oh, I don’t know.
– Joe Brainard
Twitter is no place for a human being.
I joined Twitter about four years ago. I don’t remember why. It might have been because I had something to write. Well, since then, I’ve been on it. Given how little I have to say, this is no kind of achievement. Twitter really hits it home, hard, when nothing is on your mind. I’ve become a sort of parasitic Twitter user – I go there to fill my head, then log off and let it drain away, often without giving anything back. Or I go there to battle my impulse to confess things, then log off, exhausted.
Still. While Facebook seems to accommodate and even promote a special kind of awkwardness – do I have to befriend this old classmate, it will seem like a snub if I don’t; I want to defriend this person but I can’t because I will definitely see them in the street – Twitter is an endless fountaining of connections. I’ve come across people I’d never have come across otherwise – lots of them making wonderful and funny things in weird back alleys of the web; lots who work in ordinary and even dead-end jobs, just shambling through the routine of days, who have a way of looking at things that is somehow energising. In London, Twitter helped me feel less disorientated. Or – I came across people who’d been living in London for many years and still felt disorientated, and that made me feel OK. And I made real friends with whom I shared real pints. Without Twitter, that would’ve taken me ten years, at least.
A while ago I was doing the usual morning-feed-scroll – the articles I should read, the waiting for buses, the observations about fellow passengers on buses, the news of death, the photo meme slowly becoming depressing and unfunny, the rush of opinion. The metaphor is that Twitter is a stream, and if we go with that, I’d say that the water itself is opinion. Fast-moving, dark and light, with shady corners where you can’t touch the ground and there are those mysterious spinning islands of foam. The rest, the stuff in the water – the rocks, the slime, the grit and gravel, the leaping trout, the rat – is stuff like this:
“Morning. Bit grey out there.”
“Dear Internet, I have removed my pants.”
“Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them.”
“It is very late. We should all be dead.”
“Is someone setting off fireworks? Do we have to go through this hell again?”
“There must be a whole generation of kids who don’t know what the fuck the save icon is a picture of.”
It’s observation, announcement, confession, stale insight, aloud-thinking. The opinion swirls around it.
Anyway, that day I noticed that I was feeling a creeping disgruntlement with Twitter. That in itself was disgruntling, because I’m not sure I like the fact that Twitter has become a sort of fixture of my days. On any given morning, thinking about what I might tweet, I’d suddenly become aware that I was about to tweet about the bird on the washing line, or my flatmate vomiting up the hall last night, or a man making a funny noise outside, or something – and it seemed dishonest. That wasn’t my life. My life was me sitting in a room about to tweet about the bird or the vomit or the funny man. I began to feel like I was a ghostly subtext to my own Twitter feed. And not even a “rich” Twitter feed – just a feed, an almost mechanical outputting of surface guff, like a machine shooting tennis balls over a net to an empty court with an abandoned racket lying on it. All of the metaphors in this post shall be laboured.
In the early days, any sort of social media was liberating. For anyone with any degree of social anxiety, it’s a great freedom to be able to talk to people without feeling as if you were locked in sweaty combat with your brain. But anxiety learns the new ways. It’s the crow of nervous disorders. It learns to worry when no receipt of acknowledgement is given. Instead of just communicating the fact that I loved a particular bit of writing, or artwork, or band, or whatever, I’d worry that my love wouldn’t be validated by anyone else. My love would be misinterpreted, or shunned, and me along with it. This is a roundabout way of saying I was becoming a bore.
I just read this here collection of thoughts by Rob Horning which gets at this whole feeling really well: “You end up ruining all the cool things you thought you wanted to share with the world because you can’t share them without tainting them with shameful self-importance,” he writes. “… But wasn’t sharing supposed to expand, distribute the self? How do we communicate our love for something without making a claim to possess it somehow, without investing ourselves in it?”
And this comes sickeningly close to what Jonathan Franzen spoke about at his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College: “If you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological terms, you see a narcissist – a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.”
There is much I disagree with about this address, but I suspect my disagreement is only me trying to shield myself from a lot of truth.
I’m nostalgic for a time when I discovered something I didn’t feel the need to share with anybody. That I just kept for myself – maybe photocopied some pages from it and stuck them up on the wall, to share them with only my room. (An aside: this short piece “Five dumplings for a dollar” is about the owner of a successful New York eatery who is totally oblivious to the online hype that has built up around his restaurant as the hotspot for “hipsters, grad students, and neighborhood foodies”:
“We are such a small business, not a big deal.”
“But you’re one of the most well-known places in New York for dumplings,” I said.
There was a brief silence on the other line, then an incredulous laugh, or a choking sound not unlike a hoarse sob.
“I had no idea,” he almost lamented.
The fact that this seems so unusual to us now – that a person could have no awareness of his online currency, a person so busy he never even looks at a computer, let alone thinks to share anything about himself or his business via social media – is in itself unnerving.)
Anyway. Along with this irrational worry, I guess, was that I was beginning to feel quite thick on Twitter. Partly this is because I was (am) trying to re-grasp what people in New Zealand are talking about. Sometimes, the debate seems impenetrable, even hostile. I can’t yet find the energy to form opinions about what is happening, which makes me groundless. It’s always been the case with any kind of media – a lot of it has to stream past, ungrasped, otherwise you’d lose your mind – but right now I’m just hanging from a tree on the bank, hooting sadly.
And finally, I’ve been experiencing childish urges to go postal on Twitter. To confess things, interrupt conversations obnoxiously, get in some hideous screaming argument. “Confessional practice in social media is a response to feeling overwhelmed by information,” writes Rob Horning, “the feeling that one is only information oneself, and in danger of being diluted to total insignificance.”
He’s talking about the existential howl, isn’t he? The scream. The thing is, a howl on Twitter is drowned out. It won’t save you from insignificance. Better to save the howl for elsewhere so that you can be insignificant elsewhere, where the fact of it is slightly less raw.