Some time ago now, I ran across Twitter and blogged briefly about the potentiality of "microblogging" or, for more grandiose terminology, "lifestreaming". Since then, I (like anyone else with one ear to mainstream tech-news headlines) have naturally been aware of its expansion into all corners of the web world, lending itself to so many offshoots and modifications personified in an impressive array of homemade widgetry. I lumped it together with the whole Web 2.0 trend, which, it is evident, not only saw the advent of blogs, but the simultaneously and rapid desubstantification* of the written word to bite-sized morsels of gooey, self-absorbed blandness streamed tidily to your handset in RSS.
Granted, this process had long since begun (read: countless and all-pervasive social networking sites). But I feel like it has gone hand in hand with the Web 1.0->2.0 bait-and-switch of adding comment tags and community answer boards to every place on the Internet where they'll stick, with the instant gratification you'd expect from a pile of scribbled post-it notes in place of reference books. You've got to love user-generated content. Instead of knowledge, we get home-grown nonsense. Information is the web-based world's cheapest commodity, while meaning is the rarest.
As a researcher observing interpersonal communication and how it is mediated or mitigated by the Internet and its many facets, I expected to venture back to Twitter quite often. Like Facebook and Myspace, I presumed that I would be led there by participants and respondents - that there would be something of significance for me to engage with or follow up on; that, by sheer force of impact, I would be resigned to the revolutionary omniscience that is Web 2.0. This "new generation" of website has so much potential to change the way that we live and to alter our understanding of modern human society and socialization. Uh, right? Doesn't it? Wait ...
After 15 months of participant observation, I'm not so sure. Yes, I sought to explore Web 2.0 in all its reverent glory. I wanted to understand this community-building force of a previously unforeseen potential. I wanted to be shocked and awed by the construction of elaborate and intricate social networks, keeping us all in perpetual contact from our living rooms to the backs of buses to the insides of cafes, through geohashing and tweeting and vlogging and tagging, via Twitter and MySpace and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Blogger. I wanted evidence of exponentially increasing participation levels; of grassroots bombardment of free media at unprecedented rates; of the universal exchange of knowledge for public good; and the opening of doors through open source. I wanted to get stuck in the digital social glue binding together our global society.
Hm, not so much, it turns out.
As an aside, the probable reason for my not finding these utopian ideals (other than their not existing, of course), is that when I set out to engage in participant observation of the Internet, I did what appears to be counterintuitive these days, and set my field location to a place I could point to on a map (not this map). In the end, I find that this perspective has been a refreshing and far less, well, viscous approach to understanding the impact that computers and the Internet have on people (as opposed to users).
Above all, through web-based research I have found that the content readily available on the Internet makes the enterprise feel, more often than not, helplessly futile. On occasion, what I find is enlightening and enriching, but, alas, I fear that will never outweigh the instances when it is hopeless and uninspiring. Anthropologically à propos.
In my current fieldwork, it was a pleasure to get away from the mindboggling amount of meaninglessness which assaults me at every turn in my own daily forays into the depths of the web (not to mention in academia...). The more I try to understand about people through online content, the less I want to keep digging and trawling through a muddy jungle of misinformation, aggression and frivolity that is of Amazonian proportions and just as venomously charged.
Like Wikipedia^, then, it is for this reason that Twitter gets under my skin in a most uncomfortable way. It doesn't mean anything. It is genuinely uninformative, ego-centric and self-obsessed drivel. The audience is no one and everyone; the subject is nothing and everything. I don't need to know when someone brushes their teeth or takes out the trash or picks their nose. I really don't. Humanity is exceptionally ridiculous. We seek out freedom of expression as our one and only avenue to universal truth, then we turn it into a free-for-all reality televisionification** of daily banality. A like mind explains it well.
But still, in all my inherent negativity ... I am saddened by the initial hopes that the "idea" of Twitter (though not only Twitter) stirred in me upon discovering it. Its romantic potentiality still calls to me from beyond its disappointing reality. As a quirky tool for relaying to oneself and their friends or strangers some spur-of-the-moment lucidity or lack thereof, it remains (at least) generally amusing, and (at best) even cathartic. I foresaw the temptation of running to Twitter when I coined some spectacularly funny turn of phrase, clever insight or revelation which could so easily be lost among the 50,000 processes running off my mental CPU at any moment. (It never actually happened.)
But what about the fleeting thoughts which lead to some much-needed invention, a solution for world hunger, the first step to the eradification of stupidity as social doctrine ... or any other great idea otherwise lost and without audience? Similarly singular lines of thought have launched revolutions and have defined whole eras in human existence. After all, if we stopped engaging in the silly and pointless for the sake of intellectuality, it would be counterproductive. Much of what is worth knowing and doing in life is found in the absense of forethought or any explicit search for meaning.
So in insulting Twitter, am I scoffing over the potential for quality because my academic mind resents minimalized quantity? Perhaps. But the truth is that the McNuggetization*** of thought is not the same as literacy. Still, that doesn't mean that Twitter can't be a genuine tool for the betterment of humankind. After all, I learned through Twitter that I really don't care as much about what other people do and think as I thought I did (or should).
Call me a snob, but I draw the line when people start microblogging about their underpants.
* Man, I've just googled it and it turns out that this word isn't my own invention.
** Wow, this either ...
*** I give up.
^Edit: Those not familiar with my rants on Wikipedia may not agree with my analogy here. I find Wikipedia to be a source of knowledge as potentially useless as it is helpful. I like wikis in general and think that they can be extremely beneficial collaborative research tools and repositories of information when implemented correctly. Like most people, my Google searches and inevitable Wikipedia trawling probably make up more of my common (non-specialist) knowledge than I'd like to admit. But it remains unreliable as a source of factual data and for as long as the content remains disputed, everything it contains needs to be taken with a grain of salt. This is something I have difficulty conveying to people. The same people who agree that you can't trust anything you read on the Internet will cite Wikipedia with glee. Maybe it's the suffix. I have problems accepting assignments from my students which cite Wikipedia as an authority, because it is authorless, unaccountable and open to being edited at a whim. The extent to which its reliability compares to that of peer-reviewed academic writing is another blog post entirely. In short, I see Wikipedia as gap filler in my knowledge on certain subject areas where I have little to no awareness, but the bits of information I glean from it are partial and almost inevitably biased. I use it out of laziness to truly investigate a subject or ignorance as to how to go about it. In this way, it it feels rather like empty calories, and is therefore analogous to my view of Twitter.
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