In defense of Twitter  APR 23 2009

Living in a big city, you get to hear other people's conversations all the time. These are private conversations meant for the benefit of the participants but it's no big deal if they're overheard on the subway. And you know what people talk about most of the time? In no particular order:

1. What they had or are going to have for breakfast/lunch/dinner.
2. Last night's TV or sports.
3. How things are going at work.
4. The weather.
5. Personal gossip.
6. Celebrity gossip.

Of course you'd like to think that most of your daily conversation is weighty and witty but instead everyone chats about pedestrian nonsense with their pals. In fact, that ephemeral chit-chat is the stuff that holds human social groups together.

Ever since the web hit the mainstream sometime in the 90s, people have asked of each new conversational publishing technology -- newsgroups, message boards, online journals, weblogs, social networking sites, and now Twitter -- the same question: "but why would anyone want to hear about what some random person is eating for breakfast?" The answer applies equally well for both offline conversation and online "social media": almost no one...except for their family and friends.

So when you run across a Twitter message like "we had chicken sandwitches & pepsi for breakfast" from someone who has around 30 followers, what's really so odd about it? It's just someone telling a few friends on Twitter what she might normally tell them on the phone, via email, in person, or in a telegram. If you aren't one of the 30 followers, you never see the message...and if you do, you're like the guy standing next to a conversing couple on the subway platform.

P.S. And anyway, the whole breakfast question is a huge straw man periodically pushed across the tracks in front of speeding internet technology. There is much that happens on Twitter or on blogs or on Facebook that has nothing to do with small groups of people communicating about seemingly nothing. Can we just retire this stupid line of questioning once and for all?

(Would you like to post this link to Twitter?)

Update: From Twitter, two pithier reformulations of the above:

@phoutz: If Twitter is banal it is because you and I are banal (It's called social norming)

@thepalephantom: The "no one cares what you're doing" proclamation is a solipsists way of saying "i don't care"

Update: Three related articles. How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG (thx, @secretsquirrel):

Again, I fail to see any clear distinction between someone's boring Twitter feed - considered only semi-literate and very much bad -- and someone else's equally boring, paper-based diary -- considered both pro-humanist and unquestionably good. Kafka would have had a Twitter feed! And so would have Hemingway, and so would have Virgil, and so would have Sappho. It's a tool for writing. Heraclitus would have had a f***ing Twitter feed.

Twitter: Industries of Banality by Struan McRae Spencer of Vitamin Briefcase:

Living with friends and colleagues would be a cheap alternative to living alone. People generally don't do it because it's not a good thing for humans to do. We are genetically predisposed to need time in solitude occasionally. So instead of living with your friends and colleagues, try living with their disembodied thoughts floating around on your computer and popping up on your desktop every fifteen, thirty, sixty, (manual refresh), minutes. Fellowship exists to provide us with relief from solitude and our individual pursuits. Living in a state of constant fellowship with hundreds, if not thousands of people who have known you (or not) across various stages of your life becomes an insurmountable problem the longer you try to do it.

To Tweet or Not To Tweet by Maureen Dowd of the NY Times, the essay that finally set me off in the first place:

Do you ever think "I don't care that my friend is having a hamburger?"

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