17 August 2010

The Nature of @Conversation

Chances are pretty good that if you're reading this, you know I'm a fan of Twitter.  The subject has been on my mind off and on for a few months as something to explore and articulate here, but it seemed pretty superfluous after reading Roger Ebert's definitive piece, "Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!"  I'm many things, but I'd like to think I'm not arrogant enough to see myself as capable of outdoing Ebert.

I joined Twitter back on 3 April 2009, and was almost immediately confused by it.  140 characters was awfully brief (and spaces count!).  I'm loathe to use letters in lieu of words (such as "u" for "you").  I have long prided myself on my expansive vocabulary; it seemed contrary to everything I value about language to whittle down my thoughts until they fit as a tweet.

Enter: Natasha Badhwar.  I kept seeing her tweets re-tweeted often enough that I broke down and began following her directly.  Badhwar is an Indian writer and filmmaker, and what she does with 140 characters is nothing short of art.  Here's one from 13 August:
"Ideals bruised. Love feels confused. Yet I feel fine, ready for something new. Tears? No, thats just a raindrop from last night."
It doesn't read as an excerpt, teasing a larger composition.  It is complete unto itself, organic and visceral in its clarity.  Like nearly all of her tweets, there are no other referencing remarks to establish context.  She simply posts the composition, and like any artist, lets her audience make of it what he or she will.  I defy anyone to peruse her tweets and not characterize them as art.  She proved to me that I was wrong to think the 140 character restriction intrinsically excluded anything clever or thoughtful; but rather, that Twitter offers those of us prone to prattling a much-needed, unforgiving editor.

There's more to Twitter than this.
Surely, though, this is the exception; most tweets are inane declarations of ham sandwiches for lunch, right?  This is the accusation most often levied against tweeters; that the're airheads, wasting not only their own time, but that of those who read what they post.  I heard this most recently at a birthday celebration for my mother-in-law; her brother-in-law and stepson proudly declared that they were much too intelligent to participate in such a wasteful activity.  I wanted to argue the point, but the energy of the room drowned out any momentum I might have had and anyway, it seemed off-topic.

I did, however, pay close attention to the conversation the rest of the night.  It revolved around movies ("Have you seen anything from Green Hornet yet?"), politics ("Israel's going to bomb Iran, just you wait.") and what each person had been doing lately ("My boss wants me to get a haircut, but he keeps telling me he won't actually tell me to get one.").  I came to realize, listening to them, that they'd fit in perfectly on Twitter.  The only thing different between their conversation and the average tweet-stream is that their conversation happened offline...and was confined to just themselves.

This brings up the social nature of Twitter.  I've "met" people around the world through Twitter.  Many of those I've befriended have Crohn's disease; some have had it for years and others have only recently been diagnosed.  I can't speak for them, but I can tell you that there are no support groups in my area and I turn to online connections as a substitute.  I may never meet these people in person, but none of us are on a schedule; I can tweet any of them at any time, and I can expect a reply whenever they check Twitter.  Having a condition that has frequently isolated me from my friends and family, I sincerely appreciate the sense of community that Twitter has afforded me.  I genuinely value the people to whom I have been introduced via Twitter.

When he says it, it's news.
When you say it, it's conversation.
I'm amused by how many older viewers fixate on watching cable news (especially Fox News; you can argue their politics all you want, but they've done an amazing job establishing a dedicated viewership).  I follow Anderson Cooper, NPR news and Huffington Post on Twitter.  They keep me posted on breaking news, and I can follow up on the stories at my discretion--rather than being at the mercy of a TV broadcast.  Let's face it: TV news will grab one story and stay on it for hours on end at the price of anything else happening in the world.  The world of Twitter, though, affords me the ability to follow as many stories as I wish, in whatever order I wish.  Even if you have no use for artistic compositions, it's hard to argue that TV is a better source of information than the Internet, and the up-to-the-second nature of Twitter makes it the cutting edge of information.

I believe those who disparage Twitter have an inflated opinion of how meaningful their own conversations and daily habits really are.  Twitter is, ultimately, a venue for conversation; movies, politics, even the mundane little tasks we perform daily--these are the same topics shared between people offline as well as online.  The difference is that Twitter's 140 character limit forces people to be more thoughtful about how they say whatever it is they have to say.