[11 July 2007]
WSJ columnist Lee Gomes took another look today at Twitter and other so-called microblog services, sites that encourage you to post short entries (i.e. about 200 letters) throughout the day that keep a running log of what you are doing. Despite my previous post on the subject, it’s perhaps insufficient simply to dismiss these as yet another expression of post-internet narcissism gone amuck, another way for people to mediated their own lives and make it seem more real in a media-saturated age. This, via Gomes, is how these services themselves describe what they are for:
Twitter, the first microblogging service and the current leader, says these messages are a kind of “ambient information.” The folks at Jaiku, a newer entrant, say they allow users to have “social peripheral vision.”
Both pretty good memes. Both companies seem aware that in order for people to use their services, they need to pitch it as something other than self-regard. So in a neat trick, they reconfigure the process of constantly updating the world about the minutia of your day as a kind of selfless act, sacrifical biofeedback.
“Any individual post is usually something mundane,” says Mr. Stone. “But it keeps the relationship alive; it keeps you a good son or a good brother. The next time you see one of them, they will be able to say, ‘How was that trip you took to the NASA research center? It sounded really cool.’”
Mr. Engeström adds: “It’s a feeling you are living beside them even if you don’t see them all the time. Not everyone wants to publish their lives online. But we all need attention from the people we care about.”
So just like that, writing about yourself in isolation becomes a method for paying attention to someone else. Your solipsism is actually an expression of how connected you wish to be. This would be an almost tragic paradox, if people actually believed this.
In the column, Gomes likens microblogging to idle chatter on the phone, quoting a historian who notes, “The point isn’t the content, it’s the connection.” But obviously there’s a huge difference between having a phone conversation and sending out messages to the world. The phone conversation is reciprocal, and the reciprocity foments the connected feeling. The blog posts are messages in a bottle; I would think they would reinforce the feeling of being isolated in the world, despite the hypersophisticated communications industry, and all the various technological means of interconnectedness.
There’s no doubt that rote volunteering of personal information helps establish a social bond, but the bond comes not from the ceaseless one-way flow of information but from the give and take—the slow, measured ramping-up of what is shared and what is hinted at, and the warm glow that comes when you sense the other person is opening up. I think a blog program that periodically triggers you to spew out what is on your mind automatically yields a different form of intimacy, one not immediately or readily conformable to the forms we understand and yearn for. I hesitate to call it illusory; it’s just new, not yet fully understood, and it’s not clear what sort of relationships it would facilitate, or how it would affect already established relationships. Does it obviate reciprocity, or merely defer it, as the optimists in the article suggest?