A couple weeks ago, at a family gathering, an old friend of my parents asked if I could show her how to use Twitter. Everyone my age or younger has found themselves in this role of digital ambassador to their parents' generation at one time or another. It's slightly flattering and slightly embarrassing—you feel in possession of some prized, esoteric knowledge and at the same time responsible for everything that sucks about technology today. Who wants to (or can) explain Twitter? For a 40-something like me, it's even weirder: when I was in college, the Internet didn't even exist (Yet strangely I can't remember ever using a card catalogue. How did I graduate?) I picture 20-somethings' online life as a coded, emoji-and-sext-ridden enigma. I have no idea what they’re doing on there or why, yet feel vaguely threatened by it.
I was in middle school once. It was awful. My main goal in life was somehow to become Michael Jackson (get “the glove”, learn to moonwalk, eat nothing, ever), and I was the new kid in an all-boys prep school where being a Michael Jackson drag queen was not even remotely ok. By senior year, because I was occasionally amusing and a pretty good actor, I had managed to claw my way onto some small social ledge in that place and crouch there relatively unmolested, like one of the stone gargoyles in the National Cathedral for whose choir boys my school was founded a hundred years earlier. In the process, incidentally, I became as arrogant and cruel to the underclassmen as the seniors had once been to me (small Freshman I tormented every day at the lunch table of which I was the supreme dictator, whoever you are, please forgive me?)
Like so many others before me, I realized in college that nobody in the real world (nobody worth knowing, anyway) gave a damn who I was, or wasn’t. And like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I realized that the thing I was seeking had been right there with me, all the time.
So how come twenty years later I'm fretting about why my "follower count" isn't growing fast enough and why ?uestlove hasn't responded to something I tweeted at him three weeks ago?
Stupid things I'm secretly proud of on Twitter:
1. Salman Rushdie once used the word "badassery" in a tweet. I wrote back cheekily: "I refuse to believe that Salman Rushdie just said 'badassery'". He responded (Oh Salman, how I bask in your witty repartee!) "Badassery. Badassery, Badassery. Believe it."
2. Black Thought (lead rapper of the Roots) recently responded to me because I asked if he remembered that my first cousin once removed was his high school math teacher.
3. William Gibson (author of Neuromancer) recently retweeted me expressing my solidarity with him as a fellow glasses wearer when the Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses wouldn't fit over his regular glasses.
4. Neil Gaiman (Huge hero. Author of the Sandman graphic novels) once retweeted a promo for a short story contest I was running.
Stupid things I'm secretly ashamed of on Twitter:
1. My follower count has been hovering around 700 for a long time. I have a superstitious belief that if it were to climb to, say, 70,000, earning me one of those "verified" badges on my profile that are reserved for significant personages, all of my problems would be solved.
2. When I tweet things that I think are funny (which is mostly what I tweet), half the time nobody favorites or retweets or responds to them. Maybe everything would be different if I had a "verified" badge, in which case all of my tweets would be favorited by the likes of ?uestlove and republished by Buzzfeed.
3. Getting into a couple of unbelievably idiotic arguments by responding snarkily to headlines without reading the linked article.
4. Being on Twitter at all.
Before Twitter became a middle school dance where I cling awkwardly to the wall waiting for "Beat Street" to come on so I can bust out my white boy breakdance moves, it was an information stream for discovering cool and notable stuff. Back in 2009 (when, according to my profile page, I apparently joined Twitter) I started out following people like David Byrne because they interested me, or The New Yorker, because, well, duh. If you're rigorous about following only people and things that actually interest you, you can curate a pretty solid, steady resource of interestingness.
But follow more than, say, 200 people and your Twitter stream becomes a relentless torrent of quips and self-promotion maybe 1% of which you could ever possibly hope to read even if you wanted to. So what do you do when, like me, you're following 600+ people and entities, a motley hodgepodge of personal interests and "influencers": people who once followed me, and who have a high follower count, and who I thought might somehow increase my "influence" if I followed them back.
Ugh. This is not my beautiful house.This is not my beautiful wife. How did I get here?
I can't and don't ever want to read my Twitter feed anymore. The "discovery" element, just like the interaction element, has been totally corrupted by social ambition. One time, in a ditch attempt to reclaim it, I tried to separate the stream into "lists" dedicated to things like "literature" and "education." But that completely undermined the element of surprise and discovery. I never felt like checking a stream called "education."
Maybe I should just have two lists:
1. Interesting Stuff
2. S.A. ("Social Ambition", abbreviated so the people I add to that list don't know why.)
In real life I pride myself on not being a lemming. I hate and avoid this kind of game-playing like the plague. So why am I doing it on Twitter? Why, more to the point, am I even involved in something where you "follow" people and have "followers"?
A big part of it, obviously, is that Twitter was designed with all this in mind. I won't go deep into dopamine pathways and reward loops here. Others have covered all that very thoroughly elsewhere. The tech is addictive. If your stream is not totally cluttered up, it's exciting and neurochemically rewarding to scroll through the neverending stream-of-consciousness of cool people and things. And the possibility that one of your heroes might respond to you (and befriend you. and elevate you from your mundane life to the status of a rock god . . . ) makes it very tempting to toss random witticisms at them, especially if you've had a bit to drink. And for a guy like me, an online writer/editor with a young son, at a moment in history when this may be the most unstable profession you could possibly have, it's also tempting to try to "blow up" so exponentially on Twitter that no one can ever question your employability again.
But I suppose it's like everything else. You can play it like a game, or approach it organically, or a little bit of both. Whatever floats your boat. At the moment, though, Twitter is kind of playing me. It's like a pet tiger: cool, socially advantageous, and a risk factor for having your face bitten off at any moment. Or less prosaically, it's a lot like a drug addiction––fun until it enslaves you.
But don't worry, man. I can handle it.
don't follow @jgots on Twitter (unless you really want to)