About two months ago I signed up for a Twitter account, and since then I’ve been (intermittently) fumbling my way through this 140-character universe, trying to get a grip on the thing. It’s been a weird and interesting process and to be honest I’m still not sure what I think of the whole phenomenon. A collection of field-notes, jotted down along the way:
There’s definitely a charm to the brevity of Twitter: the limit of 140 characters is a formal constraint to writing similar to, say, haiku. (This is probably a comparison that every English nerd who uses Twitter makes.) Most of the writing I’ve done is decidedly long-form; the idea of a novel is less daunting to me than a short story, so trying to think this way is a nice change of pace.
Twitter is all about curation, right? “On the internet, curation is what passes for style.”
The fact is, is that Twitter makes me feel decidedly… well, peculiar. I’m obviously (very, very) late to the party when it comes to social media: and it’s a party that seems to have some kind of theme, although for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is. I’ve got the sense of having wandered into a vast space full of people milling around, intently doing something — but I can’t make out the transaction, what’s actually being created, or performed, or exchanged. (I get the distinct sense that I may be overthinking things.)
Spending time on Twitter gives me a kind of vertigo. Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novel The Algebraist is largely set on a gas-giant and his descriptions of those constantly-shifting landscapes, in which there are no fixed landmarks or geography, remind me of Twitter. The waves of hashtag-trends, the random voices of retweets, the overlapping conversations between strangers: it’s all transient, slippery, full of unexpected juxtapositions. Twitter feels like the opposite of permanence.
Belatedly, something like understanding. Most of the internet (that is, most of the public, human-facing internet — which is a smaller slice of things than we generally imagine) is basically a collection of tools. Google Maps is a tool for visualizing and locating things geographically; Slashdot is a tool for filtering news related to a specific interest group; Facebook is a tool for simulating friendship. All these sites more or less have a purpose built into them — a purpose that can be hacked and abused, but that provides a general framework for the activity that goes on. But Twitter, it seems to me, isn’t like that. Twitter is a medium, not a tool. It’s so open-ended that it’s not “about” anything — in the same way that the internet itself isn’t “about” anything. It just is, make of it what you will.
I’m still not sure if Twitter is a medium I actually like — I prefer essays to one-liners. But it’s undeniably fascinating. To me, the most interesting aspect of Twitter is that is represents about the most abstract kind of game imaginable. There are minimal rules (140 characters) and a vague sense of “winning” (collecting followers) but apart from that it’s completely open-ended. In fact it might not be a game at all, unless you want it to be. Which is, now that I think of it, uncomfortably like life in general.