First MySpace, then Facebook, and now Twitter. The idea of simultaneously communicating with hundreds or thousands or millions of “friends” has gone from clunky functionality to improved efficiency to instant success, “connecting” people no matter their geographic or spiritual distance. Finally, after much fretting and fomenting, we’ve overcome our existential solitude. We are one.
That’s a great development, and further proof that technology may sometimes be used for congregating human souls, not merely annihilating them. At first blush, we should collectively celebrate a free service that allows those who care (for whatever reason) to know what we ate for breakfast, where our next errand will take us, and how that aforementioned breakfast is working its way through our digestive tract. Knowledge is power, and power, according to conventional wisdom, is good. Ergo, it’s all good (as the kids like to say).
At the risk of sounding like a cranky fuddy-duddy, the kind of guy who thought radio was good enough and you didn’t need no durned TV, I must confess that Twitter doesn’t strike me as all good, or even much good at all, except for generals wishing to control their troops or clinical narcissicists requiring constant reassurance that their smiling visage, rendered in emoticons, will shine back at them from a vast reflecting pool of unseen followers.
Twitter announces a new nadir in our culture’s attention span. We now have the perfect expression of our disdain for thinking about anything too deeply, anything that demands engagement, cogitation, and rumination. Because of its technical specifications, Twitter accommodates brief messages of up to 140 characters. The first three paragraphs of this essay wouldn’t fit in a tweet. Indeed, my broadcast would be closer to the first three lines — which, some would argue, would be a vast improvement over the loquacious blabbering that follows.
Ideas, though, are not entirely prelude. But when you’re voluntarily participating in the Culture of Text Messaging, the imperative to Keep It Simple, Stupid, to skate along the surface and avoid the subterranean (or, god forbid, sub-textual) exploration, is far stronger than the imperative to think critically.
We live in a land of easily deluded people. (And if you doubt that, please view the Bill Maher documentary Religulous). Our eternally juvenile popular culture thrives on easily manipulated consumers who have been carefully trained to mistrust dissent, deplore challenging arguments, and despise contrarian philosophy. We’re a nation of Followers, content to gape at the starlet’s beach photos and the pop star’s paparazzi videos. We care deeply about that which, upon closer consideration, merits something closer to obliviousness, if not disdain: the weekend box office numbers, the right-fielder’s on-base percentage, the outcome of a TV singing competition. We adore gossip. We’ve learned to love comfort and relaxation, the expected and the familiar, at the exclusion of potentially virtuous pursuits, such as improving the lives of our brothers and sisters, known and unknown. Our conception of “social change” has come to mean “adjusting Top Friends” on our networking sites.
Twitter is not the cause of our mass unconsciousness. But it’s the perfect tool for a civilization that prefers its inquiries and analysis, manifestos and moralities, to be quick and easy.