Even people I know who’ve never so much as glanced at a computer are suddenly talking about the not-so-new new “fad” (that is actually anything but a “fad”) known as Twitter. It seems that you can’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without stumbling across celebrities or panels of experts expounding on the merits and, more often, the utter nefariousness of this new obsession.
So what is Twitter? (Just in case you’ve been in a coma for the past few weeks.) Well, Twitter is a micro-blogging service — a condensed version of what I’m doing here. Think of it as soundbite broadcasting for and by the people, if you’re feeling grand (and why not?), a way of sharing, in no more than 140 characters, a thought, a witticism, a mental fart. The principal question that drives Twitter is “what are you doing?”, and some people take the answering of that quite literally. Jonathan Ross announcing that he is just going for “a poo” a pretty good example.
Childish and banal, yes? Well, actually, no.
I’ve been using Twitter for a while now — BSF, in fact (that is, Before Stephen Fry helped to popularise it by announcing on television that he’s a Twitter user.) Initially, it was something of a slow burn. It seemed little more than a lot of noise, mostly pointless (at least to me.) And then I started to follow more people, people with similar and diverging interests — my own following growing daily — and the real value started to become more apparent. I found after a short while that one minute I might be using it to talk about Wittgenstein, the next sharing my progress on the outline I was working on or simply enjoying a #Twittercuppa with a few Twitter friends. It became useful very quickly, “useful” defined in a number of ways.
So I was amused (and, yes, it’s such a ridiculous generalisation that I really can’t take it seriously) to read this morning in the Times Online clinical psychologist Oliver James stating that: “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.“
Where do they get these people? The very idea that (all) people using Twitter do not have a strong sense of identity is simply quite absurd. Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time will probably agree that I know exactly who I am. I do not need to define myself by constantly seeking feedback or approval. But even if I did — what about Barack Obama? As someone who used Twitter to get himself into the White House, does he lack identity? Is he perhaps a mass of insecurities in constant need of reassurance, confirmation, perhaps, that, yes, he is still President and worthy of the position? I think not. I think he is, quite simply, a man using a new medium in a way that suits and benefits him.
Celebrities might bicker and bitch on Twitter. Teenagers no doubt use it to flirt in text speak. I’m sure some tragic individual will at some point (if they haven’t already) announce their impending suicide in no more than 140 characters. Like all new technologies — from telephones to Internet chat rooms — Twitter is as diverse as the world we live in and reflects just about every aspect of life imaginable, from the mundane to the quite simply astounding. As another tool, I find it invaluable. One brief message from my phone, no matter where I am, is immediately on Twitter, my website — see the sidebar to your right — and my Facebook page (with the help of some neat applications and widgets.) Friends and those who are interested in my writing always know what I’m up to (within reason… I’ll leave the poo announcements to Jonathan Ross!) and it isn’t a chore. Quick, efficient and vibrant.
And Oliver James will never know. Too wrapped up in his own superficial analyses he’ll simply never take the time to try it.
But I doubt he could ever answer the question “what are you doing?” in 140 characters, anyway, or, at least, not without answering the question with a question.