‘What are you doing?’
It’s possible to have a clear attitude toward Twitter if you’re not on it. Few things could appear much worse, to the lurker, glimpser, or guesser, than this scrolling suicide note of Western civilization. Never more than 140 characters at a time? Looks like the human attention span crumbling like a Roman aqueduct. The endless favoriting and retweeting of other people’s tweets? Sounds like a digital circle jerk. Birds were born to make the repetitive, pleasant, meaningless sounds called twittering. Wasn’t the whole thing about us featherless bipeds that we could give connected intelligible sounds a cumulative sense?
The signed-up user is apt to have more mixed feelings. At its best, Twitter delights and instructs. Somebody, often somebody you wouldn’t expect, condenses the World-Spirit into a great joke, epigram, or aperçu. What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed, you think, and favorite the tweet. Or: So funny, and you retweet. Pretty nice, also, when the ricocheting retweets say that the witty one is you! As for instruction, you can learn a lot from Twitter. Your Facebook or face-to-face friends may let you know what they think you should read, hear, watch. But are you friends with the famous environmentalist who, live-tweeting the apocalypse, tells you each time a new locality sets an April heat record in March? Or with Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose ghost had a feed? It’s an education to follow an experimental poet in Calgary obsessed with the digitization of art; a lefty Keynesian who’s crunched the numbers on student debt; an Occupier who reports whenever one of her comrades gets attacked by the NYPD. A tweet’s a narrow window, but nothing says that one of those can’t disclose — or, by way of URL compressers, link to — a big terrain.
Look at your Twitter feed at the wrong moment, however, or send a dumb tweet yourself, and a bad infinity opens up onto the narcissistical sublime. What tweet is that, flashing, subliminally, behind the others? In exactly 140 characters: “I need to be noticed so badly that I can’t pay attention to you except inasmuch as it calls attention to me. I know for you it’s the same.” In this way, a huge crowd of people — 40 percent more users since last year — devalue one another through mutual self-importance. The much-tweeted-about Lena Dunham has said her father finds Twitter “infinitely unrelatable”: “He’s like, ‘Why would I want to tell anybody what I had for a snack, it’s private?!’ And I’m like, ‘Why would you even have a snack if you didn’t tell anybody? Why bother eating?’”
As with many of Dunham’s jokes, this one both satirically indicts and indulgently excuses the narcissistic symptom on display. When Beckett wrote, in 1930, that it was every bit as illogical to expect tomorrow’s self to be gratified by today’s experience as it was to expect your hunger to vanish at the sight of your uncle eating a sandwich, he could take it for granted that nobody expected one person’s sandwich to satisfy someone else. That was then. Lots of people on Twitter do think you’ll enjoy the spectacle of their snacks.