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Twittering

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

What is the point of Twitter?  This is not a rhetorical question; I’ve just been wondering ever since I read about it, in a surprising number of places—Wall Street Journal, Wired, Lifehacker, Boing Boing, Marginal Revolution (I think). Is the goal to elevate non-descriptness to an art form (one of my personal mottoes)? Is it an extension of the idea behind happiness research, where you wear a monitor that prompts you to record your hedonic well-being every so often? Is it intended to dignify everyday life as the locus of struggle and praxis? Is it a hymn to concision? Or is it just yet another way to turn the most powerful communication tool humans have yet devised into a mirror?


The point seems to be to encourage self-disclosure by taking away the intimidating open-endedness of the blank page, but do we really need more self-disclosure? Seems like there’s far too much of it already. This recent Psychology Today story, “The Decline and Fall of the Private Self,” investigates what makes people want to discuss themselves in public, and it airs the usual point that electronic media is disinhibiting (more than a few drinks! the article teases). But what does disinhibition end up meaning exhibitionism? Couldn’t it be that full disclosure is a compulsion that we are inhibited from refraining from? That we feel compelled to tell-all and that disinihibition could grant us the freedom to shut up?


Another common explanation for the Web blah-blahing the story touches on is the notion that we have to have media attention to validate our lives—the idea that, for instance, if you don’t have a Facebook page you aren’t really in college.


A blog makes your mundane life into an electronic saga that turns you into something more than an anonymous drone in a technological and impersonal world. “You now have a story and perhaps you’ve even become the focus of other watchers and listeners,” says Singer. “You become a character, a speaking part, in the larger theater of society.” Even if you’re playing the role of the loser—blogging about being unhappy and unattractive—at least you’re part of the show.


Sign me up for loser, and make sure it is as public a humilation as possible—that sounds great, very validating.


Just because there’s an audience, that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually paying attention. And being just an extra is probably worse than being in the audience. How does desperate self-publicity make one less anonymous? Haven’t these people seen MySpace? Nothing can be more anonymous than being one voice among many self-involved voices out there (I know; re: this blog); at least in imagination your self-aggrandizing story isn’t suffocated by the vast competition. In fact, personal blogs and social networking sites often seem to reinforce the mundaneness of selfhood, the limited and unimaginative options we fall back on—the size of our networks seems to merely emphasize our ultimate insignficance, as they loom disproportionately over what we can meaningfully process.


Are future generations in fact doomed to grow up with the idea that their internal monologues must be heard in order to be worth listening to themselves. Do they not recognize what they themselves are thinking until assured that someone else can see and comment on it as well? Externalizing our fantasies about our self-importance would seem to actually negate them, refute them—it’s what you would prescribe to someone who was too Walter Mittyish, even. The Psychology Today story suggests as much when it explains how confessing secrets online can be therapeutic and relieve stress.


He’s right: Telling secrets has been shown to have a positive effect on the person who’s doing the confessing, because keeping them requires a lot of mental work. Wegner has found that actively trying to suppress a thought (like trying not to think about a white bear) actually seems to repeatedly refresh your mental browser and bring it to mind. “It’s almost as though there’s a little corner of the mind that’s looking for the very thing you’re trying not to think about,” he says. Sharing the secret, though, “unprimes” the information, freeing the mind to focus on other things and breaking the cycle of worry. By recounting their sins and lapses, the AA member and the blogger can unload pesky thoughts and mull more productive ones for the rest of the day.


Maybe so. I’m convinced though that the less I think about myself, the better I am doing. So narrating the minutiae of my worries in unsublimated form would be like a sentence to purgatory for me.

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