I don’t know why institutions break down, only that they do eventually. And that while Europe was half dying from the Black Death and collapsing into anarchy, losing its “civic faith” if you will, at roughly the time the Iroquois may have been formulating the Great Law of Peace (depending on whose dating you accept). A sign of hope and civilization, if only the European mind had known of it at the time.

    Was one civic faith more advanced than the other? The Europeans, when they recovered and met the “primitive” Iroquois, certainly thought so.

    The Two Row Wampum is a very tough ideal. Likewise, newspapers and blogs (et al) coexisting together. Maybe there is a chance to do it right this time.

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