A few weeks ago a friend of mine announced that she was taking a break from Web 2.0.* She was going to prune her Twitter feeds, reduce her time on Facebook, and cut back on her time on IM. She needed to pay more attention to her real life, and to real relationships. Recollecting friends from high school and college was interesting for a while (Web 2.0 is a time machine for my generation, after all), but a large volume of acquaintances can't provide the same satisfaction and support as a handful of friends you can see– or who can take the kids out to the park for an hour. Getting Tweets on her cell phone was also a poor combination of intrusiveness and minutiae. And there was laundry to be done.
As one of the digital lemmings who pushed her over the edge, the episode got me thinking. Why do I Tweet? After thinking about it for a while, I've come the conclusion that while it's certainly popular with lots of my friends, I have a couple serious questions about Twitter, as a writer and a reader.
First, I have to admit that my regular life isn't interesting enough to justify throwing out real-time updates about it. Nobody needs to know that I've just convinced the kids to make their own breakfasts, or have come back from lunch at Zao Noodles, or am trying to decide where to go on this weekend's hike. The exception is when I'm on the road or doing something else unusual: at those times, my life– or my world– might get interesting enough document in detail.
There's also the problem that I'm not sure what I get out of my own tweets. One of the signal features of Web 2.0, I think, is that it's not just broadcasting: it's self-documentation. Some of my friends use Twitter to jot down little notes about what they're reading. But for me, the absence of tags in Twitter makes it hard for me to find things I've looked at long enough to know I should look for them again later, or to keep track of citations; del.icio.us is still the better tool for that. (I suppose you could replicate a little of that functionality with #tags, but that's a workaround, and there's no auto-complete….) And I'm not sure I've gone back and looked at my own Twitter stream, ever. My regular blog is valuable because it's a way to keep track of my own life; this one has been invaluable for recording and trying out ideas for my book; my kids' blog has been a place where I could store huge amounts of detail about my kids' childhoods– those pictures of them doing cute but ordinary things, or saying wonderful things, or just growing up. Tossing out tweets feels like shooting sparks from a wheel: the sparks may be entertaining, but it's the object you're shaping with the wheel that's really valuable.
Finally, as a reader, I find that seeing the raw feed of even a few people's lives can quickly become overwhelming. In the last 24 hours, a relatively quiet time after Thanksgiving, I got 34 tweets; during a busy time– when people are traveling or at SXSW– I can get several times that, easily. There's an argument to be made, as Clive Thompson has done, that the minutiae of tweets resolve into ambient awareness… but as it's currently designed, the system still puts big demands on readers, who have to constantly read their friends' Twitter streams, develop a sense of the rhythm of their posting, and build up a model of their real-world state from their online behavior. In a world in which the challenge is not to broadcast a lot of information, but to generate a lot of meaning, the stream-of-existence quality of tweeting makes it easy to mistake detail for intimacy, quantity of tweets for quality of expression or depth of understanding. As a preview of the world of ubiquitous computing and ambient awareness, Twitter is an interesting experiment (an experiment that's being conducted my hundreds of thousands of people on themselves and their friends.)
This is actually not a bad lesson for designers. Creating ambient devices isn't about pushing information; presence isn't just about connection. Connecting people virtually is as much about quality and meaning in the digital world as it is in the real world.
Which is not to say that Twitter is hopeless. Twitter is strongest as a platform for conversation and reportage. It's easy to share a rapid fire of short notes at conferences, for example, and the final result– assuming people are listening and paying attention– can be useful. (I wonder if there are examples of Twitter being used by students in lecture classes?) A couple of the people I follow use it as much for pinging friends as for talking about what they're doing: for them, Twitter is a cross between the Facebook wall and a chat room. And I find Twitter useful for getting reactions to news events: I stopped watching the presidential debates this fall, for examples, after I realized that most of my friends were tweeting their reactions to them.
So what do I do with my Twitter stream? I'm not going to shut it down, because there are times when I'll want to provide moment-by-moment updates about what I'm doing ("Just cleared customs in Kai Tak! Where's the cab line?" "Have now been in Victoria Stations on four continents…."). But for me, when I do use it, the challenge will be to figure out how to write the Web 2.0 equivalent of Zen koans: to fit meaning into 140 characters, rather than to fight the limitations of the medium by posting a lot.
*After I started working on this piece, I got interested in what other people had written upon getting fed up with some service, technology, or channel. Turns out that the "declaration of zeroing" is almost a literary genre. I first became aware of it through David Levy (whose book I reviewed in the L.A. Times, and who gave a brilliant talk about this stuff a couple years ago), and his ideas of a digital sabbath and information environmentalism. A couple samples:
Edward Vielmetti on Twitter:
The basic idea is that in systems where there is an infinite capacity for the world to send messages to get your attention, the only reasonable queue that you can leave between visits to the system is zero, because if you get behind you will never, ever, ever catch up gradually. Never. No matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more to do, and you will lose sleep over it.
Carmen Joy King, after quitting Facebook:
The amount of time I spent on Facebook had pushed me into an existential crisis. It wasn’t the time-wasting, per se, that bothered me. It was the nature of the obsession – namely self-obsession. Enough was enough. I left Facebook.
Donald Knuth on email:
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.
On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months.
Mark Bittman on his "secular Sabbath:"
I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.
And of course there's at least one blog about turning off all electronics one night a week. "Because of course," Ariel Stallings writes, "I can’t unplug without blogging about it! (Irony, is that you?)"