Twitter? What is it?

It’s a place where people shout at each other and try very hard to be right all the time, but that’s not important right now! (With apologies to Airplane for not being witty enough to think up my own jokes.)

Meta-analysis of self as you get older is a fun project. I’ve certainly become more social as I get older. As my poor homeschooled social-situation-hating self moved through the world it seems that I internalized the value of having people around you, especially people with other ideas about the world, and other ways of looking at it. I do truly enjoy talking to people about issues where we disagree on. Talking to people who aren’t like you is the only way to learn something new!

Occasionally I wander back to Twitter as a possible way to engage with some people. It seems that this desire comes from an interest in lasting, long-term relationships? If you’re a person I’ve spent time talking to in the past then I’m interested in what you’re doing now, and in the different paths we’ve taken through life. If we grew up together and ended up in drastically different places, that’s fascinating. If we had a relationship in the past and don’t anymore, thinking about if that was for better or for worse is fascinating. If we worked together knowing where you went vs where I did is fascinating.

The problem is that twitter is uniquely unsuited to this, and I believe this amplifies people’s natural urges towards voyeurism, identifying with like-minded people, and showing that they’re as right as possible! I could go on for quite some time about this, but it’s already all been done I think, and I’d probably only be talking to myself anyway. I’m not going to try and indict Twitter here, others have done that well enough. It’s possible that I just don’t understand it. Maybe the whole problem is with my antisocial self. (The irony of the antisocial guy being frustrated by the lack of social interaction created by modern social tools is pretty sweet though.) Perhaps this is the unusual part, but if we were ever friends then I still consider you a friend, at least in potentia.

I do wonder though: what might a social platform for discussion look like? Mostly I want to discuss issues of some kind. Mostly I want to know what people I know and/or trust think about these issues. I know the terms “civil” and “internet” don’t often go together, but this is why I’m attracted to Twitter: I have access to people who I already trust, and who’s backgrounds and intentions I understand. Much more valuable than internet strangers. I don’t really care if we haven’t talk to each other in 5 years, we should, and this platform should encourage it.
Moreover, it should encourage connecting people who might have opposing values and bringing them all into the same discussion. Unfortunately twitter seems to be quite good at allowing people to filter-bubble themselves and only expose themselves to people they agree with, while feeling good that they’re shouting out their opinion to all and sundry. Almost all of us need our minds changed in some way or another, and hanging out with people who think like us isn’t going to help that. As someone with a strong interest in education and learning this self-imposed mental and emotional isolation is worrying.

There’s one thing twitter definitely excels at, and that’s voyeurism. Very handy to keep an eye on people and vicariously imagine that you’re still part of their life in some way. A better platform should find a way for you to be part of their life in some way. The internet gives us a powerful tool to bring people together and keep them connected, at many different levels of effort. Emailing someone directly and saying “Hey, how’s your life?!” is a fairly high level of effort, and something that we seem to feel a bit squicky about. Following someone on twitter is the lowest level of effort, and gives the false sense of being involved. What can we create that goes in the middle? If some social platform for discussing ideas/issues/etc says “hey, that girl you used to date knows about this, let’s bring her into the conversation” I’m probably okay with that if we’re not actively hostile towards each other! (We’re not, at all.) If a former co-worker happens to be interested in the subject matter the platform should provide a convenient way for us to discuss it (regardless of if we agree) without having to necessarily go through the awkward “well hey, how are you? We haven’t talked in 2 years” stuff. Create the common ground, break the ice, make it easy for us to talk. These are things a particularly good host at a party is traditionally there to facilitate, and perhaps the apparent loss of that role/responsibility is what has caused us not to try and build any tools including that.  (There’s an interesting idea for a future blog post: Do we not have robot butlers because nobody wants butlers anymore?)

If this platform already exists then I’d love to hear about it! Otherwise maybe someday I’ll be socially smart enough to understand how to build it, or possibly why it shouldn’t/can’t be built. In the meantime though I suppose I’ll go on wondering what it’s all for and how to create and maintain connections outside of meatspace.