Following Twitter

Twitter 3Here today, gone tomorrow. Or rather, here for the moment, gone in an instant. That’s the reality we experience with Twitter. Twitter is an amazing phenomenon. For those of you who do not know, we all sign up to put out these posts, all limited to 140 characters (not words!). And then you “follow” people. And some “follow” you. All of this happens around the world with warp speed.

With the people I follow, I find an immense amount of information, bits of wisdom occasionally, but mostly links to things I would not otherwise have seen. Often these are links to breaking news items or commentary from our major publications, but mostly they are links to blog sites and obscure publications. Often you find some hidden gems, and that’s cool.

There is another thing that happens on Twitter: You get to know the personality of folks who are writing, their interests and their quirks, through these sudden, short blasts of presumed insight. I suspect some of us don’t fully know what we are exposing about ourselves, but it’s all out there for the world to see.

Then there is one more thing I find on Twitter: People use this space to self-promote, shamelessly. Not sure what it is about this medium, but it offers a stage, I suppose, for each of us to get the word out about what we have written elsewhere, how cool we are, what we care about. Twitter is both extensively connecting and utterly individualistic. You come away from a session on Twitter feeling we are all tucked away in our lonely pockets yet yearning to connect. This may be one way to connect but surely not a very satisfying one in the end.

But mostly Twitter is a cultural phenomenon on the fleeting nature of wisdom. These tidbits of insight we discover, some of them wonderfully useful, are constantly churning: here for a moment, immediately discarded. We find this as well in the way we experience the media at large: Our attention spans are so short, one big story for today, and by tomorrow we are on to something else. Twitter shortens that span significantly. It tells us we’ve got to move on. No time to dwell on anything. What may have interested me in the morning is no longer even visible in the afternoon.

I am not sure whether the impact of this lightening-short attention span will remain with us permanently. Maybe there is no harm in this accelerated access, but it will be damaging if it permanently changes the way we think and reflect. Ideas have always driven human civilization, shaped the way we live in society. That will not stop as long as civilization persists. If we reduce ideas, and thinking and reflection, to tidbits of instant consideration, we will have lost the ability to think wisely. Twitter will not, even in its massive aggregation of momentary insight, offer up a new starting point for our broken society.

One other note: Relationships won’t work with this Twitter-like attention span. Nor will institutions. If institutions show only fleeting loyalty to their employees, which seems to be happening these days, we will have broken institutions. Same is true of employee loyalty to the institution. Loyalty is not fleeting. It is deep.

I guess it’s the notion of deep I find missing on Twitter. Maybe that’s okay for a moment, but some part of deep is required for all of us in the long run.