No Signs of Intelligent Life on Twitter

A couple days ago, I (along with a couple of other folks) stopped twitting.  At the moment, I have about 1100 twitter followers, and not the slightest clue why.  The content of my twits are largely worthless.  As far as I can tell, not a single thing I’ve twitted is worth more than a glance or, on occasion, a chuckle.  Your twits are no better.

This hiatus has allowed me to do some looking and some thinking.  I’ve spent some time reading the twits of others, following twitter “conversations” to which I wasn’t a party.  I put the word “conversation” in quotes because it’s used in the loosest of ways.  These aren’t conversations at all, as they are inherently limited, whereas a real conversation can range from the sublime to the ridiculous.  This is only the ridiculous.

It’s not that there isn’t fun to be had.  Some people can be quite witty in 140 characters.  Not always, but sometimes.  Most of us, however, are not that witty.  We may try to be, but we’re not.

There are also some troubling trends.  The indiscriminate collection of followers, the initial badge of twitter honor, was never taken seriously by serious people.  But I’ve watched serious people do something that strikes me as worse.  Twitter “friendships” develop that involve what the social media gurus like to call “authentic engagement,” where a surprising level of intimacy is achieved between people who know nothing more about each other than their twitter bio and twits reveal.  On the one hand, it shows a sweet level of empathy for others.  On the other, it seems as if it reflects the absence of any real life friendships.

People twit at each other all the time.  Some will twit all night long, until they finally sign off from exhaustion.  They inquire of each other about the intimate details of their life, and the others tell them the details.  This is all open to public inspection, though the details generally aren’t any more interesting than anyone else’s mundane life.  It’s all reminiscent of old friends superficially chatting, but without the old friends part and without the underlying basis for connection. 

It’s all the superficiality with none of the substance of real friendship.  And yet people spend their evenings, every evening, doing this.  These friendships crossed borders that would rarely be crossed in real life, with law students giving life lessons to old-time lawyers, and secretaries demanding the rapt attention of senior partners.  Do they not have spouses, children, friends, family with whom to interact?  Have we come to seeking, and finding, companionship in disembodied twits to fill the hole?

Another group that I’ve come to observe are the social media gurus.  Before, I would learn only of snippets, usually via Brian Tannebaum, who was paying far more attention than I ever considered worthwhile.  Instead, I set up a column in tweetdeck with the name of a young man whose recreated himself as a twitter expert when his law career fizzled.  I found his rise, and acceptance, as a social media guru rather astounding, and quite impressive, given his dearth of qualifications and the general silliness of his endeavor.  Still, if people want to buy pet rocks, who am I to stop them?

Following this column opened my eyes.  Not merely the volume of people on twitter who paid close attention to the most banal and, dare I say it, idiotic nonsense, but the identities of the twitterers.  From my remove, it seems as if this opportunistic crowd twits for no other reason than to announce approval and be embraced by the others.  No one, ever, twits anything but absolute approval.  Twit that you woke up this morning and got out of bed without falling, and a dozen will retwit it, adding their congratulations for the successful launch.  Someone will push the envelope by adding “you’re awesome!!!” 

Twits listing a passel of twitter names are the most common, as there is nothing better appreciated than having the twitter name spread far and wide.  Whether it’s the #FF, or something new to me, the ReadMeDaily that appears to be all the rage, reinforcing the-mutual-admiration-at-all-costs as the price of admission to this group.  Never have I seen such a meaningless circle jerk.  Never has anything so utterly inane been embraced by so many for no reason other than to be embraced.

There is no aspect of human existence so banal or trivial that it’s not worthy of a twit, and won’t give rise to someone twitting their congratulations in response.  It’s been explained to me that the reason for this is that some lawyers want to be loved by all others in the hope that they might refer them a case.  The social media gurus teach that people hire lawyers they like rather than lawyers who are competent.  Being liked merely requires liking others on twitter.  Any idiot can do it.

But any lawyer who refers a case to another lawyer based upon their twitter relationship should be disbarred.  Then beaten, tarred and feathered.  If this requires further explanation, please let me know so I can block you on twitter.

Granted, my observations are limited to lawyers and those whose occupations are related to the law, whether by their efforts or their desire to sell themselves to lawyers.  They maintain an obsession with numbers and superficial engagement, but what amazes is that they are well received, maybe even loved, for allowing anyone and everyone into their sphere who merely chooses to twit something nice at them.  Whether this is peculiar to lawyers I can’t say.  My experience is too limited to extrapolate, and my interest too limited to delve deeper.

I’m not sure what message to take from all of this, but I am disturbed by it.  It’s clear that some, more likely many, are so hungry for interaction that they will take it from anyone.  We don’t become BFFs with every person we meet in real life, so why would we do so with every person with a twitter account?  Yet most do exactly that.  If your bio says lawyer, then every other lawyer on twitter is expected to welcome you with open arms, follow you back, chat with you whenever you decide to throw a twit their way, and do so in a manner that pleases the happy twitterer.  It’s like another planet. 

Before some simpleton responds, “so if you hate twitter so much, just get out,” I add that I don’t hate twitter at all.  Twitter isn’t at fault here.  It’s just another technological marvel that allows people to communicate with others.  This is about what twitter tells us about ourselves, in the way we use this tool to compensate for the isolation technology has formed around us, the elimination of barriers between us and anyone who decides to touch us, the desperate need for intimacy, even if it means being intimate with disembodied names of unknown persons of dubious origins.

Most people don’t have a problem with any of this.  “It is what it is,” goes the uncontemplative twitterer.  My reason for sitting back and removing myself from the clatter is that I, along with some other blawgers to whom I owe a debt of appreciation for making me think, were twitting the other night about how the vitality of the blawgosphere has changed significantly since twitter became popular. 

We used to have rousing discussions on the blawgs.  They rarely happen anymore.  Synergies were created by blawging our nuanced disagreements about some complex detail in a case or trial practice.  No longer.  As one long-time blawger said, it’s gotten boring.  It seems like everything has been said and we’re just repeating ourselves for the benefit of the newcomers.  It’s not worth the effort.

We all agreed, however, that one of the problems was the dispersion of effort along the many formats available today.  Writing a cogent blawg comment is very hard work compared with a twit.  Engaging in thoughtful discussion requires thinking. Twitting requires nothing.  Twit “hi everybody” and people will twit back, “hi.”  The need for acceptance and approval is sated, and the community has embraced you to prove you are not alone and worthless.  The twitterer is happy.

It’s not as though I expect anyone to give much thought to the nature of what they twit, or how it may divert their energies from more difficult, maybe even thought-provoking pursuits,  No one would heed a curmudgeon when it comes to an appreciation of technology.  But my interest lies in things that make me think, wonder, question and challenge ideas. 

Twitter can be a fun toy from time to time, but it will never satisfy intellectual curiosity.  It’s just not built to do so, and there is no indication that those people enjoying twitter’s munificence day after day, night after night, really care.  

19 thoughts on “No Signs of Intelligent Life on Twitter

  1. Katie

    Good call. I made that same choice a couple weeks ago. In less than two months I joined, I twitted, I ‘connected’ and almost let myself become brainwashed by the nonsense going on between all the other twit-wits. Almost becoming a zombie tweeter myself. One flew over the coo-coo nest and realized it was basically just ‘loony bin’ full of crazies talking to themselves. BUT it did help me connect to a few like minded sane people that I would have otherwise never run into in the “real world”- So I am thankful for that.

  2. Rick Horowitz

    When I want to learn, I seldom find law books limited to 140 characters useful. In 140 characters, the most I could hope for would be a pointer or a tip.

    Similarly, superficial 140-character party conversations may lead to friendship, but if that’s all that constitutes my interaction with another, the best I can really determine is that we may have friendly feelings for one another.

    Twitter has it’s place. I hope that some I’ve met there are people I may get to know. Mostly, it’s an occasional interesting distraction, like party conversation with people I don’t dislike. Occasionally, perhaps “rarely,” it leads to my learning something useful.

    The trick for me is making sure I don’t expect more from the medium than it can possibly deliver.

  3. Jdog

    I the olden days — say, this time last year — I was finding a lot of fun and maybe a bit of value on Twitter, riffing on various matters with you and Bennet and the Christmas Tree guy.

    But, far as i can tell, all four of us cut back or stopped. Twitter, like life, is like a sewer — what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

  4. Venkat

    Great post, and no disagreements from me. (And boy am I excited to RT it!)

    I never treated Twitter that seriously, but over time I’ve started to become a more than regular user.

    I’ve enjoyed Twitter, but I think it has sapped my energy for blogging and affected my attention span. It has also sucked up a huge chunk of time. I often wonder what I could have accomplished with this time? Granted, one could say this about any recreational endeavor, but . . .

  5. Brian Gryth

    It is true to call what happens on Twitter a conversation is ludicrous. Even banal small talk at a party has more depth. However, much value can be found on Twitter if you ignore that “conversation” and focus on the interaction and sharing. I rarely engage in conversation in the traditional exchange sense on Twitter. I may offer a small thanks or a comment back to a friend (one I actually know in reality), but rarely do I tweet lengthy exchange. When I use Twitter, I more often share things I think are worth reading or watching. For instance, some of your post as well as information on open government and other topic of interest to me. I subscribe to the belief that knowledge sharing is power and that is how I use Twitter. So I will only say that I see your point, but I believe that it is not the tool that is problem rather it is those that us the tool. Those that say Twitter is about depth and meaning have drunk the cool aide. Twitter was never intended to be that or at least it never should have been intended to be that. Another thing to think about is if you are seeing the banal and trivial on Twitter, then perhaps it is not the fault of the banal and trivial user, but rather the fault of the one that follows the banal and trivial. For use and value can be found, it is only a matter of how one filters the information.

  6. Jeffrey Deutsch

    Hello Scott,

    Of course, I’ve RT’d your blunt take on Twitter. I’ll see what comes back.

    Thanks for your perspective and have a great rest of your weekend!

    Jeff Deutsch

  7. SHG

    However, much value can be found on Twitter if you ignore that “conversation” and focus on the interaction and sharing.


  8. Brian Gryth

    I meant to say to ignore the banal and silly. The interaction and sharing I refer to are sharing information that others may benefit from. Which is the main way I use twitter. I suppose my point is that twitter is like any other tool. It is both bad and good. If you focus on the negative, then you will fail to find the value that is there.

  9. mirriam

    Well, Bennett got me on twitter so he’s going to have to get me off. I’ve missed you guys so now all I can do is twit about how you are all on twitter strike. I’ve found it useful, amusing, and yes, frequently a total waste of time. I am lonely in my little office in Takoma Park so I’m on frequently for virtual human interaction. What it’s done for me, though, is made me realize I need an office with real live people in it.

    Look forward to having you back.

  10. SHG

    I feel no need to call it anything.  I was curious as to why you chose to call it a “twitter strike,” given its peculiar connotations.

  11. SHG

    When asked a question, it’s usually appropriate to respond with an answer rather than a question designed to avoid answering.  Is there a reason why you won’t explain your odd choice of language?

    While I did say it was a hiatus, that means merely a “break,” which seemed inordinately clear from the context to be an accurate statement of fact. 

  12. Antonin I. Pribetic

    It sounds more like a Twitter-induced hiatus hernia. Potential causes include:

    * Heavy lifting or bending over
    * Frequent or hard coughing
    * Hard sneezing
    * Pregnancy and delivery
    * Violent vomiting
    * Straining with constipation
    * Obesity
    * Use of the sitting position for defecation.

  13. Victor Medina

    On this topic, I’ve enjoyed an essay by Merlin Mann called “Better”. (If you want to provide a link for your readers, it’s easy enough to find online.)

    The love-fest is fed by the introduction and support of half-baked ideas that are empty calories. I tend not to get too meta on this stuff, but my time and attention are limited and finite. Moments spent eating the empty calories that are out there permanently deplete my treasury that would be better spent on time with my family, writing something I care about, or in service to my clients (the time I invest which is a source of pride).

    Look, people have required the embrace of others before Twitter and it is just the air-filled rice cake de jour. I can’t care about them or it. But, I use this stuff to try and make things I care about. As Merlin says, it doesn’t mean I’m not making fart jokes, but I want them to be world-class fart jokes.

    Sometimes I succeed, and often I fall short – both by my own measure and by measure of the small world of people I try to delight (which are not, by the way, the vast majority of my 800 followers).

    Now I have to go tweet about the imminent release of the _white_ iPhone.


  14. SHG

    What? A white iPhone!!!

    Thanks, Victor.  Here’s a link to Merlin Mann’s Better.  I hesitate to include it since he’s a much better writer than I.

    What makes you feel less bored soon makes you into an addict. What makes you feel less vulnerable can easily turn you into a dick. And the things that are meant to make you feel more connected today often turn out to be insubstantial time sinks – empty, programmatic encouragements to groom and refine your personality while sitting alone at a screen.

    *  *  *

    All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better. Everything better. Better, better.

    To underscore, I have no plan to stop making dick jokes or to swear off ragging people who clearly have it coming to them. It’s just that it’s important to me to make world-class dick jokes and to rag the worthy in a way that no one is expecting. I want to become an evangelist for hard work and editing, and I want to get to a place where it shows in everything that I do, make, and share. Yes, even if it makes me sound like a fancy guy who just doesn’t get it. Fuck it.

    At least he’s a potty-mouth and I’m not.

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