Twittering My Presence

twitter-logoIt is a question as old as the fail whale itself: Why do we Twitter? Yesterday, the Valley Wag asked this question in a scathing critique of the usefulness of this service. Earlier this month, David Pogue of The New York Times in his for-the-masses review described it as a “time drain” and “one of those ego things.” Yes, it is the season for critiquing Twitter.

There is any number of reasons to raise an eyebrow at Twitter, not least of which is its self-assign $230 million dollar worth (how do social media companies do that?), but to claim that tweeting results from “an underdeveloped sense of self” and a “lack of identity”, as does psychologist Oliver James, is selling tweeps short. Apparently we are just twittering to “reassure ourselves that we are alive.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

Before I disagree, a personal disclosure: I am not an avid tweeter. I tweet, but only recreationally. I have a bunch of friends. Some I know personally, some I don’t. I have removed exactly one person for twitter-spam (I don’t care about his coffee stirring techniques), am following two tech celebrities (who apparently are just as normal as me), and accidentally ended up following one emo rock star who sprinkles my day with unexpected angsty lyrics about everything from his latest breakup to the new toothbrush he just bought (no kidding!). These are not people with underdeveloped identities. If anything, these identities abound.

I remember trying to explain Twitter to a friend back before it had really taken off. “Wait,” she said, “you have a blog for your stream of consciousness?”

Perhaps, but mostly I am tweeting with my friends. There is an unobtrusive presence that twittering allows that is low maintenance, yet intimate. I have friends who have moved to San Fransisco, Boston, and Las Vegas who I would have undoubtedly lost track of, but via Twitter we keep in casual contact with occasional short messages. I have one friend who constantly flies around the country for business, but takes pictures and twitters clever observations as a way in which to keep in contact with friends here in D.C. Apparently he is in my home town today, but I would have never known without Twitter. And given that we are newer friends, he would have never known to tell me. Twitter serves a number of other purposes as well.

The links and videos shared by my twitter network serves as a “best of the internet” service for my specific interests. Many of the items that make it to my blog arrived via Twitter. Conferences are also a hotbed for tweets. It is now common for conference attendees to “back channel” during conference presentations, commenting on the presentation, providing links to related projects, or just sharing their enthusiasm. In the case of an iPhone release, Twitter was the outlet for such a rash of mass excitement that the tweet load took down the entire Twitter network.

Now, there is an argument for Twitter as a form of self-production, a technology that allows you to assert who you are, and in doing so loops back and defines you as well. That said, why is no one questioning Facebook status updates? The complaints against twitter paint a portrait of self-obsessed users compelled to post every last thought lest they risk their psyches falling apart.

I, for one, do not feel obligated to write or read posts on Twitter. When Twitter suffered significant downtime last year, my world did not end. The take home message is that there are a number of reasons to want to blast 140 character tweets, and plenty more reasons for reading them.

There is a heavy vein of technological determinism in these recent critiques. It is presumptuous to look at the capabilities of a technology and make statements about its users. It is even worse to look at the manic-tweeting of a few and generalize to every user. These recent questions about Twitter’s relevance seem reminiscent of attacks on Facebook and blogs from years past, and I suspect that they are just the backlash against a new form of media in the process of popular adoption.

Jed Brubaker

Jed Brubaker's background involves professional and academic work in the social sciences, marketing, technology, and the arts. He received a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Utah, and is a former master's candidate in the interdisciplinary Communication, Culture and Technology (CCT) program at Georgetown University. His current research interests included digital identity and anonymity, Internet culture, and computer mediated communication. Read more on his blog at www.whatknows.com.