Friday, December 17, 2010
The Tyranny of Twitter
Last night I stumbled across this blog by a person who had almost entirely escaped my memory. The blog wasn't by someone I know personally yet reading their words was like receiving an email from an old friend. The reason he had strayed so far from my mind was because he hadn't tweeted in almost a month.
The blog is by London-based writer and illustrator Greg Stekelman, aka The Man Who Fell Asleep (@themanwhofell). Before joining Twitter earlier this year I had never heard of Greg. I only became aware of his existence when someone I followed retweeted something that Greg had posted: "If you buy only one book this year, then you're a philistine". With just shy of 10,000 followers I made the immediate assumption Greg was a well-connected and revered media personality. A sucker for sardonic wit and humorous Bowie references, I had no hesitation in joining his army of followers.
In the months that followed I found myself increasingly endeared to Greg's self-effacing humour and misanthropic world-view. Despite the 11 hour time difference between Melbourne and London I found that Greg's copious stream of tweets were the ones that I would look out for. It wasn't until a friend who recently joined Twitter asked me for recommendations on who to follow that I realised that Greg had ceased tweeting. It being very rare that someone goes entirely 'cold-turkey' I began to wonder the reasons why he had stopped.
My curiosity was finally sated when his blog popped up (not on Twitter, I hasten to add) and I found out the real reasons he had stopped using the platform. To summarise his blog post, Greg, a single, out-of-work writer in his mid-30s with "no discernable career", had given up tweeting as he had found that his addiction to Twitter was preventing him from 'making things happen' in his life. In the post he speaks about waking up at 9am each day and instantly checking his Twitter feed, leading to a series of posts that would take up much of his day. While his peers were building careers, big salaries, wives, children, etc. and younger writers were soaking up the scarce media and script-writing opportunities, he felt that his days were being wasted away on social media and he was quickly finding himself "on the scrapheap". Taking a month away from Twitter has been his way of reassessing his life and rebuilding the human relationships he had neglected while tweeting.
An interesting read, I think Greg's blog makes a few important points on the dangers that Twitter holds for all users. Firstly, he speaks about the "compulsive" nature of the platform. When he received five replies to one of his tweets he would want ten, when he reached 9,000 followers he wanted 10,000, as though a larger audience and a greater level of response would give greater validation to his activities. These quantitative increases, as he points out, would make no material difference to the quality of his life. He also refers to Twitter as an "insular, self-referential bubble" that encourages the user to form a particular stance on a subject within a short time of an issue (e.g. a news story) emerging and to vilify views that differ from the emerging status quo. He says that taking a break from Twitter has allowed him to "entertain concepts beyond 140 characters."
I think this second point touches on one of the key facets of Twitter- that everyone's experience on the platform is different. Naturally, when building your 'following' list, you gravitate towards people with interests similar to your own (in my case I generally follow journalists/media sources, other PR/Comms professionals, comedians and people who tweet about Italian football). For this reason your opinions on a particular issue will perhaps be strongly influenced by the people you follow (and, generally speaking, respect) rather than being based on a thorough consideration of the facts or on a wide range of opinions. A fair point perhaps, although one may also argue that this is reflective of real (i.e. offline) life, where people's convictions are tainted by what they read in the newspaper or are told by friends and family.
Either way, I think there are some important conclusions that can be made here about Twitter and, indeed, social media in general. As with all technology it is important to maintain the right relationship with social media platforms. When used right Twitter can be a great way to keep informed on emerging news, to consider the views of influential people and to be able to engage in conversation and debate with intelligent, like-minded people. You might even make some real-life friends along the way. Conversely, it is also important to make sure you are the one using Twitter to build relationships and develop influence rather than for it to take hold of you and your life, preventing you from developing relationships and influence in the real world.
What Greg's experience shows is that when you become addicted to social media it can actually get in the way of developing meaningful human relationships that can expand your social and professional horizons. Thankfully, for myself and the other 8,000-odd people that now follow him (shows how fickle a Twitter following can be, eh?), Greg says that he will tweet again but this time he'll be "a little wiser" in his use.
I look forward to his return.