My shallow affair with Twitter

Readers, I have to confess to a foolish dalliance. Perhaps it was her sheer youthfulness that seduced me. Surely it was not the fact that she couldn’t string more than two sentences together. Or was it just that I, a middle-aged man, wanted confirmation that I could still attract – followers?

If you asked me what induced me to sign up to Twitter, I would say it was a vague desire to connect, combined with a fair dose of feline curiosity. Like the proverbial cat, I should have been wiser: what was I to expect from a medium designed (by its founder Jack Dorsey) to deliver “short burst[s] of inconsequential information”, 40.55 per cent of whose content was found in a survey in August 2009 by Pear Analytics to consist of “pointless babble”. Now that I am no longer under its spell, Twitter seems to me one of the greatest time-wasters ever conceived.

Pear Analytics classified 37.55 per cent of tweets in its survey as “conversational” but there is quite a difference between having the vague characteristics of a conversation and consisting of a true conversation. A conversation requires that you know whom you are addressing; it is predicated on a certain courtesy. People who simply shout, scream or throw comments into the air are not conversing; they may well be mad.

The lack of a sense of address is the problem with many or most political tweets. I haven’t yet received any from Barack Obama, but some of the most leaden-footed on my Twitter page have emanated from the new British Labour leader Ed Miliband. Comedians rightly made fun of a message he sent out on the eve of the big union demonstration on March 26 against the cuts: “See some of you there”, it went, provoking unfavourable comparison with some of the more stirring rallying-cries in history (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, “We shall fight on the beaches” etc). Another recent Miliband tweet ran as follows: “I’m looking forward to setting out some important changes ahead for Labour in my speech to the national policy forum on Saturday.” If anyone can imagine a less appetising taster for anything, let me know.

Fleetingly I had a notion that Twitter might be a medium for poetry – in particular for the haiku. One distinguished musician I followed approached this level in some of his tweets – aperçus of delicate beauty. But I fear I am too selfish; if I wrote what I thought was a good haiku I would not post it on Twitter.

The other literary form to which a tweet might aspire is the aphorism. I was impressed that the author Alain de Botton bothered to post aphorisms on Twitter but disappointed by examples such as, “The world is hardly short of good ideas – the challenge is how to make them take hold and stick.” This seemed more of a truism than an aphorism. Good aphorisms have a quality that is both distilled and poignant, the ability to pierce through the veils of ordinary perception to a bitter truth. This example verged on the vapid, like so much else on Twitter. But then, if you coined a really good aphorism, surely you would put it in a book.

No doubt I was foolish to expect conversation, or poetry, or philosophy from Twitter. Apart from being an amplifying chamber for rumour and gossip, it is the perfect mode of (pseudo) communication for the age of narcissism. I read tweets from perfectly intelligent people that informed me that they still had a sniffly cold or were making their third cup of tea of the morning; one went something like this: “I.REALLY.MUST.GET.DOWN.TO.WORK.” A psychoanalyst might have something to say about that: a displacement of a displacement?

The fundamental thing about tweets is they are nearly always about “me”; in fact, many might as well read, “Me! Me! Me!” If they do not describe some irrelevant detail of everyday life, their aim, whether confessed or covert, tends to be self-promotion. They are the product of what historian Christopher Lasch called the “the new narcissist ... who doubts even the reality of his own existence.”

Twitter is not just a phoney form of conversation, it is a deceptive medium for discussion. Because of the limit on characters, tweets move towards closure, and this is where the aesthetics and the politics of Twitter combine in a sort of negative synergy. Haikus and aphorisms are tight, terse forms achieved under intense pressure; they justify their brevity because of their concentration, like a reduced sauce. But Tweets are just short; they give the impression of decisiveness without having said anything decisive. After “Me! Me! Me!” they say “I’m right”.

God help anyone who appealed to Twitter as a court of justice. Good arguments or exchanges need the long, slow haul, not the addictive jabber of Twitter. But, for all that, Twitter did perform one service for me, helping me to survive the recent royal wedding as I read irreverent tweets about the choice of music and the archbishop’s mad hair.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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