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3 Mar 2009

140-character neurosis – So there’s this thing called Twitter, and for those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few years, it’s a “micro-blogging” service that allows you to post 140 characters at a time. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out. A while back I signed up for an account, mainly so I could follow a few famous Twitter users and see what they had to say.

“I’m standing before an open mike, staring out into the smoky darkness in front of the stage, painfully aware of my lack of anything pithy to say.”

I never intended to post anything, and for a while I didn’t, but every time you go to your Twitter page there is a big, empty box up at the top with a blinking cursor (OK, so it’s not entirely empty) and “What are you doing?” in big letters above it. I tried to ignore those four simple words, but they hounded me. On some days they were accusing: “What are you doing there, sitting on your hands and letting the twitters pass you by?” On other days they were hurt: “All I ever wanted was a little input now and then. What are you doing, just ignoring me?” And on yet other days, usually when I had had too much to drink, they were seductive: “Hey there... what’s a nice guy like you doing on a social networking site like this?”

And I never had an answer. I would avert my eyes in the same way you pretend not to see a bum panhandling for change, scroll down to the latest twitters from my famous (and prolific) friends, and then quickly navigate away before the empty box could throw a guilt trip at me. One day, though, I stared at the box a little too long, and the cursor hypnotized me with it’s relentless blinking. I typed up something quick, something that would make sense to only one other person on Twitter, but that was OK because I think he was my only follower at the time.

A few days later, I installed a Firefox add-on called TwitterFox and—as I pithily posted in fewer than 140 characters—my journey to the dark side was complete. Now I no longer had to visit my Twitter page to get the latest nuggets of wit and humor from those I was following—they were right there in my Firefox status bar, just a click away. The box came with it, of course, an obtrusive single-line text field that immediately explodes into a text box as soon as you begin typing, like a dog that leaps up and starts humping your leg as soon as you show it a little attention.

Since that time, my twittering has become more frequent. On occasion I’ll post three or four times in a single day. What do I say? I can’t really recall, to be honest. Usually when I post something it is on the tip of my mind, and once I commit it to that text box and send it out into the world, wet and wobbly-kneed, it flees my conscious mind. If I were a bit more mentally promiscuous, it might be a good way to clear my mind of the random thoughts that clutter it throughout the day, but I tend to be jealous of my thoughts. They usually come to me shy, timid, and only half formed. So I cherish them and nourish them until they grow into something more substantial—or they wither and die and I realize that they weren’t that great in the first place. In the former instance, the idea has usually grown too large to fit into 140 characters, and in the latter instance... well, what’s the point of posting a worthless idea?

So, in a nutshell, I still haven’t really figured this thing out yet. Rather, I suppose I should say that I hadn’t figured this thing out before today. What happened today? Well, I read an article entitled “How to win Twitter followers and influence people.” Clever, substituting “Twitter followers” for “friends” like that. I suppose you can go read the article if you want, but for me the crux of it came in the very first sentence:

Gaining followers on Twitter is a goal of most who use the microblogging service—whether they want to admit it or not.

“Ah,” I thought. “So that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.” Unfortunately, I don’t really care how many followers I have (I just checked and, for the record, I have seven). It reminds me a lot of how little I care who reads Liminality. Wait, let me rephrase that. You, dear reader, are indeed important to me. Unless you’ve emailed me before, though, I have no idea who you are, or where you might be browsing from, because I honestly cannot remember the last time I checked my logs. I very much enjoy the human element—emails from friends, family, and people I’ve never met before but who were moved enough by something I wrote that they took the time to say so. That is wonderful stuff. In fact, second only to my pathological need to write stuff, that is probably my favorite thing about having a website. But I just never could get into the numbers. As long as I wasn’t going over any bandwidth or storage limits, I could never manage to get myself worked up about stats.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that I’ve missed this particular point of Twitter as well. At first I thought that it would be cool, and I would come up with 140-character flashes of brilliance with which I would wow the intertubes, but in reality I usually just feel like I’m standing before an open mike, staring out into the smoky darkness in front of the stage, painfully aware of my lack of anything pithy to say. Yeah, sure, there are only seven people out there in the darkness, and half of them are drunk, but still—I don’t like not having anything to say.

I guess I could blame it on the format. After all, 140 characters isn’t really a lot. Heck, I’ve been writing less than an hour now, and I’m already well past five thousand characters. It would be easy to brush off the 140-character format as completely unworkable, good for nothing but inane blather. But then I am reminded of Hemingway and what he was said to have considered his finest short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Six words. 33 characters, punctuation included. Hundreds and hundreds of words could be written about these baby shoes, why they were bought, and why they were never worn, and you might even get a good novel out of it, but those 33 characters are sufficient to capture the essence of the poignancy inherent in the story.

So, while I would like to dismiss the format as less than serious, I can’t. I can’t because Twitter reminds me that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but the spirit of communication and the heart of any good story. And every time I see that blank text field staring at me, I feel as if it sees through all my pretensions and exposes me for the fraud of a writer I am.

But this is all quite ridiculous, isn’t it? After all, Twitter is just a casual outlet for random thoughts, a way to keep in touch with friends, another pointless social networking site. Right? I mean, it’s not supposed to be taken that seriously, is it? On the one hand I’d like to think that, to approach this casually and without a care—and for the most part I do—but now that I’ve gotten this ridiculous thought running through my head, I can’t seem to make it go away.

I also can’t seem to figure out how to end this entry, so for lack of a decent closing, I’ll just stop writing now.

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