The Problem With Twitter

I have a confession: I hate Twitter.

Twitter has got to be the most egregiously narcissistic and self-indulgent waste of Internet space since 14-year-old girls discovered LiveJournal. Just think about the entire concept for a second. You send text messages—in Twitter lingo, these are called “tweets”—constantly updating your “followers” about what you are doing. That is it, just mindless texting and following. Absolutely nothing of practical value.

This is so… awful. Twitter is making America dumber, up to 140 characters at a time. Why, you ask? For one thing, Twitter’s model ensures that 99.9 percent of its users are boring, talentless idiots. It is clearly a self-selection bias: if you have the time to constantly update people about your activities, then you probably are not doing anything interesting or worth hearing about. Twitter simply lets you keep track of the dullness in real-time. Instead of going out and doing something story-worthy, Twitter users think about how they can infuse their banal everyday activities with humor, wit, and insight. It is truly an incredible waste of time, energy, and (minimal) brainpower.

Aside from appealing to the lowest common denominator of person, Twitter also appeals to the worst aspects of humanity. It lets you do nothing while giving you the illusion of action. As long as you’re Twittering about something, it must be important! It’s the ultimate exercise in self-affirming narcissism. In the real world, nobody cares about your trip to the Laundromat, grocery store, gym, or whatever. But Twitter lets you pretend that people care so you can disconnect from reality and feel important. You can ignore your surroundings and Twitter your life away in self-indulgence, safe in the knowledge that your followers will appreciate updates every 15 minutes on the progress of your laundry, shopping, workout, and dreary existence.

What is incredibly sad is that Twitter could be a powerful tool if used properly. Not only does the network have the capacity to share links and information, but some of the celebrities and politicians who use Twitter doubtlessly lead remarkable lives and have significant world-views. But unfortunately, most of the discourse on Twitter is used to answer the simple question, “What are you doing?” rather than something more important like, “What do you think about this important issue?” Even when legislators dutifully use Twitter during Senate hearings, we get hyperbole rather than unique insights. Unfortunately, with politicians as with teenage girls, Twitter becomes a competition for attention rather than a legitimate social networking tool. And more importantly, aren’t Senators paid to listen to hearings and speeches rather than think up their next clever “tweet”?

This brings me to a larger point about social networking in general. It can certainly be a useful tool for organizing and communicating with people—the Obama campaign’s savvy use of technology would be Exhibit A here. But while social networking is important, it is not a substitute for what I like to call “life.” Facebook, MySpace, blogging—these are all means to meet people and disseminate information, not ends in and of themselves. Our online identities should reflect real life rather than become it.

If only it were that simple. Society as a whole is moving more and more toward online interaction. Even regular conversations—where people talk face-to-face rather than Facebook-to-Facebook—seem to revolve around what’s happening online. Pseudo-witty meta-commentary about real life (“I hope nobody tags these pictures!”) is becoming the tune of the day. While I do wonder whether this change is for better or worse, the fact remains that the online community is becoming more integrated into general social life. If you remove yourself from it, you risk missing out on a lot of stuff. But if you dive headfirst into the deep end of online social networking, you risk removing yourself from real life and sinking slowly into the calm waters of monotony.

It represents an unfortunate dilemma and a fine line to walk. But Twitter—like most of its users—is a no-brainer. Ernest Hemingway said it best: “Never equate motion with action.” Twitter is motion for the sake of motion, and its popularity should disturb anyone who values real, intelligent social interactions.

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