I haven’t smacked the New York Times down for a woefully outdated take on new media in, oh, several weeks at least. But a recent column on how Twitter prevents us from making real connections with people forced my hand.
The piece, by novelist Lucina Rosenfeld, describes Rosenfeld’s attempt at joining the Twitter revolution. She joins but doesn’t know what to tweet, despite her editor’s advice:
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party, she said. The things you’d say to people you met there — those are the kinds of things you should tweet. Also, people like links.
I kinda thought we were past the “I don’t know how to tweet!” confessional fad. Apparently not. We’re apparently not past the “social media is ruining our ability to connect with others” fad, either: Rosenfeld goes on to identify what she suspects is our dirty secret:
that no one actually wants to see anybody anymore. It’s too much work. You have to dress nicely. And make actual conversation. And there’s a recession. It’s cheaper to stay home — and e-mail old friends about how “it’s been so long it’s criminal,” and “we really have to get together.”
Except we never do anymore. Which is kind of sad when you start to think about it. It’s hard to pour your heart out in 150 characters. It’s hard to have a great time, too, when the most you can hope for from a friend is LOL (note to Mom: that’s e-mail shorthand for “laughing out loud”) vs., say, being bent double over your bar stools while comparing notes on a mutual ex.
Last week, my friend Katie took me sailing for the first time ever. Afterward, over drinks, a young sailor named Aurelian turned to me and said “Why do you Twitter?” I paused, taken aback. Katie knew exactly what to say, though: “That question suggests twittering needs justification.”
What she meant was that people don’t ask “why do you go sailing on Thursday nights?” or “why do you take taxidermy classes?” or “why do you go to singles night at Kevin’s Pub?” They’re all just excuses for making a connection with others, just some basic scaffolding to hang our social impulses on. Rosenfeld’s caution, her resistance to engaging with participatory media for social purposes, is a throwback to the days when we still thought people got online to feed an addiction and not because of the deep social connection they felt by engaging with others across deeply personal, deeply social affinity spaces.
Twitter is one of those sites–like Facebook, which Rosenfeld acknowledges that she both understands and enjoys–that provides a platform for users to manage their friends across multiple affinity spaces. On Twitter, I follow Clay Shirky and John Seely Brown, two people who I’m sure do not yet know I exist; I follow (and am followed by) Henry Jenkins , Lance Speelmon and Mark Notess, colleagues who do know I exist; and I follow (and am followed by) Katie, my friends Clement and Stephanie, and my sister Laura.
Rosenfeld struggles with figuring out anything worth tweeting about. She couldn’t, she writes, figure out anything interesting to say or any link worth posting. That’s because she’s following the letter of Twitter and not the spirit. Posting updates and links isn’t a simple matter of finding interesting things that others might care about or figuring out what your followers might be interested in hearing; it’s a complicated dance both with and against the established norms of the space. Any twitterer worth her salt is both creating and constantly tinkering with her identity. Each link, each post, becomes part of a public persona both more simplistic and more complicated than the one we present in the physical world to the people we interact with in face to face encounters.
This is not, despite Rosenfeld’s implications to the contrary, a lesser social experience than those that call for face to face interactions. It’s actually not a greater experience, either. It’s simply different.
When faced with different, we have a couple of choices: We can react with caution and angst, as Rosenfeld does in her piece. We can embrace without caveat or trepidation the trappings of different, as many believe I do here. Or we can embrace different with intelligence, enthusiasm, and an analytic eye toward both its affordances and its constraints. When the NYTimes starts heading for that final category, I’ll start extolling its innovative approach to participatory media.
I also feel a nagging impulse to notify Rosenfeld that tweets are limited to 140 characters, not 150.