The unbearable lightness of Tweeting

If you’re willing to use it properly, Twitter can be more than just a social irritant.

by Sam Blake

To call Twitter a phenomenon on the Internet would certainly be an understatement. Twitter is a phenomenon on the Internet like the Internet is a phenomenon in modern life: extremely innovative and just a bit more prolific than most people are comfortable with. This phenom status derives not only from the fact that celebrities use it (though they do), nor does it come from the fact that Twitter represents a relatively unique new form of social interaction (though it does). No, TwitterâÄôs most exceptional attribute is that it is probably the most popular tool on the Internet that people love to hate. Other tools have managed to escape this fate. Facebook has certainly reached the âÄúphenomenonâÄù status, but it doesnâÄôt seem to raise peopleâÄôs bile like it used to. Granted, there will always be the holdouts, the haters, the hauteurs and such who raise a stink from time to time, but for the most part, we as a society have come to accept that Facebook has a place. YouTube is another good example of Internet phenomena, and it too rocks the same boat; you can think it reduces standards or wastes time or what have you, but it is now a generally established part of our societal modus. Not so with Twitter. No, Twitter hate is alive and well, both on the Internet and off, and the arguments behind it are, in a surprising twist from the norm, pretty robust. Twitter wastes time. Twitter promotes self-absorption and vapidity. Twitter is just a tool for celebrity or corporation worship. âÄúTwitterâÄù is a dumb word. (This last point is less robust, but I am happy to agree with it.) Pretty much all of these are at least reasonably defensible, if not provably true. But, as Bill Nye would say, consider the following: Suppose, for a moment, that we removed the biases of popular negative opinion. Suppose also that we ignored the ways in which Twitter is most commonly used right now, i.e., to engage in information gluttony (following 500 other people) or to follow celebrity or business updates. Consider what would happen if we used Twitter in a less brain-dead fashion. There is a phenomenon, probably most accurately attributed to the realm of social psychology, referred to as DunbarâÄôs number, sometimes called the âÄúmonkeysphere.âÄù This number refers to the maximum number of people with which one can maintain stable social relationships. (âÄúMonkeysphere,âÄù similarly, refers to this group of people.) Assume for a moment that the average Twitter user posts a 140-character message 0.37 times each day (the average rate as reported by the Harvard Business Review). ThatâÄôs 51.8 characters per person per day, or about nine words a day in English. LetâÄôs say that every single person in your monkeysphere had a Twitter account and posted at the mean rate. If your monkeysphere is the size of DunbarâÄôs number (usually approximated as 150) and you follow each of those people and no one else, you will receive about 7,770 characters per day, or about 1,300 words of English. Now, you might hate reading (you might even hate it a lot), but 1,300 words a day? For comparisonâÄôs sake, this column is about 1,000 words long. In the time you took to read this entire thing, which isnâÄôt likely to be more than 10 minutes, you could have caught up with the goings-on of almost all of the people you are physically capable of maintaining meaningful social relationships with. The time-waster complaint might be a popular one, but 10 minutes a day to invest isnâÄôt much. The most popular criticism levied against Twitter, though, is vapidity. A study done last year by Pear Analytics found that 40.55 percent of Twitter posts can be reasonably classified as âÄúpointless babble.âÄù And you can make a very strong argument that ejecting your particular brand of pointless babble into the public atmosphere is narcissistic and useless, and to some extent I agree. But what happens when we apply the same restriction on who we follow? See, what a stranger sees as pointless babble between two friends or relatives may in fact be a meaningful, or at least a mutually entertaining, conversation. In my extended family, we like to have long-winded debates about what kinds of crackers are best. (IâÄôm Team Ritz.) Other people think that such a thing is completely ridiculous, and it is; but among family, itâÄôs a perfectly normal way to interact. Close-knit groups of friends may have inside jokes or make pop-cultural references they can appreciate as a group. Again, vapid expression can be meaningful if the people reading it are those who actually care about what you have to say. Look, as much as I hope that people read these words I have taken the time to write down, IâÄôm just some guy with two first names and a newspaper column. I am clearly not in your monkeysphere, and you should not feel obligated to care about the trivial aspects of my life. (Unless I am in your monkeysphere, in which case: Hi! How are you doing?) But if there really are 150 people in your life that are important to you, and if you only have to invest 10, maybe 15 minutes in a day to keep up with all of them, why wouldnâÄôt you? Stop reading my dumb words and start reading up on the lives of your friends and family. I promise, the experience will be much more rewarding. Of course, if you read my columns too, thatâÄôs OK with me. Oh, and while IâÄôve tried to counter most of the contentions against Twitter that I originally mentioned, I donâÄôt have a way to defend âÄúTwitterâÄù as a word. It is a bad word and you have my blessing to hate it. But at least be willing to think about giving a unique and potentially useful social tool a second glance. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]