I’ve been wanting to put into words what I love about Twitter for a while now, but have found it difficult to articulate. Particularly when faced with friends who aren’t engaged in any social media at all and stand there scratching their heads, I’m at a loss about where to begin and generally don’t even try. But with all the media coverage about Twitter lately, I’ve felt more compelled to say my piece about it. It started with Maureen Dowd’s snarky op-ed piece in the NYT in which she suddenly shifted in my mind (temporarily, I hope) from a witty, on-the-mark writer to a cranky, bitter older woman who’s ready to be permanently left behind by the younger generation. This led to some excellent rebuttals, which ranged from serious to sublimely funny. I highly recommend you read all three of these articles.
Let me start by saying that I first joined Twitter sometime in 2007 and it was incredibly lame: there was almost no one there, which led to a complete lack of interesting conversation. When prodded by my husband and our friend to rejoin last summer, I reinstated my account on a lark and found a very different world. All of a sudden, tons of people were on Twitter and its existence made sense. (I did the same thing with Facebook, by the way; social media is not necessarily a realm worthy of one’s early adoption.) So I understand why people on Twitter who aren’t connected to friends who use it often would say they just don’t get it, because I was in that boat the first time around – it seemed really dumb.
Next, I will say that I probably use Twitter differently from a lot of people. I use it for three main purposes: 1) social interaction with friends; 2) sharing info links and resources, primarily relating to special needs topics and politics; 3) tracking breaking news (i.e., I get feeds from a lot of news sources such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Windy City, NBC Chicago, NPR Politics, Slate, and Barack Obama); this is where I get headlines throughout the day that keep me in touch with the world.
I keep my account private (no one can follow my “tweets” without my consent) and am very picky about who I follow. Most of the people I follow are relatives (my husband, sister- and brother-in-law, cousins, and father are on Twitter), old school friends, newer friends, or those whose blogs I have followed for a long time. This keeps my Twitter stream pretty intimate. I’m not in the market to grow my follower list.
Having ongoing mini-conversations with a group of friends on Twitter reminds me of 20th century party lines on telephones. A few of us can reply to one friend’s comment or question at once and all see each other’s answers, which leads to further information, jokes, and comments. At times, we pick up the line and everyone is talking at once and it’s so hard to follow we put it back down quietly. Thankfully, there are a variety of Twitter applications that will show us an entire string of tweets so that we can catch up on a conversation. I’m sure the folks on party lines would’ve appreciated that feature.
Sure, what we are talking about may not always be fascinating to the outside world, but do you enjoy having to listen to the person next to you on the airplane talking to her best friend about last night’s work party before take-off? No, it’s irritating and trivial as all get out, unless you are on the other end of the line and you actually care about the person and are interested in what she’s saying. As Matt pointed out, the things people complain about being so “boring” on Twitter are the exact same things we chat with our friends about on a phone call: where we had lunch, something funny one of the kids said, a frustration with a friend or relative, losing one’s lab coat on the first day of the phlebotomy program. It’s the small successes and challenges of life that friends talk to each other about, no matter how we choose to communicate them.
Personally, I have gained huge value in getting a sense of the flow of other women’s lives. Thanks to cell phones and smart phones, many of us can use Twitter from absolutely anywhere, even attaching a photo of something we want to share and sending it in mere seconds, which personalizes the interaction that much more and can’t be accomplished in a phone call. I have friends near and far with whom I’m in contact throughout the day, every day. I can tell you whose child didn’t sleep last night, who’s planning for her child’s 1st communion tomorrow (and the fact that they’re low on gin!), who is playing music at a cafe tonight, and whose husband is late getting home – again. We know each other very well. For me, as someone who has been through a major transition over the past couple of years and has been working like a crazy woman, it’s useful (“regulating”, as we’d say in the business) to be in contact with people who are keeping a different pace. Over time, it has come to seem normal to me that people might be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the day, write a blog post after preschool drop-off, or have a chance to read a book on a rainy afternoon before the grade school pick-up. Sure, my fellow travellers are tired and busy and often stressed, with a few working long hours outside the home like I am, but I am also able to connect consistently to a different pace of life and it has had a positive effect on me. I even attribute some of my desire for changes to my own routine and pace next year to the contact I have with woman doing other things with their days. I see the full range of possibilities; I don’t think that truly happens in any other way.
So to those curmudgeons who scowl and ask, “Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and call your friends?” I can only say that I do that, too, and I enjoy chatting with them. But being able to pick up my cyberphone and find myself on a party line at any time of the day with funny, smart, and supportive friends? That’s pretty great, too.