Culture: I really couldn't give two tweets
Sunday 15 February 2009
Can you tell anything about the state of our culture by the current vogue for Twitter? For those of you who don't know, Twitter is a social-networking site that enables users to post regular updates about whatever it is they're doing – cooking a meal, playing a video game – or whatever happens to have caught their eye on the web. These messages are called "tweets" and they must be no longer than 140 characters.
One of Twitter's distinguishing characteristics is that each person signed up to the network has to choose which other users' "tweets" they want to see – and deciding to follow somebody does not guarantee that they will follow yours. For example, William Shatner (pictured) has 12,519 followers, but is following only four people.
This built-in discrepancy – which applies across the board – means it is very difficult to have a conversation on Twitter. I can respond to someone else's tweet, but if they're not one of my followers, they won't be aware of this response. It is a bit like trying to attract someone's attention in a crowded room, but being ignored as you're not important enough.
Indeed, the whole Twitter experience is like being at some A- list media event – Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch's Christmas party, for instance – at which it seems everyone is talking and no one is listening. In this respect, it is a quintessentially modern phenomenon: a social-networking site for people who don't like to communicate.
Twitter is a bit like a malfunctioning two-way radio. I can broadcast to my followers, and I can listen to the broadcasts of the people I'm following, but I can't actually talk to anyone.
Or, rather, I can, but only if they happen to fall into the subset of the people I'm both following and being followed by – and that will nearly always be a small number, thanks to the way Twitter is designed.
In 1995, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published a famous essay entitled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" in which he predicted the emergence of a much more fragmented society, and it is almost as if someone invented Twitter to prove him right. In fact, "bowling alone" is a perfect description of twittering: it's a social activity that involves no human interaction whatsoever.
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