Twitter Fail Whale


(This admittedly has nothing to do with Chicago. But it has a lot to do with stuff I care about, and an unfortunate essay on Twitter by New York Times editor Bill Keller.)

When I was 20, I lived at home for a year between colleges, while my mother was working on her Ph.D. For years she ran the writing center at a university in Virginia, and her thesis was a comparison of meatspace writing centers with online writing centers. As you might expect, at least if you’re Bill Keller, there’s a natural tendency in academia towards working with students in person.

What she found was that some students are more comfortable working online—and this was in 2000, during the dark ages of desktops and dumb phones. Her research, in other words, was conducted on a computer-literate generation, but not one for which electronic communication was omnipresent. I wouldn’t get a cell phone until four years later, and it would be a couple more until I could send e-mails with one.

Her research was inspired, in part, by having watched me come of age and blossom online. I started dialing into her university network in my early teens, when Gopher was a more efficient source of information than the WWW. From there I followed the data to Mosaic—being careful to turn off image loading, because it was a long wait—and to chatrooms and IRC, teaching myself HTML along the way, watching new forms of writing emerge from short-lived publications like Suck, Feed, and Addicted to Noise.

I embraced the new medium, in part, because I have crippling social anxiety. Going to any gathering of strangers, for me, is like running a marathon; I can do it, but it’s taken training (and professional treatment, not to mention the mood equivalent of PEDs), and even still I’m useless the next day. It’s always been like that—when I was a kid, and my parents took me out, after awhile I’d announce "had enough talking" and shut down.

(This was not their biggest barrier to socializing me. That was a period when I was addicted, in obsessive-compulsive terms, to rolling my eyes back in my head. If you’ve never done it, it produces a sensation not unlike lifting weights, only it feels like it’s coming from inside your brain. This habit passed when my brain moved onto something else, like unwanted thoughts, something that still effects me in stressful—comparatively speaking—social situations.)

Online communication, or virtual if you prefer, was a blessing. It wasn’t "real," but that’s why it was a blessing; the biofeedback treatments amputees use to recalibrate their bodies aren’t real, either.

I’m hardly alone in this (yet another reason I find comfort online). Virtual worlds have long been vital therapeutic spaces, from play-acting for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, which the father of a childhood friend introduced me to one memorable school day, to some of the early phone phreaks; here’s an account from Ron Rosenbaum’s 1971 history of the proto-hackers:

It is not long before I get a chance to see, to hear, Randy at work. Randy is known among the phone phreaks as perhaps the finest con man in the game. Randy is blind. He is pale, soft and pear-shaped, he wears baggy pants and a wrinkly nylon white sport shirt, pushes his head forward from hunched shoulders somewhat like a turtle inching out of its shell. His eyes wander, crossing and recrossing, and his forehead is somewhat pimply. He is only sixteen years old.

But when Randy starts speaking into a telephone mouthpiece his voice becomes so stunningly authoritative it is necessary to look again to convince yourself it comes from a chubby adolescent Randy. Imagine the voice of a crack oil-rig foreman, a tough, sharp, weather-beaten Marlboro man of forty. Imagine the voice of a brilliant performance-fund gunslinger explaining how he beats the Dow Jones by thirty percent. Then imagine a voice that could make those two sound like Stepin Fetchit. That is sixteen-year-old Randy’s voice.

When I started at the Chicago Reader, I recall people making fun of Anne Ford’s 2005 piece "To Mordor and Beyond: Drugs and alcohol nearly ruined Sarz Maxwell’s life. Writing dirty stories about hobbits made it worth living again." It sounds like a risible premise, but it’s a moving account of how a woman worked her way through a difficult past in the virtual world of slash fiction—a virtual world that started in print and moved online:

Maxwell realizes that despite everything slash has done for her, many people find her relationship to it puzzling. "We all have our enthusiasms," she explains. "Working out. Your children. Whatever. This is a concept in addiction that is really misunderstood. See, people think that what’s wrong with addicts is doing drugs. The only way to really tell if someone has a disease is to look not at what the person does to the drug, but what the drug does to the person. What this drug has done to me has opened up my life. I’ve made a couple of dozen friends. I’ve met someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with."

You can find these worlds everywhere; I find it sometimes in the middle of the Chicago winter, when the cold purgatory-scape depresses the city and puts me on an even playing field with my fellow residents.

And Twitter does that for me as well, in a better way. People who know me first through the "real world" are often surprised when they read my tweets, or vice versa when they meet me in person (I’ve met people at parties whose names I didn’t know, but whom I knew by their Twitter handle). "That doesn’t sound like you," they say, or "you don’t sound like you do on Twitter." Well, no. I don’t work blue around strangers, or even, for the most part, my friends. Certainly not around my parents or in-laws. Twitter, for reasons that are only somewhat clear to me, is a space where I’ve learned to do that.

And it’s a useful skill. It makes people laugh, something I’m better at doing behind a keyboard than in person. On the Internet, no one knows you’re not funny.

Obviously not everyone comes to Twitter because of deep-seated emotional issues. In my experience, it’s a third space, to borrow Ray Oldenberg‘s term:

Oldenburg identifies third places, or “great good places,” as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work."

Twitter is a third place where I’m comfortable and confident, as I’ve described. But it wouldn’t be what it is, a thriving third place, if it didn’t appeal to the less socially inept. And it’s actually a good third space for the times we find ourselves in, or at least a lot of Twitter users: technologically literate, overworked, deskbound:

"Third places" also suggest the stability of the tripod in contrast to the relative instability of the bipod. Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the "helping professions" became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.

Oldenberg also writes that "Third places also serve as ‘ports of entry’ for visitors and newcomers to the neighborhood where directions and other information can easily be obtained." Which I’ve also found to be true—I’ve gotten to "know" all sorts of people in professional communities here and elsewhere, picking up tricks and resources along the way. It’s great for me, as an agoraphobe, but I also get to watch it happen with others. It brings me joy when I see two people talking, one, say, a local peer and the other a college friend, who appear to have no discernible connection besides being mutual followers of me on Twitter.

Even if we take Keller’s complaint at face value, that Twitter is a degraded form of interaction, a lesser third space—and from my years of barhopping and coffee-shop eavesdropping I don’t think it is, but I’ll allow it—it’s as much a symptom as a cause. As writers like Robert Putnam has observed, post-World War II America has experienced a decline in social capital, and not all for bad reasons; Putnam attributes it part to equality in the workplace and physical mobility. The third space has been scoured into a vacuum; Twitter, in some respects, fills it.

Among the causes Putnam cites is "the technological transformation of leisure": "In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment." Twitter isn’t the first technology to re-graft "positive social externalities" back onto new media, like attaching a robotic prosthesis onto a stump, a but it’s a powerful and effective one.

It’s powerful because it’s evolved to be primitive. It’s more open, being largely unreliant on cryptic netspeak—it’s conversational, almost literally. It’s more personal and less anonymous, as users have largely chosen to use their own names, professional identifications, and sometimes their pictures. As a third place, it’s only slightly more virtual than its ancestors, and much less than its immediate predecessors. At its best, it exemplifies what Oldenberg describes as the character of the third place:

The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.

Keller’s essay is distinguished by its lack of a playful mood. It’s dripping with ugly condescension for his perceived lessers ("aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty"), and based around on what Keller calls a "masochistic experiment," i.e. what those of us on the Internet call "trolling," the most basic of virtual social offenses… which Keller compounds by complaining that he was trolled right back.

In criticizing a medium for its lack of nuance, Keller displays none of his own; his critique is broad and shallow, his limited praise of the medium elementary. It’s clear, despite the medium at his disposal, he’s made little effort to understand it, only to sharpen his barbs against it.

Nuance isn’t a matter of medium; it’s a matter of craft. He’s entirely right that it’s difficult to be nuanced on Twitter. But it’s difficult to be nuanced in an essay as well, or a book, or in a conversation. To paraphrase a classic work from a playful, primitive medium: the enemy isn’t Twitter, it’s ourselves.